Learned #48: The Classics

In which we listen to some music.

Way back in Learned Issue 2, I wrote about learning to play the piano. My attempts since then have been met with setbacks, mistakes, and frustratingly slow progress. Because of or in spite of all that, I’ve been listening to a lot of classical music - a subject about which I know almost nothing.

I worked at a classical radio station in college. I took a lot of music appreciation classes. I was gifted a really nifty set of CDs of major works by major composers. I even spent large swathes of my childhood listening to Hooked on Classics with my family during road trips.

And I still know next to nothing about classical music. More specifically, I don’t know how to appreciate it - I can’t tell one performance from another, nor can I tell what makes one performer’s interpretation of a piece different from another’s. I don’t really expect to figure all that out this week. But maybe I can learn where to start.

In this issue:

  • What We’re Learning: The Classics

  • What We’re Reading: The Rest is Noise

  • Down the Rabbit Hole: MCM

Let’s get to it.

Photo by Isaac Ibbott on Unsplash

What We’re Learning:

The Classics

We all know a little classical music, right? It shows up everywhere, from Christmas performances of the Nutcracker or to classic cartoons. But beyond that, unless you’re an ardent enthusiast or an educated musician, there’s a good chance you’ve never been taught much about classical music beyond that it exists. So, forgetting any and all prior knowledge, let’s start with:

Where to Start

I simply googled, “How to get into classical music?” The trouble is, that the immediate returns brought up a lot of places to listen and not so much what to listen to.

The Guardian’s Tom Service has a five-day playlist designed to get a colleague up to speed before attending a symphonic performance while Classic FM has a lengthy piece called, “The Best Classical Music for Beginners,” both of which have links to incredible performances of well-known pieces, but it’s the Telegraph’s “How you can get into classical music: a beginner's guide” that I think works best (for me.)

Some of the steps they offer are easier than others (I’m not ready to buy a new sound system right now), the core of the article advises you to “follow your enthusiasm.” They suggest seeking out playlists built around favorite pieces and to also follow specific performers and conductors. Once you’ve done this a few times, you should have a good idea of what kind of classical music you are into and how to find more of it.

They also link out to two good sites with more beginner level information:

To which I’ll add this excellent Reddit post with links to dozens of interesting discussions and pages:

Now that we know what to listen to, how should we listen to it?

How to Listen

To be clear, this is not a discussion of audio systems or, you know, how to physically listen to music; there is a lot of received wisdom that boils down to the best way of appreciating classical music is to “just listen, really listen.” But - I want to know what to listen for.

Before we get to that, Lifehacker produced a video called “How to really appreciate classical music” that walks the viewer through the four main parts of a symphony while simultaneously urging / advising that the best way to really get into classical music is to dive into the history of the composers, instruments, and of the pieces themselves. This does seem, to me, to be really good advice. Just like knowing the story of how fragmented the band was in their personal lives can add weight and tension to Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk, knowing the tragedies of Beethoven’s life can aid in appreciating the power and anger he put into his music (or, alternately, breathe fresh poignancy into “Ode to Joy.”)

This piece (and the whole series) from the Atlantic really gives me what I wanted though - how to really listen to the music in the first place. Author Benjamin Carlson advises listening to rhythms and repetitions. Once we see how pieces change and evolve with different composers and performers, the thrill of discovery and curiosity can take over. He goes on to outline several work-throughs, including:

  • Find the specific emotion(s) being represented in the piece

  • Visualizing different scenes or images to go along with different pieces

  • And, to, of course, listen over and over again.

Where to Listen

Now that we’ve got a good idea of where to start, where do we find it? The answer, which should not surprise anyone, is YouTube. There are thousands of hours of contemporary orchestras performing any number of classical pieces. And that’s a great way to follow the advice above - compare and contrast by watching different groups perform the same, or similar, pieces.

But, if there is one takeaway from every piece I read for this article, it’s that classical music should be heard live if at all possible. For me, that means looking into both the Tokyo Symphony Orchestra and the Tokyo Philharmonic. My plan is to do my research and find pieces and composers that I really like and then keep an eye on the orchestras’ websites for when they might be performing said pieces.

In the meantime, it appears NHK hosts their own symphony on t.v. several nights a month. It might be time to tune in.

*Mental Floss has a great explainer on the differences between an orchestra, a symphony, and a philharmonic.

What We’re Reading:

The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century

by Alex Ross

From the Amazon page:

In this sweeping and dramatic narrative, Alex Ross, music critic for The New Yorker, weaves together the histories of the twentieth century and its music, from Vienna before the First World War to Paris in the twenties; from Hitler's Germany and Stalin's Russia to downtown New York in the sixties and seventies up to the present. Taking readers into the labyrinth of modern style, Ross draws revelatory connections between the century's most influential composers and the wider culture. The Rest Is Noise is an astonishing history of the twentieth century as told through its music.

Well. Color me curious.


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Down the Rabbit Hole:

Modern Classical Music

I’m going to be honest, I had thought that movie scores were the only place anyone was still making symphonic music. I was wrong. I was so, so wrong. Here are some cool things I found:

That’s it. Stay strong, stay healthy. Learn something.