As Richard Dare recently urged in the Huffington Post, the experience of classical music concerts needs to change. But disregarding concert etiquette such as delayed applause is not the answer. You wouldn’t ask a church to change its rituals, would you? Dare’s businessman “customer-is-always-right” perspective is well-intentioned but misunderstands classical music. It’s an industry, but it’s primarily an art focused on the composer and music rather than the audience.
Here are some changes we’re waiting for: Conductors and performers need to have more conversations with the audience; explain the piece and let the audience ask questions. Audiences need to be allowed to dress down, rather than formally, at performances. Audiences need to stop giving standing ovations at every performance. Performers need to leave the concert hall and enter bars and alternative spaces. Performers need to let admirers speak with them and touch their instruments after the concert. Musicians need to learn to be tech-savvy; livestream performances and engage with young people through social media.
While we wait, here are 7 ways to begin understanding and enjoying classical music.
1) Educate yourself about each composer and piece. YouTube and, Wikipedia are all you need. Before rushing to the concert hall, get to know your pieces and composers. Mozart’s vibrant yet tragic life, intrigue about Brahms’ aching love for his best friend’s wife, and other personal details add life and perspective to the music.
2) Know the complex framework of classical music pieces. Notice how much more enjoyable a pop or rock song is when you know the verse, then the bridge, then the chorus is coming. Knowing the structure sets you up for understanding the piece better.
The one to know is Sonata Allegro form. This is honestly the only musical structure I know in-depth, and most symphonies, sonatas, overtures, and concertos follow this or variations on this form. Follow this simplistic explanation of the structure, and you’ll understand most of what you’re listening to so much better.
Exposition - Declaration of all the thematic material in the piece. Asks all “questions” that will be explored.
1st theme: Declarative, rhythmic first theme. Beethoven’s 5th is death-knocking-on-your-door “dun-dun-dun-dun.”
2nd theme: Lyrical, more melody-driven theme. Contrasts the opening in mood and musical key. Beethoven’s 5th is a soft, lyrical violin melody.
Development - Contrasts and elaborates on the first section.
Begins with the 1st theme, but with a noticeable difference. Either it will land somewhere else or start in a different key or mood. You will notice the section taking a different direction.
Recapitulation - The Exposition again, but resolves all the initial “questions.”
3) Start with accessible music. Starting with “the greats” like Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven may not be the best approach. Most people tend to divide music by time period as Baroque, Classical, Romantic, and Modern, but I like to think of music differently: absolute or programmatic. Absolute music is non-representational, abstract, and focused on the beauty of structure, form, and compositional technique. Program music is representational, based on an extra-musical narrative such as a story, poem, painting, or idea. Whereas absolute music celebrates the pure music, program music is “about something.”
Start with program music. Imagining a visual or literary story makes understanding classical music much easier and enjoyable.
Hector Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique is the musical story about an artist who has poisoned himself with opium out of agony for his hopeless love.
Modest Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition narrates the composer’s experience of walking through a gallery of 10 paintings - some freaky and nasty, some gorgeous.
Camille Saint-Saens’ Carnival of the Animals showcases lions, bears, and more. “The Swan,” the most famous movement, is a lyrical swan’s cry.
Gustav Holst’s Planets. The composer musically interprets every planet’s astrological character in the Solar System (without Pluto!). “Jupiter, Bringer of Jollity” is my favorite.
Bedrich Smetena’s “Die Moldau” describes the Moldau River as it courses through Bohemia and ends in Prague. Celebrating country life in Eastern Europe, it forms the basis of the Israeli national anthem. Smetena said it starts:
“...from the two small springs, the Cold and Warm Vltava, to the unification of both streams into a single current, the course of the Vltava through woods and meadows, through landscapes where a farmer's wedding is celebrated, the round dance of the mermaids in the night's moonshine: on the nearby rocks loom proud castles, palaces and ruins aloft...”
Claude Debussy. As an “impressionist” composer, this French pianist wrote so many pieces on everything from the most subtle, detailed description of the ocean to a sunken cathedral that rises from the sea on a clear morning to Spanish Granada. He drew inspiration from everything including nature, mythology, and Shakespeare. He used Javanese, Arabic, and Western scales to write his music. Maurice Ravel is his musical cousin.
George Gershwin’s An American in Paris evokes the sounds and sights of Paris, car horns honking and all. He was inspired to write Rhapsody in Blue, the “kaleidoscope of America... of our metropolitan madness,” while listening to the sounds of the train to Boston. Both pieces are vibrant fusions of jazz and classical music.
4) Become acquainted with the celebrities and the “pop” mainstream versions of the classical music world. To ease yourself in and to enjoy genuinely entertaining things.
Read about the epic lives of classical music celebrities, such as the crossover Yo-Yo Ma, dramatic Jacqueline DuPré, Maestro Leonard Bernstein, Soviet-oppressed Dmitri Shostakovich, and more. And look at photos of Charlie Siem and Lola Astanova.
Movie soundtracks. Listen to famous movie orchestral soundtracks, then re-watch the movies. Such a different way to experience the film! John Williams’ Star Wars, Michael Giacchino’s soundtracks to Pixar films, Howard Shore’s Lord of the Rings, Ennio Morricone’s anything.
Video game music. Mario Bros. themes, Zelda, Final Fantasy, and more.
Hollywood films about music. Amadaeus, Oscar-winning film about Mozart, and Hillary and Jackie, about brilliant cellist Jacqueline DuPré who is destroyed by multiple sclerosis, are two great dramatizations of classical music giants.
5) Pick up an instrument. Just learn a few ditties on the piano or guitar. You don’t need to be at professional level, but knowing some basic music skills personalizes the performances you watch on stage.
6) Realize that classical musicians are not just Carnegie Hall statues. They panhandle on subways; they pay taxes; they eat junk food. Read the biographies and listen to the style of one or two living classical performers and make a point to see them. Or choose one historically famous performer and get to know his or her life. Like touching an instrument, knowing the personal narratives of these seemingly ice-cold-snobby performers will personalize the experience.
7) As much as we want it to change, embrace it for what it is. Yeah, the classical music world is not perfect. Some of the rituals may seem mindlessly traditional and stifling. But in the end, it’s about the music and these minor details shouldn’t matter. Moreover, there are reasons these traditions have survived, aside from self-righteous snobbery. The reverential attitude, though flawed in some cases, is meant to serve the musician and the music. Silence until the end of the piece, for example, allows everyone in the concert hall to focus on and respect the music. You wouldn’t stand directly in front of a painting to ruin everyone else’s visual experience. The same rule applies to classical music performances. It’s okay to feel not-used-to-it, but don’t say you want to understand a world without embracing its rules.
Bonus tips: 1) Piano works best on public transportation - after years of experimentation I find the timbre somehow works best against the noise of trains and buses. 2) Never listen to Beethoven with earbuds because adjusting to the schizophrenic changes in volume will drive you nuts. 3) Last but not least, don’t illegally download! Unlike pop and rock music, classical music sounds so much worse through sketchy .mp3 files. Just buy it - it’s worth hearing every moment of friction of a horsehair bow, and even the old men coughing between movements.