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05 Sep 2018

Enjoying classical music 101

by Kathleen Sykes

To the uninitiated, classical music can seem overwhelming and disorienting. If you’ve been to a few orchestral concerts or listened to some classical music, but you still don’t know what to get out of it, listen up. It is possible to learn how to appreciate and (dare we say it?) love it.

Not quite sure where to begin? Here’s a beginner’s guide to appreciating classical music:

#1 Have an open mind

Perhaps you’ve heard a lot of the old, tired stereotypes about classical music (that it’s boring, snobby, etc.), but you’ll never really know how great classical music can be until you try it. And there is more than one way to experience it.

Overwhelmingly, when people think about listening to classical music, they think of getting dressed up and going to a concert hall, but you can hear classical music in many different venues with different levels of formality. You can listen to classical music through great recordings, at small chamber concerts, in outdoor amphitheaters, and even on the street! And if you’re wondering how formal these events are—you can dress up as much or little as you would like. You can even show up in jeans (gasp!).

Also, the term “classical music” is a broad term to describe subgenres from ancient liturgical music to music that includes electronic elements. If you have an open mind, there is plenty to explore.

#2 Do your research

Going to see a symphony is something more than just mere entertainment. Sure—someone can attend a performance of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony (the “Ode to Joy”) and genuinely enjoy the music. But enjoying the music is different from engaging in it.

A great way to start engaging with the music is to do some research about it. Using Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 as an example, once you realize that Beethoven was a person who was plagued with serious personal loss, grappling with the idea of human freedom, and almost completely deaf when he composed it, you can appreciate the piece so much more.

As you continue to research this piece, you’ll find other interesting interpretations on it. For example, just weeks after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Leonard Bernstein performed a version which replaced the German word for “joy” with the word for “freedom” thus representing the new unity and freedom of the country. You could just as easily go on a scavenger hunt for interesting facts about any composer or piece!

If you’re not quite sure where to start researching a piece, come to a concert and read the program notes.

#3 Expose yourself to the wonderful and diverse world of classical music

When you think of classical music, what do you think of? For many people, they probably think of the standards: Mozart, Beethoven, Bach, etc. But the world of classical music has a wide array of interesting composers.

The Washington Post’s classical music critic, Anne Midgette, wrote an amazing beginner’s guide to classical music highlighting interesting composers from the masterful Clara Schumann to William Grant Still (to whom Gershwin owes a lot of credit).

Also, classical music isn’t all old, unchanged artifacts from bygone eras. If you love the old classics—perhaps the music you’ve heard in Bugs Bunny cartoons or Fantasia—branch out and try listening to contemporary composers like Andrew Norman or Augusta Read Thomas.

#4 Learn what to listen for

Sometimes, classical music can seem to blur together if you’re not quite sure what to listen for. If you want to engage with the music, try listening closely to the rhythm, melodies and harmonies, and how the different kinds of instruments interact with each other. You might find in some cases find that it sounds like the instruments are carrying on a conversation or mimicking animals (like in Saint-Saëns’ Carnival of the Animals). Or perhaps you’re listening to a piece like Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, which paints a scene of a raging battle between France and Russia.

A great example of interesting things to listen for is Heitor Villa-Lobos’ Bachianas Brasileiras No. 2 which makes you feel like you’re in a busy train station:

#5 Experience music live

There is no better way to engage with classical music than to go to a live performance. There is no recording in the world that can rival the way a live orchestra sounds in a concert hall. And can you think of a better way to bond with family or friends than a night of listening to beautiful music?

Attending a concert is more than just  hearing the sound of the instruments play—it’s an experience in and of itself. Get tickets to a show and experience something new.