Help me develop an ear for classical music.
October 8, 2010 6:49 PM   Subscribe

Help me develop an ear for classical music.

I come from a very musically talented family. My grandmother, a concert pianist and my grandfather, a violinist, both have dedicated their lives to their art and started out in the Paris Conservatoire at a ridiculously young age.

While I don't have their talent (I dabble in guitar and piano), I would like to develop an ear for classical music. I hear my mother talk about how the Cleveland Orchestra differs from the Philadelphia Orchestra, how "so and so" is awful, or "so and so" is incredibly talented, and well, I just don't have the ear to tell the difference.

If someone could point me to some relevant online information, it would be greatly appreciated.

Thank you
posted by DeltaForce to Media & Arts (18 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
There are two types of classical music fans: those who are fans of performers and interpreters, and those who are fans of composers. It sounds like you're trying to become the former,1 and in particular to be able to differentiate between performances.

You might try picking a very well-known piece (Beethoven's "Eroica" symphony, perhaps?) and obtain a few recordings of it by different orchestras. Be sure to pick orchestras from different countries, too — don't listen to only American orchestras, only British orchestras, only German orchestras, etc. Pick one of these recordings and listen to it a few times, so that you become familiar with the piece. If you find yourself humming it to yourself idly, that's a good level of familiarity with it.

Now listen to another recording of it. If you've familiarized yourself with this first recording, the second recording will sound at least little odd to you. The tempos will be different; the sections of the orchestra will be balanced differently; the conductor may add rubato and ritenuto that you're not expecting. Listen to the bits that surprise you, and try to figure out why they're different than in the first recording. Do these changes "work" for you, or do they detract from the piece for you? You may find that you don't like a lot of the differences, simply because they're different from what you're used to. Try to resist this impulse.

Continue to listen to other recordings, and figure out which ones you prefer and which ones you dislike. You can then repeat the process with another major work. Ideally, try to have some overlap between the orchestras & conductors whose recordings of the first symphonies you listened to, and listen for commonalities between the two recordings by the same orchestra. Does one orchestra have a particularly clear brass sound? Particularly vibrant strings? Does one conductor tend to tweak the tempo a lot more than another?

Eventually, you'll be able to express opinions on how particular orchestras & conductors differ. But you won't be able to do so without listening to a lot of music. Not that listening to a lot of music is in any way a bad thing; just be sure to enjoy the trip!

1 Caveat: I'm a classical fan myself, but I'm much more a fan of composers, not performers. To be honest, I don't entirely understand the former type of fan. While I don't deny that a great performance can enrich my enjoyment and appreciation of a work, the genius of the work itself always outshines the genius of the interpretation, at least for me. So it's possible that the above is not the best way to develop an ear for the differences in interpretations, because what would I know about that?
posted by Johnny Assay at 8:03 PM on October 8, 2010 [4 favorites]

Let me preface this by saying that I am not a musician, nor do I have a particularly developed ear. That said, the people that I've met who are best able to describe the sonic nuances of music are, well, musicians. Perhaps increasing the amount of time you spent dabbling in piano would help tune your ear?
posted by Gin and Comics at 8:03 PM on October 8, 2010

Alongside Johnny's recommendations -

Listen to one piece, become familiar with it. Preferably pick a well-done piece, that is fairly popular. Ask your mother for recommendations.

Become familiar with it, then go on youtube and look up a high school orchestra performing the same piece. What's different? Why? What makes it good? What makes it bad?

Now, look up a different symphony orchestra performing the same piece. What's different? Why? What makes it good? What makes it bad?

Lather, rinse, repeat.
posted by kellygrape at 8:06 PM on October 8, 2010

Yeah, you can only develop taste through practice. I would recommend reading along in scores, too, sometimes -- if you can see how the composer expressed something in writing, it can help you understand what the orchestra is trying (and succeeding, or failing) to do.
posted by No-sword at 8:09 PM on October 8, 2010

It isn't clear to me what you're really asking.

Is your goal to have "an ear for classical music," whatever that entails? Are you just assuming that it entails being able to tell a better orchestra from a worse orchestra, but you're open to different ideas about what it entails?

Or is your goal just to be able to tell a better orchestra from a worse one -- period?

Those are very, very different questions. I can't tell how much knowledge of classical music you already have, what your goals are, and what's the intended focus of your question. So I'm not sure what advice to give.

