How do I learn to fully appreciate classical music?
February 18, 2015 5:40 AM   Subscribe

I have recently become fascinated by Beethoven’s 9th, 8th and 5th symphonies, partly because I am familiar with some of the historical/philosophical context. I study and am familiar with the history of modern European philosophy (including Enlightenment philosophy and German Idealism) which I suspect could give me a beneficial entryway into the world of classical music. Can anyone recommend a method or approach to appreciating classical music more? Does anyone have suggestions for the best pieces and composers to set out with?
posted by nagoya to Society & Culture (20 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
Could you clarify whether you mean small-c-classical (i.e., the whole genre of music) or large-C-Classical (i.e., the period of classical music that ends roughly with Beethoven)?

(Plus, not to go all lawyerly, but "appreciation"... do you simply want to enhance your enjoyment of this music? To cultivate a formal understanding of what's going on in musical terms? To understand how particular works functioned within a social/historical context? Because I think your path would probably be different depending on what kind of appreciation you'd ultimately like to achieve.)
posted by Bardolph at 5:48 AM on February 18, 2015 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Apologies for the lack of specificity!

I meant small-c classical (perhaps what people would call "European art music"?), i.e. the genre, not the period.

Probably all of the types of appreciation you mention!
posted by nagoya at 5:53 AM on February 18, 2015

I really enjoyed Robert Greenberg’s lectures from The Great Courses (they’re expensive but lots of public libraries stock them--and the audio versions are fine, you don't need video). “How to Listen to and Understand Great Music” is a good introduction and might help you narrow down what you appreciate. His lectures are funny and accessible but with plenty of insight and context.
posted by bcwinters at 6:10 AM on February 18, 2015 [5 favorites]

You might enjoy watching the Disney classic Fantasia. There are two parts/versions, one made in 1940, the other in 2000. It's a great introduction to classical music, and it's fun. Meant for kids, but honestly, who cares?
posted by Too-Ticky at 6:11 AM on February 18, 2015

The Rest is Noise is a fantastic read, absolutely fascinating, that traces the evolution of contemporary classical music from Strauss' Salome in the early 20th century right up to the present day. It will give you a sense of the historic context for many of the key musical pieces of this time period. And it is an absolutely gripping read with a suggested audio guide that you can access on the website. So you have a ready made list of pieces to listen to and you'll be able to understand what the heck's actually going on in them.

I find it easier to appreciate a piece of classical music when you know what's happening in the piece, what external factors it's responding to, what's going on technically. Ross is great with all that.

Another book I found very useful was What to Listen For in Music by the contemporary American composer Aaron Copland (whose work is discussed in detail in the Ross). Copland breaks down classical music symphonies into their individual components so that you get a better idea of the structure of what you are listening to, but he does it in a very lucid and readable way. This is a quick and undemanding read which will still leave you with a good understanding of what is actually going on in the music.
posted by Ziggy500 at 6:27 AM on February 18, 2015 [1 favorite]

Learn to recognize the tune "Dies Irae". This is the fastest shortcut to feeling smart about classical music.

Since you're interested in German Idealism, maybe try learning a bit about Wagner? That will lead you in two different directions: backwards, towards the music he is responding to, reacting against, and attempting to emulate, and forwards, into the music that responds to, reacts against, and emulates his.
posted by mskyle at 7:10 AM on February 18, 2015

Most of the classic music listening I've done has happened over FM classical music radio stations over the years. I never really liked much of what they played and decided that, oh well, I guess I didn't like classical music. Really much to cheerful, baroque, and busy. No soul.

I recently discovered the "The Dark Side of.." classical music series which has really opened my eyes to a darker, more soulful side of classical music.

The Dark Side of Classical Music
The Dark Side of Chopin
The Dark Side of Tchaikovsky
posted by Captain Chesapeake at 9:20 AM on February 18, 2015 [2 favorites]

Learn to recognize the tune "Dies Irae". This is the fastest shortcut to feeling smart about classical music.

Don't quite understand this -- there are about a zillion different Dies Iraes in Requiem Masses spanning several centuries. Can you clarify?

Second the recommendation for the Copland book; years ago I gave it to a boyfriend whose tastes ranged pretty much from KISS to more KISS, and he got a lot out of it.

I would also highly recommend Leonard Bernstein's Young People's Concerts, if you can get your hands on them. It's a series of music appreciation concerts, and contrary to the name, they're totally suitable for adults as well as kids. Bernstein was a superb teacher, and these broadcasts are really valuable if you want to learn more about this genre.
posted by holborne at 10:29 AM on February 18, 2015

Another series of Bernstein lectures, The Unanswered Question is also well worth a watch.

