Sunday, February 8, 2009

How to "Learn" a Piece of Classical Music

Classical music isn't meant to be listened to once and then forgotten. It is complex and many-layered music that is meant to be learned.

But what does it even mean to "learn" a work of classical music?

If you were in a music appreciation class, you might be subjected to a "needle drop" test, where the teacher plays a brief section of a symphony for the class. If you can name the symphony and the composer (and likely some other trivia like the year it was written or the year the composer was born or died), congratulations! You've "learned" that piece.

A professional musician would say he "learned" a classical music work once he can play--and play well, hopefully--all of the relevant parts in that symphony assigned to his instrument.

But for those of us who are not in class or working as pro musicians, those of us with busy lives and a limited amount of time to dedicate to classical music, I'll submit a more entry-level definition of what it means to "learn" a classical music work: can you recognize it?

For a person with an average ear and an average memory for music, it should take four or five attentive, careful listens to a symphony to satisfy this definition of classical music familiarity.

If that seems like a lot of work, just know that there's a reward waiting for you at the end of this journey: After those four or five listens, you'll really start to know the key themes, motifs and melodies of the work. You'll know how each movement starts and ends, and you'll build your own mental list of your personal favorite parts of each movement. You'll truly understand the "arc" of the symphony.

Many classical music works are simply too complex for the listener to ingest and fully understand right away, and thus most symphonies sound better and better upon repeated listens. To use an analogy, think of them as films like Citizen Kane where many of the most interesting cinematic techniques and other subtleties don't become apparent until you've seen the film a few times.

Other symphonies, perhaps Mozart's or Haydn's, might have witticisms and "in jokes" that you may only discover after repeated listens. And to stretch the film analogy still further (and give you an unexpected window into my amazing cultural sophistication), these works are akin to films like Talladega Nights, where you catch some of the best lines and jokes only after a few viewings. And hey, comedies are always funnier once you've memorized a few of the best quotes.

In fact, I'd argue that the real pleasures of listening to any classical music work begin to manifest after the second or third close listen. It's ironic, but it's more fun to listen to a symphony once you know what's coming.

Try this with the next symphony you choose to listen to. If you're not sure where to begin, I've compiled a list of key works that you can use to start your own classical music collection. Pick a out a few these CDs and let me know how it goes!

1 comment:

Josh said...

Thank you for the information that you have, I really like it. Classic music is truly one of my favorite music to play.

Learning to play music instrument in a classic manner is really difficult. Thanks to music instructional dvd and to music books as well.