Help me find a way "in" to classical music.
January 7, 2016 9:45 PM   Subscribe

I can seem to see what I think I should be seeing in classical music.

As I have gotten older, my tastes have gotten more eclectic. Punk and pop giving way to dance and disco and jazz and country and then to musical theater and then light opera and proper opera etc. I want to find the "hook" that helps me understand classical music but I don't know what I should be looking for. I'd like to think of myself as culturally omnivorous but this is one nut I've yet to crack. Maybe it's down to ubiquity, with classical being the standard for most film scores. It feels utilitarian to me because of that and I'd like it not to. So how to approach it and see the beauty that I guess I'm glossing over.
posted by Senor Cardgage to Media & Arts (37 answers total) 35 users marked this as a favorite
I had a similar quest a few years ago and found my way in by listening to an iTunes U lecture series from an Introduction To Classical Music (or maybe Music History?) from a minor directional university somewhere in Missouri or Nebraska or something. Not sure if it or something like it is still out there, but it just threw out the basic "this is what a madrigal is, this is why Mozart was a big deal, this is the deal with Chopin and Liszt," etc. in easily digested chunks including playing a lot of the music.

After listening to that, I started listening to the local Classical station in the car. As much as possible, I'd try to stick around until the end of the set when the DJ would identify the composers. This gave me a sense of the different composers who are out there beyond the folks who come up in Classical Music 101.

I still don't know nearly as much as I'd like to, but those two things helped me feel like I at least know a little bit.

Also, for general "why is this good", check out Leonard Bernstein's "Young People's Concerts", wherein the New York Philharmonic plays important classical pieces and Bernstein explains at a child's level how to appreciate the piece. The one we watched in my high school music appreciation class was the one on Berlioz's "Symphonie Fantastique", which IIRC Bernstein approaches through the angle of a psychedelic trip. These concerts were done at a time when mainstream America still listened to classical music, so they're not stuffy or intellectual at all. I have no idea if or where you can get them now (they were done for CBS in the 50s-70s), but a quick google produced at least a few clips on youtube.
posted by Sara C. at 10:02 PM on January 7, 2016 [9 favorites]

Classical music is an acquired taste. It's just like non classical music, only more restrained and subtle, with foreign sounding instruments. Songs that have a pop music sensibility but are 'classical' are Satie's Gymnopedie, Darius Milhaud's Corcovado and such. Classical music, especially contemporary 'classical' music is very diverse (see: Terry Riley and atonal music).
I have watched Vladimir Horowitz's rendition of Chopin's Ballade in G minor (#1) (see: youtube) and the pure musical sensibility and beauty concentrated in his person has not been rivalled by anything else I've come across, even Adele's live performances or Frank Ocean singing 'thinking about you' live on SNL, which are highly moving in their own right.

On the positive side, at least you're not trying to like the opera.
posted by kinoeye at 10:34 PM on January 7, 2016 [2 favorites]

I think one way in is to go see some actual concerts. Live classical music can be very powerful. It can make the hairs stand up on the back of your neck and it can carry you along in a way that can be surprising if you've mostly only heard classical music as insipid elevator music or as 30 second clips in movies. And something to think about is: movies use the same bits of the same pieces of classical music over and over again. Here's a list of the 100 most common pieces. But relative to the actual full canon of classical music, that is a very small selection. You've probably heard the bit of Beethoven's 5th symphony with the pounding chords a million times, but there are some really lovely delicate parts of that symphony that you never hear in pop culture. So go see some concerts. They don't have to be expensive. If you're unfamiliar with the symphony, go to the ticket office late in the afternoon (i.e. when the office is open but not busy with the before-concert rush). Talk to one of the people there about the cheapest seats. They'll be able to help you. And then go see some concerts and see if anything blows your hair off. If it does, collect some more music by that composer.
posted by colfax at 11:12 PM on January 7, 2016 [8 favorites]

To expand on colfax's suggestion, if you live somewhere with a good symphony, be sure to go to the concerts that feature new and contemporary pieces too, and don't skip the lectures. If you're like me, you might struggle with giving the older stuff a fresh listen but perk up when you hear Meredith Monk or Arvo Pärt.
posted by thetortoise at 11:46 PM on January 7, 2016

When I was working around a bunch of snobs and heard some classical music described as vulgar, I thought that sounded interesting. Soon I had the William Tell Overture, the 1812 Overture and Beethoven's 9th, which led to his 5th and 7th. Some kind soul told me, symphonies need to top out at 95 dbs.