If you asked me if I have "an ear for classical music," I'd say yes, a very good one. But I couldn't tell you anything about which orchestras are better than which other ones.

If you're asking the broader question, I recommend getting a bunch of music recordings based on this book, and listening repeatedly to a given composition until you start getting a lot of them.

If you don't already have a taste for classical music (e.g. you have certain favorite composers, and favorite compositions by those composers, and you enjoy listening to them on a regular or semi-regular basis), I think you'd be getting way ahead of yourself by trying to distinguish among orchestras. I even think you'd be getting ahead of yourself if you tried to distinguish among conductors, and that's easier than orchestras.
posted by John Cohen at 8:27 PM on October 8, 2010 [2 favorites]

I would adopt the advice given above, but add that you start with a series of short works viz. Chopin Preludes or Nocturnes or even some Beethoven named sonatas..etc. The A/B comparison will be quicker and more apparent.
posted by Gyan at 8:30 PM on October 8, 2010

Follow your intuition. Everything is beautiful.
posted by ovvl at 8:42 PM on October 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

listening repeatedly to a given composition until you start getting a lot of them.

Sorry, I didn't word this very well. I meant: for any given composition, listen to it until you start to "get" it -- meaning you enjoy listening to it, you find it moving, you recognize the different melodic themes (you don't feel like you're hearing one random melody after another), you perceive it as having a unique character rather than sounding like generic "classical music," etc. Do this over and over.
posted by John Cohen at 8:53 PM on October 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

Johnny Assay is right about the composers vs. performers difference. The latter is definitely the more difficult aspect to understand. I have a pretty good familiarity with classical composers, but can't really hear the differences between orchestras. My dad tells me that the Cleveland and Chicago symphonies sound completely different, but he has been a professional musician for the last 30 some years and so has played the standard rep over and over and over. Distinguishing the differences between performances of the same piece is definitely one of the more challenging aspects of classical music, so I wouldn't expect it to come easily, especially if you don't have a strong understanding of classical music to start with. Obtaining recordings from different performers and trying to find the differences is probably the best bet, but I'd add that you might want to break each movement up into smaller chunks to compare. I always found that listening to a whole movement was too much to remember if I tried to compare it to a different performance afterwards. The other commenters are correct in saying that you need to know a particular work inside and out to be able to compare performances.
posted by kiltedtaco at 10:03 PM on October 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

Also, on the composition side I recommend watching "Leonard Bernstein's omnibus", a tv series from the 50's. I wish I had more works to recommend that were similar, but I don't know any. I look forward to the other suggestions people might have.
posted by kiltedtaco at 10:07 PM on October 8, 2010 [3 favorites]

Well, I found that learning some musicology, i.e. the history and theory of the pieces I was listening to, really helped me to listen better. While I agree with Johnny Assay about the two kinds of fans, I also think that the knowledge of each kind of fan is useful and helpful to the other. The advice you've been getting so far is good.

Also, if you are able to do so, listen with a score in front of you. You'll start noticing bits of the music that just went right by you before.
posted by bardophile at 11:24 PM on October 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

I think you can be a happy lover of classical music without necessarily becoming either a fan of the music or one of the interpreters - you may end up combining these inclinations or just go without taking a 'fan' stance at all. The parameters responsible for one conductor/orchestra/pianist/musical approach being perceived as fantastic and the other as not fantastic are so many that you can afford to tread lightly around this issue and learn to appreciate the music as well as the musicians by listening to it/them and perhaps (if that's your thing) reading up about it/them.

I mean, we're talking about what the audience as a whole, and as individuals, perceives as charismatic, energetic, musical, true-to-the-score (based on things like: period-performance rules as we think we know they were; performance preferences of our time; some details that we've heard "differently" in other performances; mistakes and out-of-tune passages; tempo; etc.), technically adequate, stunning, boring etc. etc. These are unlikely things that can be settled for once and all, and you're not required to be able to do so before you can call yourself a classical music lover.

The mechanisms of positioning by pronouncing one's taste make that all this seems like it's a gigantic can of worms, that the finding of standpoints is the most important part of the game, and that especially the vociferous dismissal of certain styles, genres and performers is essential. But at the end of the day it's only about whether a stretch of music-filled time appealed to you or not.

