Sunday, December 30, 2012

Why Classical Music?

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Why classical?
Why on earth should you give classical a go? Here are 5 good reasons to start listening:
  • It’s richer and more rewarding than popular music – Classical takes a much longer time to “get” than popular music, which is intended to be picked up quickly, by the widest possible audience. It takes just a listen or two before the melodies of most four-minute songs from the radio become embedded in your head, and then you’re stuck whistling Baby One More Time all day, and cursing Britney. It doesn’t take long to understand a piece. Classical takes far longer to parse. It can take five or six listens before you even begin to hear recurring melodies, but the more you listen the more you understand. It just doesn’t “wear out” like most popular pieces do after repeat listens, in fact it gets better.
  • It’s an intellectual challenge – Popular music tastes good to everyone, classical is an acquired taste. You have to put some serious effort into it. Thats true for other artforms as well, but for some reason people seem to give classic literature or great paintings a more serious go than they do classical music.
  • It’s more varied than you realize – You might have heard people claim that different composers sound totally different, but you might well also not believe them. I didn’t. It’s true though. If you try listening to pieces composed in 50 year steps, starting from Bach and ending at Adams, you’ll probably find something which appeals to your tastes. As you listen more and more, those tastes will expand like crazy.
  • It’ll make you sound impressively cultured – Okay, so this one is a bit cheap, but it’s true. There’s something extremely satisfying about hearing a song playing in the background and casually remarking: “Ah! The Mendelssohn Violin Concerto!” to your group of friends. It’s nice to occasionally be a bit of a smug bastard.
  • It’s cost effective – Classical recordings are often half the price of popular CD’s, especially if you buy them used. You can often get multiple CD sets for around ten dollars. Additionally, the quality of the music is uniformly great. Do you ever feel ripped off when you shell out fifteen or twenty bucks for a new album, only to discover that seven out of the ten tracks on it suck? Well, that pretty much never happens with classical.

7 steps to get started
So you’re eager to stop reading, and start listening to some music? Here is the quick-start guide to getting into classical music.
The most important thing to remember: It will take many, many listens before you understand a classical piece in the same way that you do popular music. When you’re just starting out you’ll have to listen to a piece all the way through around six or seven times before you start to make any sense of it. That’s fine, it’s totally normal. It’ll probably be when you are just about to give up that a certain little run up on the strings, or a blast on the brass will stand out and actually have a consistent melody! Don’t give up!
Select some music - Obviously the first thing you need is a piece to listen to. There are several approaches to take. Some people will prefer to choose something they are already familiar with, such as Beethoven 5 (da,da,da,dum) or 9 (the Ode to Joy). You might instead decide to read up on the characteristics of certain periods or composers and choose a recommended piece. In general it’s a good idea not to try something really difficult (like the atonalists) because you’ll probably just be horribly put off classical music for another five years. A safe choice would be a solid romantic (not in the sense of gooey and girly, but in the classical music era sense) symphony, for example Beethoven 7, or Mendelssohn 4, or Tchaikovsky 6.
Choose your recording – Once you decide on the piece, you need to actually get a copy of it. Get a good performance. If it’s horrible it’ll be roughly equivalent to listening to a popular piece over bad radio reception, and with the equalizer settings randomly changing. The biggest problem is that this won’t be obvious when you first start listening because you won’t yet know what the piece is “supposed” to sound like, it’ll just be a lot blander, and it will be way harder for you to “get” sections of it because they won’t stand out like they should. Don’t fret too much though, there are a lot of excellent recordings, and price does not necessarily imply quality. For example, one of the cheapest labels, Naxos, is also one of the consistently quality ones. I’ve put together a list of recommended recordings to start with here.
Listen (a lot) and learn (a bit less) - Now that you have your recording, listen to it endlessly – at work, on your iPod while walking, in the shower, everywhere. Listen to it six or seven times before even considering giving up your classical music jaunt. Listen to it all the way through, no cheating – it’s a journey and the movements need to be heard in that order. Read the liner notes if you have them, if you don’t, Google for the name of the piece along with “program notes” which should give you examples of the pamphlets they hand out at concerts for the piece. These might go into way too much detail for you with crap like: “…he modulates to the subdominant in the exposition…” but don’t stress over these parts. Just get a feel for what kind of emotions and story the composer is conveying, and maybe what was going on in his life when he wrote it.
Gather your thoughts - Now that you’ve listened to the whole piece through seven times you’ve probably begun to understand the prominent melodies, hopefully this kind of came as a surprise. You might have noticed that instead of meandering around and doing lots of pretty-pretty stuff — which is kind of what most people expect — the music actually deliberately goes somewhere, and tends to return back to where it started. You also might notice that these long, complicated sounding movements actually just contain two big, important melodies.

