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! 🙂