How to Listen to Classical Music, and Enjoy It

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This is the second in a series of posts about appreciating classical music. Catch up on where the series began here and follow up on the next post here

When I was a teenager, my music tastes were divided by when I could listen to what. Twilit Schubert sonatas were best enjoyed in a closed room at night. Same for Radiohead. The major-key variations of Bach's "Well Tempered Clavier" were perfect on a lucid spring day. Outkast begged to be blasted in heavy summer. Bottom line: where, when, and how you listen to music matters.

There are some peculiarities, however, in how classical music is best enjoyed. One of the first challenges—as reader Timothy Judd raised in a comment on the first post in this series—is muzak. Stores play treacly strings as background music for shoppers. Many people have been led to associate the soft bowing of Mozart symphonies with soporific browsing. This is the antithesis of the intended effect. Audience members famously burst into violence at the premiere of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, as they did, in a more deadly way, at Altamont. Indeed, Stravinsky and Mozart are no more background noise than the Rolling Stones—or Django Reinhardt, Lauryn Hill, Animal Collective, or Kanye West. To enjoy any of them, you have to be engaged.

Another challenge, as others have pointed out, is that music in general has become a sidekick, a condiment for other activities. Seldom do we sit and just listen. We jog, sleep, shop, walk, lift, and kill silence with music. Our guts bounce to the heavy 2-4 beat of rock, the ostinato of electronica, the loops of hip hop, our experiences melding with the song. But this type of listening tends not to work with classical music, which paints in subtler shades of volume. I think of classical music as a bit like theater played on a stage inside the head. The spotlights have to be on, the crowd can't be chatting, and booming sedans must be banned from the aisles. One way to achieve this is by listening in the dark.

Assuming you've done all that, once the music is on, what should you be listening for? Here is a basic, somewhat idiosyncratic guide.

Listen for Melody and Rhythm, Not Lyrics

The English language, in reputation and in fact, is not pretty when sung in classical songs. Lyrics are not the pleasure to enjoy here. The pleasure is in following the iterations and variations on a melody. Find the main tune and listen to how it evolves, fragments, and spirals upward.

Perhaps the clearest place to see this first is with this Mozart theme-and-variations, where he transforms a well-known theme into something both silly and exquisite.


Now hear how brutal the same form can be when Beethoven gets his hands on it. (The anger of the German genius is what first drew me to him.) The melody here is, admittedly, rather stark.


Name That Emotion

Since the pieces seldom have helpful names or lyrics, I find it's important to state to myself the emotion a piece is depicting. Ask yourself: what is this piece about? Is it full of laughter, yearning, nostalgia, bitterness, rage? I actually try to settle on a word.

This piece, the slow (second) movement from Beethoven's 7th Symphony, is, to me, about heartrending grief. It does not sob, but builds from stoic sorrow to a roar.


For broad humor, I like Prokofiev. For tragic longing, I like Schubert's Winterreise. For introspective moods, there's nothing better than Chopin's fourth ballade.

Visualize

Imagination is key. Perhaps the best way to experience this first is with the Impressionist composers. Just as many people find the paintings of Monet and Renoir instantly evocative, many are electrified by the tone colors of Ravel and Debussy. I close my eyes and try to imagine movement, or scenes.

This section from La Mer, one of Debussy's masterpieces, suggests shimmering, restless waves.


Trust Your Taste

As you'll quickly discover, tastes vary nearly as widely within classical music as the gap between fans of Frank Sinatra and horror rap. Trust your instincts. Find a favorite part, and skip to it. Figure out which composer (Thalberg) or style (Minimalist) you think is flat-out ugly. The point is to make the music yours. You may disagree with your friends, or me, about Brahms. Brilliant people believe Figaro is rapture, or that three-hour Messiaen pieces are the acme of joy. Still others love nothing more than fast-finger pyrotechnics:


Repetition, Repetition, Repetition

More than with most music, classical takes time. In my experience, it's natural to expect the best pieces to take six or more listens to grasp. For years, I struggled to understand, let alone like, Beethoven's late quartets. Now they are among my favorite pieces. If you find yourself continually drawn back to a composition you don't "get," I encourage you to keep listening. That nagging feeling may be a sign.

As an example, here's a movement from one of those late quartets I now love. You may not like it at first. But some day, you may think there's nothing more beautiful:


Stay tuned for the next item in the series, which will be about athleticism in classical music; as always, questions and suggestions are welcome.

Presented by

Benjamin F. Carlson is executive editor of The Atlantic Wire.

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