Listen more selectively - Probably the tunes are finally sticking in your head in the same way that popular pieces do. Probably there are certain sections which are starting to sound good, while the rest is still a mystery. That’s awesome! Listen to the movement with the good bits by itself a few times. Then try listening to the whole thing through. You’ll probably start to like the bits you didn’t like before, and everything will kind of fill in around the sections that initially caught your attention. Don’t worry if you don’t like the whole symphony though, you’ll always like certain movements more than others.
If it sucks (but it won’t), try again - If you really can’t stand it, it if just sounds cheesy or predictable – try it once more, but with a different era. If you chose something romantic (Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Mendelssohn, for example), try Bach instead, or Stravinsky.
Now that you’ve learned how to start, you can look at the playlist for beginners, or you can start getting a feel for what the different composers sound like. Good luck!
Pieces to start with
Here is a list of pieces for you to start with if you want to get into classical music, but are overwhelmed by the sheer volume of composers and pieces available.
If you’re just starting out there is no point to listening to every single Bach organ work, you should just be getting a feel for what you do and don’t like. This list will help you do exactly that, without getting bogged down in the details. For each of the major eras in classical music, from Baroque to Contemporary, I’ve listed one or two pieces which really represent that period.
Everybody likes different styles. For example, it took me about two years of listening before I could bear to listen to the late romantic stuff. If you listen to everything in this list you’ll have a really good idea which styles get the blood flowing, and which make you yawn, and then you can expand from there.
Baroque Era (1600-1750)
Bach – Brandenburg Concertos
Bach is the superstar of the Baroque period, and the Brandenburg Concertos are one of his most well known, and most respected pieces. They are a varied bunch of relatively short (compared to the more elaborate and lengthy concertos in later eras) but perfectly formed little beasties. They demonstrate the technical precision and cleverness typical of Bach, and Baroque music in general.
Classical Era (1730-1820)
Mozart – Symphonies No. 40 and 41
These are the last two symphonies of Mozart, and show off his always perky, pretty, and elegant melodies. They are catchy too, see if you can avoid whistling the final notes of these after hearing them a couple of times.
Early Romantic (1800-1850)
Beethoven – Symphony Nos. 5 and 7
Choose the 5th for a heavier, more in your face experience. You’ll have certainly heard the first few bars about five thousand times already, but the rest of it (especially the third and fourth movements) are golden. It’s a classic example of Beethoven’s ability to mesh delicate, introspective music (3rd movement) with boistrous, glorious, triumphant excess (4th movement). On the other hand, if you’d prefer listening to something totally unfamiliar, symphony number 7 is lighter, more fun, much more rhythmic, and chances are you haven’t heard any of it before.
Middle Romantic (1830-1870)
Mendelssohn – Symphony No. 4 “Italian”
Liszt – Hungarian Rhapsodies (especially No. 2)
The Mendelssohn piece is a reasonably conservative but fantastic piece. It’s got bounding, driving rhythms, beautiful orchestration and melodies, and a cyclic ending that finishes with a transformed version of the start of the whole thing. The latter is wild, crazy, over the top romantic piano at it’s best. you might know the rhapsody No. 2 from the Tom and Jerry cartoon “Cat Concerto

