Classical Music Appreciation: Challenges & Rewards

[This post is #2 in the West­ern Clas­si­cal Music Series]

After briefly under­stand­ing what is West­ern Clas­si­cal Music, let us think about some of the chal­lenges involved in appre­ci­at­ing it, and why it’s still worth it.

Challenges

Complexity & Patience

Under­stand­ing clas­si­cal can be dif­fi­cult and takes patience. While you may become famil­iar with a pop­u­lar track the 2nd or 3rd time you lis­ten to it, most WCM works take dozens of repeat­ed lis­ten­ing ses­sions to acquire basic famil­iar­i­ty.

The length of many WCM works is anoth­er issue. You can’t just spend 5 min­utes lis­ten­ing, enjoy­ing, and mov­ing on; most works range between 25 to 45 min­utes.

Enjoy­ing pop­u­lar music typ­i­cal­ly involves con­scious­ly lis­ten­ing to the vocals, while enjoy­ing the instru­men­ta­tion only dur­ing the inter­ludes. Lis­ten­ing to mul­ti­ple things at once doesn’t come eas­i­ly, and can be over­whelm­ing.

Tip: Not all WCM is com­plex. You can move from a gra­di­ent that starts with sim­ple works and pro­gres­sive­ly move to more and more com­plex works.

For exam­ple, does this seem dif­fi­cult?

Or this?

Lack of Access to Live Concerts

WCM is best enjoyed lis­ten­ing live. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, you may not have easy access to live per­for­mances of WCM espe­cial­ly in coun­tries like India.

Tips: Today, there are sev­er­al WCM soci­eties spread across urban India where not only can you learn WCM for­mal­ly, but also attend live con­certs. For exam­ple, in Del­hi, Mum­bai, Pune, Ban­ga­lore, etc. Also, it is not nec­es­sary that you attend a live con­cert first in order to start appre­ci­at­ing WCM. The first time I attend­ed a live WCM con­cert was about 8–10 years after I start­ed lis­ten­ing and study­ing.

Playback Equipment & Environment

The require­ments of your play­back equip­ment and envi­ron­ment for WCM are rel­a­tive­ly strin­gent. You need a greater lev­el of ambi­ent silence. The acoustic deci­bel range of WCM is quite wide, so when lis­ten­ing to the soft­er pieces appro­pri­ate­ly, your vol­ume lev­el becomes quite high dur­ing oth­er times when the whole orches­tra reach­es a cli­max.

Tip: If you do not have the appro­pri­ate equip­ment and ambi­ence, lis­ten to WCM on head­phones. I start­ed with and con­tin­ued for sev­er­al years lis­ten­ing to WCM on head­phones on a Sony Walk­man using old cas­sette tapes.

Lack of Familiarity & Culture

If you like WCM, you may feel like liv­ing on a dif­fer­ent plan­et, with appar­ent­ly nobody around you inter­est­ed in it. You may not have grown up lis­ten­ing to WCM which alien­ates you fur­ther. Elders around you may pas­sion­ate­ly gush about Ustaad Vilay­at Khan or some­one else, while there is nobody to lis­ten when you want to pas­sion­ate­ly gush about Beethoven. You might even face resis­tance and admo­ni­tion if you express an inter­est in WCM while seem­ing­ly remain­ing igno­rant about your own cul­tur­al her­itage.

Tips: I learnt to appre­ci­ate WCM all by myself dur­ing the late 80s, when there was no Inter­net. Today, you have access to the web and social net­works, where con­nect­ing with oth­er enthu­si­asts is much sim­pler. You are not alone, there are many, many peo­ple who may be feel­ing just like you do. Also, you may already be famil­iar with a lot of works in WCM and just not know it. We will cov­er how WCM is used in numer­ous movies (and adver­tise­ments) lat­er, which might be a new dis­cov­ery for you, where your response would start with – “Oh this? I nev­er knew…”.
Final­ly, remem­ber that all music is uni­ver­sal. By appre­ci­at­ing WCM you are not dis­re­spect­ing or ignor­ing any oth­er tra­di­tion­al music or her­itage. In fact, if you are able to appre­ci­ate the fun­da­men­tal dif­fer­ences between WCM and say, Hin­dus­tani Clas­si­cal, you will gain more insight into Hin­dus­tani Clas­si­cal than you would have if you had ignored WCM alto­geth­er.

