Classical music is not for you

Hello; thank you for this opportunity to speak to you all, and for the chance to help explain why the difficult sphere of classical music is most definitely not for you. Feel free to ask questions as we go along.

As you all know, classical music is immensely difficult to understand, and can only really be fully appreciated by connoisseurs who have taken many years to study it in some considerable depth, often at degree level and  beyond. It is well known that, without many years of rigorous grounding in the academic analysis of classical music, listeners cannot really get anything out of the experience. Classical music is very much an intellectual exercise, where only the truly attentive and well-schooled listener can genuinely appreciate the many levels across which a piece of music is unfolding; many hours of formal analysis are required in order to unlock a full appreciation of music’s structural and tonal architecture, backed up by many, many hours of listening

You have a question ? Please. Do you have to understand all this to enjoy a piece of music ? Well, yes of course. What’s that ? Can one simply listen to the surface texture ? Well, yes I suppose you could, although that wouldn’t be half so gratifying. Listening to the music for the sake of texture is perhaps one way of listening, but not the only way.

I’m sorry ? Spectralists, did you say ? Well, yes, there are certain composers for whom the texture of a sound, indeed of sound itself, is an important aspect of composing, indeed some might say the most important. So, yes, I suppose listening to just the sound will suffice. But that won’t help one appreciate the underlying harmonic relationships operating in a piece of music, the laws governing cyclical harmonic relationships and the over-arching tonal unity involved.

What’s that ? Serialism, you say ? Well, of course, strict serial composition attempts to escape from a formal tonal hierarchy, and seeks to liberate each semitone to a status equal to all the others, so, well, I suppose there are some pieces where tonal listening is not appropriate. But some composers combined serial practices with tonal relationships – Berg, for instance.  But serialism really benefits from close analysis, where pleasure can be had from spotting retrograde inversions and hexachordal combinatoriality being deployed. What ? Can you really hear such devices in use in a piece ? Well, no, not usually.

And tonality; the founding concept governing classical music, the structural device operating across the very fabric of the musical language itself. Many years of harmonic studies are needed in order to really appreciate how music works in this regard

Pardon ?

Well, yes, I suppose that’s not wholly relevant after the early twentieth century, you’re right. Serialism and the era of post-tonality mean that tonality is either abandoned or operates differently. But think of all the music before then. Whole-tonality represented one of the first attempts to move beyond the scope of orthodox tonal systems, in Wagner and Debussy in particular.

Go on ? Impressionist ? Yes, Debussy was part of the Impressionist school. And yes, emphasis was placed on colour. What ? Well, yes, I suppose you can just listen to the sounds being made and enjoy them just as they are. But there’s much more to it than that… Well, yes, Debussy did say ”You merely have to listen. Pleasure is the law.” And composers like Takemitsu, for example, employed some aspects of serialism and whole-tonality with a love of the colour of sound, it’s true. On reflection, I suppose you could argue that you can listen to Takemitsu for the sheer pleasure of the soundworld.

Hello ? Rhythm ? Well, yes, for some composers, rhythm was of primary importance in music. I mean, listen to Bartok, say, or Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. Now that is a difficult piece, isn’t it ? Extremely challenging harmonically, with its use of octatonic chords and iso-rhythms. It is jolly hard. What ? Well, yes, youth orchestras can play it, certainly. And jolly well too..

To listen to classical music successfully, with real insight,  is to be able to follow all the composer’s creation, with intense study of the way in which Western music is notated necessary to being able to read the score. A musical score is a very precise set of instructions passed from the composer to the performer, with the full weight of over five hundred years of exactitude.

I’m sorry ? Well, yes, John Cage was an exponent of aleatoric music, where some factors are left to chance and are outside the control of either performer or composer. But you have to ask yourself if that’s not just a fad, really, don’t you ? Of course you have to be able to read music to understand it.

Sorry ? Gut reaction ? Well, I mean, yes, we all have an instinctive reaction to a piece, but is that really enough ? Your first emotional reaction to a piece must be tempered by an understanding of the compositional forces at work, in order for your reaction to have any worth, obviously. No ? Well, you can’t simply say ”I don’t like that!” without really being able to say why, can you ? Why should your emotional response to music be important ? It’s the intellectual response that is the only genuine one, isn’t it, where the brain understands where the heart does not. You can’t simply listen to colour and texture and sound without recourse to an analytical perception, can you ? That’s just listening for pleasure without reason.