Late Romantic (1850-1910)
Tchaikovsky – Symphony No. 6 “Pathetique
Brahms – Symphony No. 4
Dvorak – Symphony No. 9 “From the New World”
Tchaikovsky is exceedingly sweeping and heart-stringy. Brahms is a little more serious, cultured, grand and imposing, especially the excellent last movement. Dvorak is more rhythmic, more jazzy, more modern sounding. All of them are big-R Romantic: big, emotional, expressive.
Atonal (1910-present)
Berg – Violin Concerto
The atonalists (Schoenberg, Berg, Webern) didn’t believe in scales and keys (Like A minor, B flat, etc.), and they gave every note equal importance. Unsurprisingly this makes a lot of their stuff very hard to enjoy, unless you are being all scholarly (or pretentious) about it. Although it does sound very interesting. This piece, however, is a unification of their techniques with “regular” tonal composition. It’s a painfully emotional effect, especially if you read about the circumstances it was composed under.
Modern (1900-1975)
Shostakovich – Symphony No. 10
Prokofiev – Piano Concerto No. 2
Stravinsky – The Rite of Spring
These are all great examples of how many modern composers pulled back a bit from the extremes of the atonalists. They kept tonality, but pushed at its boundaries. Shostakovich uses melodies which are morbidly stuck between keys, Prokofiev makes it sound like someone is hitting the wrong notes (but, you know, in a good way) and Stravinsky caused riots with the primeval rhythms of the “Rite of Spring”. The first is big, touching, driving, sarcastic and sly. The second is similar but more percussive, and in places more playful. The third is wild and syncopated.
Contemporary (1975-present)
Adams – Chamber Symphony
Schnittke – Viola Concerto
And he we are today. This is music composed in the last couple of decades, and it is very far from the stereotypical ideas of classical music. The former is nothing like a traditional chamber symphony: it’s a self-described marriage of atonal music with Looney Tunes cartoons. The second is one of Schnittke’s many attempts at unifying “low” and “high” music. He’ll switch from very classical, to ridiculous fairground music, to Psycho style stabs over just a handful of bars, while being horribly, wonderfully, screechingly microtonal (playing the spaces in between “regular” notes).
Common Complaints
There are a bunch of reasons that you might get put off listening to classical when you first start. Some things seem like a really big deal initially, but before long you’ll adjust and get used to them. Here’s a list of some of the most common problems you might encounter when first starting to listen to classical:
  • Understanding a piece isn’t trivial – It takes much, much longer to get familiar with a piece compared to almost any other form of music. Lady Gaga makes sense about 5 notes into a song, but Berg will take about twenty listens before you even begin to get it. This is probably the hardest thing to deal with when starting with classical.
  • Remembering melodies is really hard- Alright, with some composers this can be much easier then others (Mozart is pretty easy, Shostakovich can take many more attempts). Popular songs are designed to zap directly into your head – you can pretty much hum a melody as soon as you’ve heard a couple of bars. Classical melodies are way longer, and there are often a whole bunch in a piece so it’s hard to keep track of them.
  • The amount of stuff going on is overwhelming – There are sections where you’ll have the violins playing one melody, the cellos and violas a different melody, the basses playing an accompaniment, the winds and brass doing something else, and the percussion accompanying all of them at once. It’s hard to keep track of it all, but after a while you’ll be able to mentally filter out each individual section.
  • The dynamics can be extreme – That is, things go from loud to quiet really quickly and dramatically — dynamics is the technical term for that. Most non-classical stuff pretty much stays at one volume, with maybe a couple of stops and starts thrown in for dramatic effect (like that one song by Garbage). Classical will go from pindrop quiet to eardrum-busting loud before you even start to twitch your fingers to the volume control. Initially you’ll probably get really frustrated by this and be constantly adjusting the volume. I know I did.
  • The pieces are so loooooong – Well, yeah, but so is an album. The difference is that classical pretty much has to be listened to all the way through, whereas you can usually jump around between songs on an album. You can definitely listen to individual movements at first — although you’ll lose the full force of the piece — but even some of those can pretty hefty.
  • The music sounds too cheesy – Some romantic stuff is excessively lush (Rachmaninoff… we’re looking at you) and I also find that kind of thing pretty tough to get into. Some of you will, or already do, love it. I prefer it when…
  • The music sounds too dissonant – Some modern stuff is full of weird combinations of notes which you will initially think sounds like garbage can lids clanking/cats wailing/people dying. You may or may not get used to this.
  • The instruments all sound the same – It takes a while before you can easily pick apart what you are hearing, and until you get enough exposure to orchestral textures, things tend to kind of blend together. Listen to a few quartets (well, not too early on perhaps… small scale pieces are a bit harder) and you’ll be able to tell the strings apart much better.
  • The violins sound too shrill – It could be a bad recording… or it could just take a while to get used to. The idea of a violin concerto, or – god forbid – violin sonata freaked the hell out of me at first.
So you’re not alone if you have issues with any of these, but don’t let them put you off the music because they won’t be a problem for very long.

