Classical Music – Where to Begin

By Daniel McAdam.

The desire to deepen one’s enjoyment and understanding of classical music may be initiated by any one of a number of stimuli.  A person might hear a piece of classical music haphazardly – as music used in a skating performance, or as music used in a film, for example – and be struck by its beauty.  Someone might have a friend who enjoys classical music, and wish to accompany him or her to a performance.  In other cases, there may be a simple desire for self-culture.  The reason is unimportant.  The question is, where does one begin? 

My first bit of advice is to mentally separate the enjoyment of classical music from any concept of snobbery.  You will not get anywhere if you listen to those who are pretentious, and you will do all true lovers of classical music a gross disservice if you allow yourself, upon obtaining a bit of knowledge, to become that miserable sort of character known as, “the music snob.”   

The simple act of listening to classical music can accomplish many things.  It can lighten (or deepen) your mood.  It can relax you, or stir and inspire you.  Your ability to appreciate and recognize classical pieces can impress others favorably, causing you to be viewed as someone with sophisticated taste.  But above all, listening to classical music can offer great pleasure, because such music can be capable of expressing delicate shadings of feelings in an almost unbearably exquisite manner.   

This is why, ultimately, one listens to classical music; because it is enjoyable to do so. 

I should hasten to add that you do not have to enjoy a certain piece immediately in order for it to be worthy of your attention.  As in all types of music, certain works benefit from familiarity, while others do not.   

A personal example is in order.  My initial exposure to classical music was through my father, who possessed a three-LP set of Tchaikovsky’s music, including the 1812 Overture, the Piano Concerto No. 1, and excerpts from some of the composer’s ballet music.  Not surprisingly, then, my own journey into classical music appreciation started with Tchaikovsky.  I was passingly familiar with some of his music, and simply expanded upon that. 

I could have gone in any one of a number of directions from there; other Russian composers, other composers of the Romantic era, other ballet music, etc.  Instead, I went to Beethoven.  Why?  Because at the time I knew an attractive young woman who played Für Elise on the piano, and because I had somewhere else encountered the haunting first movement of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. (A confession - my knowledge of classical music was so limited that for at least a year I believed that the first movement was the Moonlight Sonata, and was completely ignorant of the other two movements.)

One can spend a lifetime just getting to know Beethoven and Tchaikovsky, so the rest was easy.  Additionally, it should be pointed out that the simple act of listening to classical music prepares the ear and the brain for further listening to classical music.  If you listen to Beethoven’s Symphonies, and then Tchaikovsky’s Symphonies, you start to get familiar with the symphonic structure, at least subconsciously.  You are no longer in entirely unfamiliar waters.  Each experience builds upon those that went before, and paves the way for those that are to follow. 

It took me an inordinately lengthy period of time to develop any appreciation whatsoever for classical music written after 1900.  This may have been, in part, psychological, but there is no question that music abruptly changed around that point in time, with increasing dissonance, use of different scales, and a number of other "experiments."  I read books about 20th century music, and consequently developed a better understanding of what 20th century composers were trying to accomplish; but in the end, it must be confessed, I still have little love for the music from that period. 

The important points in my personal experience are, I believe, these:

  1. I started from a position of familiarity, even though that familiarity was not great;
  2. I built outward from my original starting point(s) in a way that made sense; that is, I went from works I was familiar with to works that were related to those with which I was familiar;
  3. I tried to keep an open mind, and to educate myself about all areas of classical music, even those I was not immediately drawn toward, and;
  4. I ultimately let my taste decide what I preferred.

My advice to you is to follow a similar course.  And this is where my other advice, concerning the avoidance of those who are pretentious about classical music, comes in.  It is very likely that some of the pieces you might now be familiar with – Tchaikovsky’s aforementioned 1812 Overture, or Pachelbel’s Canon – may be objects of disdain or derision to the music snob.  Ignore such persons!  I have listened to, enjoyed, and appreciated classical music for over forty years now.  My reading has encompassed everything from biographical material to arcane bits of music theory. And yet, with all my study, and all my years of experience, I still find a great deal to love and admire in those two pieces.

So might you.


Of related interest:

How to Listen to Music



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