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.


A matter of debate: the relevance of classical music to today’s youth

Tonight, the Cambridge Union sees author, actor and broadcaster Stephen Fry take on Radio 1 DJ Kissy Sell Out in a debate over the statement ‘Classical music is irrelevant to today’s youth.’

Debating hall

Hall of Debate: image credit Oxford Royale Academy

Now, there are gazillions of reasons on either side of this issue, too numerous to go into here: my only question is whether ‘irrelevant’ is the right term here: is ‘relevancy’ itself relevant ? Is it the right question to be asking ?

There are many issues of relevance to youth, but deciding what is and what isn’t comes down to questions of taste, interest, culture, upbringing, and so forth: skateboarding, for instance, is a hugely popular pastime, but is it ‘relevant’ ? Asking whether music is relevant is like asking whether skateboarding is relevant.

Education and the culture of the domestic environment may make young people ‘aware’ of these things, but it’s surely up to the individual person to decide what’s relevant to them, and what isn’t. Parental interests and school curriculum priorities may furnish children with the opportunity to explore painting, music, literature, skateboarding, kite-surfing and the like, but they will come to them for themselves. Defining onself is what adolescence, in part, is all about.

Perhaps the issue should be over accessibility: ‘Classical music is inaccessible to today’s youth’ ?’

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