Learning How to Appreciate Classical Music

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It is quite apparent that the widespread appreciation of classical music is waning in our society.It is often viewed as “stuffy music” or even worse: “that scary music for old people!” There are many reasons for why this has taken place.One is that musical education here in America has suffered of late from school budget cuts.This is surprising considering the considerable evidence that classical music can actually enhance your concentration, cognitive thinking abilities and I.Q.Many people are aware of the “Mozart Effect,” a scientific study used to prove that: “Hey! If you listen to a bunch of Mozart, you might become smarter!”While this study is often overstated, after all, the reality is that any type of music can stimulate brain activity. (Yes, even Lady Gaga.)It is interesting to note, however, that those who were raised listening to classical music often score higher on tests then those who did not.Just like learning language, learning to love classical music oftentimes is easier at a younger age, although anyone can learn to appreciate it at any age.

First, let’s start with some basics.Classical music was originally intended to refer to a category of music beginning around 1730 and ending about 1820.This term “classical music” is actually quite inaccurate as it eliminates several other musical periods with some notable composers. For example: the Baroque period, where Johann Sebastian Bach dominated.A more proper term encompassing all of the music we think of in this broad category is “art music” which is typically divided into six musical time periods: Medieval (500–1400), followed by Renaissance (1400–1600), Baroque (1600–1760), Classical (1730–1820), Romantic (1815–1910), and lastly, the Modern era (1900–2000).

When learning to appreciate art music, it is important to be able to identify what distinguishes one particular musical period from another.If you can listen to a random piece of music and instantaneously recognize its respective time period, then you are well on your way to becoming a connoisseur.One way of doing this is by becoming acquainted with the proper instrumentation used in each time period.For example, if you hear a harpsichord, chances are high that you are listening to something that came from the baroque period.As one gets more experienced, one may begin to recognize certain features in music from a specific time period.A good example might be the use of thicker orchestration characteristic of music from the romantic era.The final step is to be able to identify the composer who might be responsible for writing the work.

The next step is to learn some basic understanding of music form.All music has form.Pop music typically uses a verse-chorus form.Art music uses a variety of different forms ranging from Sonata form, to Rondo.Sonata form (which is sometimes called “sonata-allegro” form) consists of three sections: the exposition, the development and the recapitulation.Rondo form, on the other hand, is organized most commonly as: ABACABA.So when listening for form something like Rondo might become apparent by noticing the repetition of the “A section.”Often “pieces” of music are organized into larger “works.”Examples of these would be the concerto, the symphony or the baroque suite.Being able to understand these forms will give the listener a greater understanding of the composer’s work.

It can be overwhelming when there is so much music.With over 500 years of accumulated music to choose from, and even more if one chooses to delve into medieval music, where does one begin?A good choice to first get one’s feet wet, so to speak, is the baroque period.It is very accessible music and you may be surprised by how much of it you have actually heard over the years in movies and television shows.Antonio Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons” is a good starting work to become familiar with.Any of the six Brandenburg Concertos by Johann Sebastian Bach would also be a good place to start.The romantic period is also very accessible.Much of the music is melodic and highly emotive.Any of the piano works by Frederic Chopin would be a good starting place for an art music “newbie.”Other great examples would be any of the late works by Beethoven (particularly his ninth symphony) as well as any of the piano works by Robert Schumann.

There are really two main composers to look for when entering the classical period — W.A. Mozart and Joseph Haydn. Mozart wrote a wealth of music but a good starting place might be his 40th symphony or his 21st piano concerto.The last period to tackle would certainly be the modern era, as it is often times a more controversial era.However, there is still a great deal of “accessible” music to the new listener.Works by Ravel, Stravinsky, and Prokofiev are all great for first time listeners.Always try to keep an open mind and be adventurous.

The key to learning to appreciate art music is repeated listening.Attending symphonies, operas, and ballets provide a variety of opportunities for exposing one’s self to the world of art music (as well as a great way of supporting the arts).Don’t be scared!If all else fails, just sit back and enjoy the music.


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