There was also a terrific series on the BBC called Symphony, presented by actor (and very handy amateur tenor) Simon Russell Beale.
posted by dogsbody at 10:47 AM on February 18, 2015 [1 favorite]

There's a Coursera course that has a rolling start date and work-at-your-own-pace timing called "Exploring Beethoven's Piano Sonatas" I've been listening to it in the background while doing stuff and it's been interesting and gives context to Beethoven's time and relevance to other composers of the era.
posted by WeekendJen at 10:52 AM on February 18, 2015

Among my friends who appreciate classical music, there is a certain divergence in opinion on who is the second best composer; but Bach has first place in most of their hearts. Any sampling of great classical works needs to include him.

Know that the conductor and orchestra who perform a work also matter. I have sent out an inquiry to the music professionals I know for recommendations of recordings to seek out.
posted by halhurst at 11:08 AM on February 18, 2015

In my opinion, the best place to start is by examining what it is that appeals to you about those pieces and what sorts of things you like in music generally. This can lead to branching out. For example, the 9th Symphony has both choral and solo singing. This could lead you in the direction of other choral/symphonic pieces or into opera or into art song, all of which are areas in which Beethoven composed. And, of course, those interests could lead you in other directions. For example, in choral/symphonic writing you can go all the way back to Bach or earlier and all the way forward to Britten or later. Or you could go laterally into Verdi. And so on.
posted by slkinsey at 12:40 PM on February 18, 2015

Don't quite understand this -- there are about a zillion different Dies Iraes in Requiem Masses spanning several centuries.

Yeah, it's a bit confusing, because there's Dies Irae, the part of a Requiem, and as there are many different Requiems there are many different melodies for the Dies Iraes therein. But there's also Dies Irae the melody (scroll down to the "Music" section of the Wikipedia article mskyle linked), a traditional Gregorian setting for that part of the Requiem, and that melody has been used again and again by many different composers. Many of the works that quote Dies-Irae-the-melody are not Requiems (and do not have a Dies-Irae-the-part); many Requiems have a Dies-Irae-the-part but do not incorporate Dies-Irae-the-melody.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 1:16 PM on February 18, 2015

That said, I'll agree with mskyle while noting the exact words of his statement: learning to recognize Dies Irae (the melody) is a shortcut to feeling smart about classical music. It shows up a lot, and can give you a tidbit to trot out at cocktail parties if you're discussing classical music, and maybe impress people who know less about classical music than you if you can identify it. But I'd say it's at best one very small part of a deeper understanding or appreciation of classical music.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 1:22 PM on February 18, 2015

Every time a "help me understand classical music" thread comes up, I do like by winters did and recommend those Robert Greenberg lecture series. I've listened to nearly everything he has put out and while saying it changed my life might be a bit hyperbolic, it's been the biggest influence on my taste in music in my adult life. If you start off with his How to Listen to and Understand Great Music, I suggest you skip anything pre-Baroque since most people are put off by, say, Renaissance madrigals. Greenberg's course on the nine Beethoven symphonies is another good place to start. I remember following his rather indepth analysis of the first movement of the Eroica symphony and then listening to it on my own and when the first theme reappears in the final coda just doing a fist pump and thinking it how it all just clicked for me. He's got another course on the 32 Beethoven sonatas which, if you follow it very closely and listen to multiple performance after each lecture, would take you months if not years to get through, but would definitely be worth the commitment.
posted by alidarbac at 6:19 PM on February 18, 2015 [1 favorite]

For exploring the actual music as cheaply as possible, consider -- they have a somewhat clunky website, but they have a FAR broader and deeper selection of classical music than any other subscription service.

They've got curated lists of pieces you need to know from each era (although "Modern/Contemporary" might as well be called "Modern") and a basically bottomless pool of options when you find listening directions you want to go in.
posted by kalapierson at 8:46 PM on February 18, 2015

Repeating the recommendation for Greenberg's lectures.

My sister actually went to the SF Conservatory and took lectures from him in person. I remember some of the stories of his colorful teaching gimmicks (like cutting up Pachelbel's Canon into fragments, tossing them around, and playing them in a random order--no, it didn't hurt the song.)

Years after she left, I got one of his lecture series, without realizing it was the same professor. It was so great I started repeating jokes to her, which is when it clicked. Very entertaining speaker. And, oh yeah, I learned a ton.
posted by mark k at 9:57 PM on February 18, 2015

Greenberg is great.

Have a look at the relationship between Nietzsche and Richard Wagner.
posted by persona au gratin at 11:49 PM on February 18, 2015

Go to concerts and listen.
posted by hawthorne at 2:34 AM on February 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

Nthing the Greenberg recommendation, but also, Craig Wright has been teaching Introduction to Classical Music at Yale for eons. The Coursera Introduction to Classical Music is running now (Jan 12 - Mar 15). You can also find an older Open Yale version of Listening to Music at Various editions of his Listening to Music textbook can be found on ABE Books for less than $5, including shipping.

For shorter listening, I've really enjoyed these clips from the BBC's The Story of Music in Fifty Pieces (I've gotten these clips from iTunes; I know the longer stuff isn't available outside the UK, but I THINK you should be able to access these). There's also a 6-part Story of Music on Youtube - I haven't seen it but I bet it's great.
posted by kristi at 12:29 PM on February 21, 2015

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