Does this work seem famil­iar?

Rewards

If you are read­ing this, there is real­ly no need for me to describe the ful­fill­ment of appre­ci­at­ing WCM, but I’ll express a few points any­way.

WCM is Rich, both Intellectually & Emotionally

The depth of intel­lec­tu­al sat­is­fac­tion you can get from Clas­si­cal Music (Indi­an or West­ern) is unpar­al­leled. The rewards are pro­por­tion­al to the effort you put in. It is for a rea­son that such music is described as “Clas­si­cal” in the first place!

Are You A Nerd?

Here are 7 Rea­sons Nerds Should Lis­ten To West­ern Clas­si­cal Music, extreme­ly well-artic­u­lat­ed.

Making Friends: Part I

If you dive into appre­ci­at­ing WCM, you will make new friends in real life. Yes, pre­cise­ly those peo­ple who also feel they’re liv­ing on a dif­fer­ent plan­et. They will have found some­one to talk to, and you will form a bond.

Making Friends: Part II

If you are a good friend of any­one, you know that lis­ten­ing is a very impor­tant part of friend­ship. Well, in WCM, you can make friends with Com­posers. These com­posers come from dif­fer­ent eras, with dif­fer­ent skills, dif­fer­ing per­son­al­i­ties, dif­fer­ing ide­olo­gies. Once you under­stand about the life of a com­pos­er very close­ly,  he becomes an inti­mate friend.

Just like you get to know a friend by know­ing some­thing about his back­ground, you get to know a WCM com­pos­er inti­mate­ly by know­ing his back­ground. This is a key aspect of appre­ci­at­ing WCM – if you want to appre­ci­ate a work, you’ve got to get inside the mind of the com­pos­er and under­stand the con­text of his life when he com­posed it. The reward? See Part III.

Making Friends: Part III

Once you have ful­ly appre­ci­at­ed a WCM work, it itself becomes a friend. Believe me, it does. Once you know a WCM work inti­mate­ly, appre­ci­ate its nuances, it becomes a rock that you can turn to any time in your life. WCM has a last­ing per­ma­nence, that has sur­vived cen­turies, so it should be no sur­prise.

Next, let us look at the dif­fer­ences between West­ern Clas­si­cal and Indi­an Clas­si­cal Music.

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  • Vivaldi’s Four Sea­sons prob­a­bly make a good start. They’re pop­u­lar, upbeat, very hum­ma­ble and make pleas­ant ear worms. More impor­tant­ly, they’re easy to iden­ti­fy & repro­duce at a sim­pli­fied lev­el; that in itself is an incen­tive.

    -g

  • Yes absolute­ly. I was going to ref­er­ence Four Sea­sons lat­er! 🙂

    Four Sea­sons is a great piece of work for begin­ners. It is said that sick peo­ple used to lis­ten to it for get­ting bet­ter 🙂

    • K

      Thank you for writ­ing this! May I also offer a hum­ble sug­ges­tion about a starter piece apart from “The Four Sea­sons”?

      Mine would be Rimsky-Korsakov’s “The Flight of the Bum­ble­bee”, (lift­ed straight out of “Shine” for added effect).

      • Thank you, K.

        That is an excel­lent sug­ges­tion! I was going to make a list of rec­om­mend­ed intro­duc­to­ry works in a sep­a­rate post; will include this 🙂

  • Diaz Sam­era

    Nice post

  • Pingback: Western Classical vs. Indian Classical Music | An Unquiet Mind()

  • I found my first reward already. I have been lis­ten­ing to the church music vari­ety of WCM, espe­cial­ly Gre­go­ri­an Chants. The church music is Catholic and my fam­i­ly is Protes­tent. This is my first glimpse into Catholic denom­i­na­tion and giv­en my inter­est in reli­gions, this is a deli­cious truf­fle. Will take me a lot of patience, per­se­ver­ance and focus to under­stand WCM but your posts are excel­lent cat­a­lysts 🙂 Thanks for tak­ing time out and writ­ing these down.

    • Great! Thank you for the kind words and encour­age­ment! 🙂