• Alyna Ooi

An Introduction to Classical Music: How to Appreciate It (Part II)

The second part of the article on how to appreciate classical music and enjoy it. In the first part, we covered that the term 'Classical music' itself covers a huge variety of different styles and genres based on the existing period.

The Declination

Well, first things first, we all know that classical music does seem to be less popular than it was in the past. Here's why..

One of the reasons for this may be the fact that today the pace of life is very much accelerated, and people tend to gravitate towards music that reflects this. Classical music also tends to make people feel sleepy; which is a reason that you may find people playing pop music rather than classical music while driving, since they are afraid of falling asleep when driving. But don't get me wrong, there is also classical music that makes you feel awake and energised.

Classical music was not nearly as popular as it once was in the 1800s. Back then, the composers did not set out to create unpopular music. Of course, there are some composers that wrote some advanced stuff but what they wrote was for the people to enjoy it, as much as possible. If the composers had no audiences, they'd make no money. Back then, it was not seen as writing 'Classical music' but normal contemporary and popular music.

How is it different?

People listen to music differently today and their expectations of what it should be have evolved drastically. In the last hundred years, you couldn't just turn on the radio, listen through the internet or play a recording from a CD. The only way to listen to music was through a life performance. Sure people can perform in their homes, but during their times, owning an instrument was costly. Well, churches have instruments but if you wanted to hear a symphony, or see an opera or ballet, that unavoidably meant going to the theatre. And of course, only seeing and listening to what they have to perform.

Therefore, listening to music was a rather special event that you even have to dress up for. When people attended the performance, they'd mostly have to sit quietly and eagerly listen to it, focusing on the music and experience, exactly the same way when we attend a movie or a theatre. They also won't be getting ready for work, driving in the car, doing homework or doing any activities where we often have music playing in the background.

Today, music is in the 'background' and we deliberately ignore it as much as we focus on it. Chances are that you might not even remember the tune that was playing. Many modern music these days are written with expectations and understandings, so it is very easy to listen to, or perhaps, easy to not listen to. And you probably know by now, the biggest difference between classical music and modern music. Generally, most classical music is best appreciated, enjoyed and most importantly, understood, if you pay attention and concentrate on it.

The importance of concentration

Here is an analogy for this.

Think of attending a lecture. You will have to understand what the lecturer is telling you and to do that, you need to concentrate. This is the same saying about the need to concentrate to best appreciate, understand and enjoy classical music.

If you are already familiar with a subject, you wouldn't need to pay much attention to it. For instance, maybe you're a fourth year student sitting in on a first year lecture, you don't have the need to concentrate as much as you did in your first year. This is because you will readily understand and appreciate the information even if you only listen to the sentences now and then.

With this analogy applied, once you become familiar with a piece, you will be able to 'fill in the gaps' when you are hearing it again in the future. Therefore, it is also possible to understand and enjoy a piece, and not get 'lost' in it, without much concentration to it.

What language is this?

A continuation from the analogy... imagine that the lecturer is to speak in a foreign language. No amount of concentration will help you if you don't understand the language. Oh no! So, here comes to this section where you learn the language of classical music.

To be exact, there is no specific language for classical music which is what makes it special. From the previous series of the article, the different eras or 'genre' of classical music explained how broad the concept of classical music is. This is important for you to understand because if you like a particular piece of music, this does not automatically mean that you will like all types of classical music. Perhaps, in other words, for a person that is new to classical music, just because you don't like a particular piece of music also does not mean you dislike all classical music.

Listen to classical music with an open mind and heart, extending your boundaries is very important. Well, not being afraid to say, we all love to go back to listening to our familiar favourites from time to time. Sure, it is lovely, but exploring new pieces can be fun, it is like going on an adventure. Experimenting with your own taste of music will bring you to open doors of wonder, trust me.

If you like one piece by a composer, try listening to the composer's other works, or listen to other pieces of that type in general. Different styles of music have their own different style of 'language'. Once you understand the language that you are listening to, you will come to build expectations and understanding of what the music will be, should be, the story and of course, the climax. Every story involves a climax, once you get the hang of it, you will understand what the composer is doing and you will get to differentiate the introduction, the main theme, the ending. Not only that, you will also be able to identify the repeats, the different ornaments and spices that add up into making one whole piece of classical music.

Do we need to learn music theory?

Ah, here comes the question from those who do not understand the music theory. The keys and chords, minors and major, diminished and augmented... This will seem a bit scary at first, but if you are just thinking of appreciating only the music that sounds 'nice', you're all good.

But, if you find yourself getting more and more interested in listening to classical music, you might find yourself wondering if the music sounds 'good' or 'bad' and how music is composed and played. Mostly wanting to understand the music that gives you such pleasure when you listen to it. If that's the case, you will generally want to learn about the music, the theory, the evolution, the history and life story of composers. Not forgetting how the different instruments and the sounds they make.

Listening to classical music and playing classical music makes a really big difference. Reading a score, a sheet music can be tremendously fun and interesting. You get to analyse it and see the details, the mind of the composer. But it is possible that you will also get lost in the technical elements and the music you produce will lose the musicality and experience. Fret not, studying the score is a fun process which involves interpretation and load of emotions to be expressed into, giving life to notes on the paper.

Repetition is key

To this day, many modern songs have a simple theme, maybe with a related second theme. The theme is repeated several times with different lyrics. You hear it once and remember the theme. By hearing the first half, you will be able to guess how the second half goes. Well, it might take a while to remember the lyrics, but you will already get hold of the tune.

Classical music on the other hand, you won't be able to know what's coming next as it has many different elements to it. Listening to a classical piece for the first time is indeed clueless for everyone. But every now and then you hear it, you get to understand it even better. At some point, you will be able to remember the progression of the main tune.

Okay, if you are listening to an orchestral piece several times, compared to the first time you will get to realise more and more. The different instruments, the different parts of music, the small details that you've missed will be more noticeable. Maybe, in the beginning, you will only focus on the blaring loud horns and trumpets shimmering on top of the violins, and then suddenly one day, you hear parts that you didn't even realise at first. The longer and slower melody line in the 'bottom', harmonising with all the melodies 'on top', by the cellos and double basses. And then after a few more repetition, you get to hear occasional trills by the woodwinds, the flute, the clarinet, producing beautiful sounds. There is more to uncover, but you will have to listen subsequently.

One of the great things of classical music is that you will still hear something new about it after listening to it a hundred times. Of course, you will still welcome the 'familiar' ones, but you will also be delighted to pick up new ones for sure. Point is that you should not judge a piece of music based on your first impression. You can do this to modern music, but never for classical music.

Summing up

In this part, we get to learn how to appreciate classical music. It is a pity that young people nowadays do not understand, or appreciate the value of classical music and gravitate instead towards pop, rock and hip-hop. Much of the blame lies with a society and culture that does not expose youngsters to great classical music.

To sum up, classical music isn't dying. There are still many people who appreciate and see the beauty in it. There is a lot more to classical music than only orchestral music. Not only that, classical music can also do things that no other music can. On the last note, the second series ends here. I assure you that the next part will be more interesting :) Cheers!


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