[I was for a long time a fan of Vladimir Ashkenazy, although I knew by ways of my professional education that he sometimes didn't do the score the justice I should be expecting him to do, especially in Beethoven and Mozart (and recently: Bach), and although many of his performances during the 80s were loud and clangorous. No matter, his rough "little guy puts all his weight into these chords"- tone was what I needed at that time to round off my day, so I went with it. I still check out his videos on youtube. If you do this too, don't ever look at the comments people make on youtube classical vids. They're always horrible]
posted by Namlit at 2:16 AM on October 9, 2010

"Dabble" is quite vague- if you're up to it, you could listen to Glenn Gould and Angela Hewitt interpreting the same piece by Bach and then try to play the same piece yourself in those different styles. Look at the score, see how they follow, ignore, or exaggerate instructions.

I guess you won't have the opportunity to do the same thing with conducting, but once you've looked at that level of detail, you'll be able to spot the little decisions that make a big difference.
posted by Wrinkled Stumpskin at 6:16 AM on October 9, 2010

Search through your local library catalog for How to Listen to and Understand Great Music, which is one of those "Great Courses" cd series by the Teaching Company. I've really enjoyed all of these courses that I've tried, and it's really nice to be able to listen to something interesting like this in the car on my morning commute.
posted by belau at 6:36 AM on October 9, 2010 [3 favorites]

I'm very happy to see the comment about listening to composers vs performers. I'm totally a composer person and have had trouble understanding performance oriented people. I'm not sure one can switch even if it's possible to understand the differences. I became very familiar with a particular recording while working through it thinking about some choreography (Frank violin sonata) Now every other performance I hear is "just wrong" in some way, tempo, emphasis, cuts. Of course none are "wrong" but it did highlight many very specific differences.

Also remember there are many trends in music in regards to performance elements, and while there can be bad performances, just because it's not to someone's taste or current fashion, if you like it, enjoy.
posted by sammyo at 8:23 AM on October 9, 2010

... listen to Glenn Gould and Angela Hewitt

Argh, there we go. I need to modify my previous comment in which I falsely pretended to possess a balanced and detached mindset around musical taste, which I apparently don't.
As soon as I, namely, read the names Gould and Hewitt in the connection with Bach, I thought "no, not those!" [no offense intended; just to explain that:] clearly there's something more and deeper down going on when it comes to listening to people playing music, classical or otherwise.

What I meant earlier is that the goal for the newcomer to classical music shouldn't be to become opinionated (as everyone else seems to be), the goal should be to learn to enjoy it.
posted by Namlit at 8:41 AM on October 9, 2010

This post is going to be a little long :) However, I hope it will be helpful to you. Forgive me if I tell you anything you already know. First, I want to say that I totally disagree with polarizing classical music lovers as 'performer people or composer people'. That's like saying there are 'cat people and dog people'. Well sure, many people like one or the other more but other people, like me, like and care about both to varying degrees. Don't let anyone tell you this early what kind of classical listener you may or may not be. By the way, I am a musician and listener.

First, you should know that there are different types of 'classical' music. They are fairly different from one another and you may like some better than others. The following is a brief outline of some of the main types of classical music. In my humble opinion, knowing a little bit about the history of different types of music really helps you to appreciate it and know what parts may be important. I would suggest that you find a type that appeals to you, and then a composer, and start there:

Baroque music has a lot of repetition of theme and composition. It also has flourishes here and there that make it quite beautiful. It is an early type of classical music.

Classical music is a little more playful than Baroque music, but it is still mathematical to the ear with repetition, etc. It is one of the most widely popular types of 'classical' music. Many familiar composers come from this time.

Romantic music features much more musical variation in a single piece and is much less predictable. It plays with dynamics (how loud and soft the music is) more. It is my personal favorite type of classical music.

20th Century or Contemporary music is the most varied type. Composers play with all kinds of things. Some of the stuff from the past twenty years in particular can get quite weird, with music written in a circle instead of a line, lots of dissonance (when two notes clash with each other and sound jarring), etc.

I think you should go to the library and get a few collections and listen to them all the way through. Then, go back later and get the same music by different performers and critique them based on both your own personal taste and also the genre features. How are they presenting the theme? Is the tempo too fast or too slow? etc.

I hope this was helpful and I wish you luck as you learn to critique classical music.
posted by delicate_dahlias at 12:13 PM on October 9, 2010 [6 favorites]

posted by John Cohen at 8:17 AM on October 10, 2010

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