I’m sorry ? Well, yes, pleasure is an important factor in your response. But it’s not valid without some sort of clarified reasoning behind it. After all, if just anyone were allowed to listen to a piece and make up their own mind about their response to it, then music theorists and analysts and critics and writers would be out of a job, wouldn’t they ? And we wouldn’t want to add to the burden of unemployment, surely ? Especially in the current financial climate. By re-iterating the conceit that classical music is jolly intellectual and the privilege of only an educated and enlightened few, such people can keep themselves in valuable jobs explaining to others how they should be listening to music whilst also reminding them how jolly difficult all this is.

Which brings me back to where this talk began. I hope you have enjoyed this brief look at the difficult world of classical music, and feel reassured that, without being armed with all manner of highly important intellectual tools, you can’t possibly hope to even begin to approach classical music in all its rigorous and challenging pleasure. You can’t just listen to it and simply decide whether you like it or not; after all, anyone can do that, can’t they ?

Thank you for your kind attention.


Shine a Light: the value of Tim Howell

It’s been with pleasure and nervousness that I’ve been listening to the voice of Dr. Tim Howell on  Radio 3 this week. Composer of the Week this week is focusing on Finnish composers, and noted exponent of Finnish music Tim Howell is featured in each programme.

At the Finnish: Sibelius the Progressive

Pleasure comes from listening to Tim talk engagingly and enlighteningly about developments in Finnish music. Nervousness comes from remembering my days as an undergraduate at York, at which Tim was my tutor, and tutorials spent sitting in Tim’s office with another meagre offering of coursework, demonstrating some unenlightened and highly derivative, lacklustre thinking, gleaned second-hand from a number of sources uncited in my bibliography, in the hope that Tim wouldn’t realise who had written about all my ideas already. (It never worked).

Tim’s attitude to musical analysis was neatly summed up during a memorable induction session at York, when all the lecturers gathered in a seminar room to introduce themselves and their area of specialism to all the new students. In front of a packed room, each member of staff introduced their topic, and a running joke began to emerge based around twelve-tone composition; one introduced himself as being a Composer Directly in the Tradition of the Second Viennese School, the next a performance specialist Diametrically Opposed to twelve-tone composition, one an Earnest Music Theatre exponent who wanted to explore the humour in serialism from a music theatre perspective (work that one out); last in line, Tim waited a beat and dryly said; ‘’ I’m Tim Howell, specialising in music analysis: I look at twelve-tone music and wonder where the humour has gone.’ Instantly, gales of appreciative laughter filled the room, and the ice (as well as a few bubbles of self-inflated pomposity) was broken.

I attended a rich variety of modules as part of my studies, the value of some of which was a mystery to me: usually, those that involved students lying on the floor singing ‘Scarborough Fair’ in their own time and at their own pitch (oh, please) or devising new notational systems from bits of twigs and string like musicological Boy Scouts. Tim’s seminars, however, were different. Taking a piece of music apart, I found he was gradually shining a light through the interstices of music, explaining what was happening and why. Tim always related analysis to the music itself, exploring not just what forces were at work in a piece of music but also what the effect of their unfolding was; analysis informing a musical appreciation, rather than simply being an intellectual exercise. I often lost sight of this, bogged down in looking at harmonic relationships and large-scale formal procedures. Tim never did.

This was good stuff, and I started going to more of Tim’s sessions that weren’t necessarily modules I was studying. I found sessions not just on Sibelius but other composers – Debussy, Stravinsky, Brahms – that were opening doors into new ways of thinking (for me, Mr. Second-Hand Insight, at least) about wider music. Analysis turned from being a dry, academic exercise to an exciting odyssey through new music, and an appreciation of composers grappling with formal and tonal progressive practices, driving music forward in their desire to develop a new language, a new architecture, that transformed music history from a succession of individual techniques into a vibrant, living force.

Looking back, these sessions have informed my own professional musical practices; in ensemble working, it often helps the performers understand the value of their own part if they can see the importance of their line to the whole – why a particular note or sonority is important, why the harmony is working as it does across a given moment, where the ideas have come from, how they are handled.

In the new era of increased tuition fees, where emphasis is placed on the Student Experience and the difficult of quantifying how students get ‘value for money,’ for students studying music at York, the answer is actually very simple: go to as many of Tim Howell’s seminars as you can. You won’t be disappointed.

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