7 Reasons Nerds Should Listen to Classical Music
Are you a nerd? Chances are that if you clicked this link then the answer to that is a proud “hell yeah!”. Well I am too, and one of my most surprising nerd revelations was discovering that classical music is a perfect musical genre for people like us. I didn’t work this out until I was about 23, and until that point pretty much had no idea of all the delicious geeky goodness contained within.
If you’re like me then you’ve probably listened to quite a few classical pieces, but haven’t ever really, really gotten into them — at least not in the same way as your favorite non-classical pieces of music. Here are 7 reasons why if you are a true nerd you should seriously consider giving classical music a more serious listen:
1. We love discovering and understanding how things are put together. Classical music is a perfect genre for this – each piece is written in one of many basically standardized forms, sonata form, trios, rondos, theme and variations, and so on. However, these forms are stretched and contorted and copied and pasted into very different beasts by each composer. Understanding what they’ve done, and why, is a lot of fun.
2. We like classifying stuff. Each piece can be a sonata, or symphony, or concerto, or oratorio, or something else entirely. Each composer’s output is indexed with opus numbers (or something else if they’re extra special) and each piece has its own home key. Understanding what all this really meant and referred to was a huge part of the experience for me.
3. We love hearing new music. One of the reasons that online music sharing has taken off to such a magnificent extent is the innate attraction we seem to have to music. On pretty much any forum you’ll find dozens of threads devoted to people trying to find new music recommendations based on their current tastes, and hundreds of responses to those requests from people eager to spread their favorite groups to others. We are very open to hearing new pieces.
4. We enjoy an intellectual challenge. Nerds are the kind of people who will do math for fun. This is an area in which classical music kicks arse, compared to most popular music. A symphony is a story. You can listen to it as background music (which is probably what most non-classical people do when they hear classical) or you can try and follow its themes and motivation all the way through. While this is blindingly hard at first, it’s amazingly satisfying after you listen to a piece ten times and suddenly it jumps out at you. It’s a very similar feeling to when you finally “get” a physics or math proof.
5. We already have some exposure to classical. You often see posts on classical boards in which people will refer to music which they really like from the soundtrack of a computer game. Symphonic scores are also prevalent in films disproportionately popular in online world (e.g., the Lord of the Rings, Star Wars), all of which sneakily lead people toward the world of classical music.
6. We like having long and detailed discussions/arguments about stuff. Particularly when there is the potential to show off esoteric facts about arcane topics. Classical music is really fertile ground for this. We can argue about whether Beethoven’s Op.130 string quartet is better with or without the Grosse Fugue as the last movement, or why on earth there are all those enigmatic Wagner quotes at the end of Shostakovich’s 15th symphony, or… well, you get the idea.
7. We like open source stuff. You can walk into a music library and pull out a full orchestral copy of any of Beethoven’s (or anyone elses) symphonies. You can follow along while listening and discover all kinds of subtleties in the piece, or you can write your own software to analyze it or synthesize it. Anyone can put on a performance of a piece, and sell it, without fear of getting their asses sued off. In fact, one of the most satisfying things about classical music is being able to hear many different interpretations of a piece.
If you’re ready to start understanding how symphonies work, and who you like best out of Mozart, Bach, Beethoven, and the rest of them,

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