Good times, gittin' high, drinkin' beer and rockin' out to them old farts.
40 years later, Chopin still sucks. ;)
posted by ridgerunner at 12:28 AM on January 8, 2016 [3 favorites]

For me, getting into classical music (not previously having had any grounding in it) has been a slow, gradual process that I’m about twenty years into. I’ve tried a whole variety of approaches including: buying CDs based on rave reviews or strong recommendations; buying budget CDs more or less at random; buying cheap 2nd-hand LPs and CDs from junkshops & the like; listening to classical radio stations; reading enthusiasts’s on-line message-boards, forums, or, latterly /r/classicalmusic; downloading stuff via torrent sites; browsing YouTube, Spotify, etc.

When you find something you like, try other works by the same composer, or other performances by the same musicians, or other works from the same era, or featuring the same kind of instrumentation. For me it’s been largely trial & error, with a whole lot of error, but nowadays I’d say I listen to more classical music than anything else.
posted by misteraitch at 1:11 AM on January 8, 2016

This GC recording made a big impact on me a bunch of years ago. It's on Audible and you can probably find it at your local library, too.
posted by biddeford at 1:14 AM on January 8, 2016

Usually the music you refer to that's used to score films only *sounds* like classical music. It's function is to convey to us immediately how we are supposed to be feeling about the action on screen. That this can be done with instrument sounds of any sort is kind of amazing, but instrumental music of the European classical sort did not need to find its unifying principle outside of itself. Movie music that draws on the classical idiom can be interesting and worthy but remains just a bunch of fragments in comparison.

I used to work in a Tower Records classical section, a long while ago. One approach for you would be to try to find some music that's correctly labelled as 'classical' that you like or respond to for whatever reason and then build on that in an associative way. My own suggestion, however, would be to start with the purist stuff and listen to it with attention until it starts to make some sort of intuitive sense, whether due to mere exposure or because it eventually stimulates you cognitively. To treat your desire for initiation as calling for work rather than adventure. For such a purpose I would suggest the Concerti Grossi of Archangelo Corelli -- like this one --, the string quartets and symphonies of Josef Haydn -- like this -- and maybe some pieces of Arnold Schönberg, like his chamber music -- the 3rd Quartet, for instance -- or piano pieces. Along with their purity all three are tuneful composers, so be attentive to the tune. A major way that classical pieces are built is that melodies or pieces of melodies are repeated, but not exactly the same way. So once the tune-fulness has revealed itself to you, be attentive to how this repetition is happening, how melody is de- and re-compounded; how out of micro-tunes larger structures of musical motion are built.

Stick to these three composers for a reasonably long time, even if they don't seem to be making an impression. (Anything by Corelli can be used eventually; the trio sonatas and violin sonatas are even more pure than the concertos.) When they all start making sense to you, so will a lot of other absolute classical music. At bottom it's all about the expressive tune extended in crafty ways!
posted by bertran at 1:30 AM on January 8, 2016 [6 favorites]

I was coming in to recommend the Great Courses lectures called "How To Listen to and Understand Great Music" that biddeford has already provided the link to. They're also available at a lot of local libraries. The lecturer's goal is almost exactly what you describe, and the "survey a bunch of music styles" approach will give you a chance to find an era that interests you. (Based on your description I'd guess that you will like Stravinsky after hearing the lecture. Riot-causing classical music!)
posted by tchemgrrl at 3:23 AM on January 8, 2016 [1 favorite]

So, the difficult thing about classical music is that (the vast majority of it) was written when people lived entirely differently. If you were a worker, you were too tired at the end of the day to do anything but eat and sleep. The only music you likely heard somewhat regularly was at church. If you were rich enough not to work, you might have had music played at home in the evening.

And because life worked differently then, there was no commercial break, right? It was people hanging out, playing for each other. Church was likely the most constrained format people heard music within. Processional, hymn, etc.

So the music operates differently, not on a three and a half to four and a half minute span. So, you have to not think that it will behave like almost all the music you've heard on the radio your whole life. Which is a thing - it's kind of a different language, or written for people whose emotional and spiritual and intellectual lives functioned differently. No twitter, no top-40 radio, no air travel.

The big advantage we have is (for example) I have three versions of Bach's Goldberg variations on my MP3 thing. And they each sound a little different. I can listen to them and think about them (and the difference between them) as I go through my day. Then I can go right into Pierre Boulez playing Chopin and then Hakon Austbö playing Satie and I have three (or six) different versions of how to make a 'song'/ piece of music. All sound good, are played beautifully, but are also different from each other. Classical music develops, takes what came before and then builds and transforms to make something new. (A good example would be Hayden to Mozart to Beethoven. Pick a similar form (Sonata/symphony) piece from each and listen.) So it is good to have an idea of the composer and when they wrote, what was happening around them but it's not the thing, the thing is whether or not it moves you.

Which is my answer. Listen. Listen to this, then listen to that. Find something you like and listen the hell out of it, then listen to someone else playing the same thing (oh, and avoid Yoyo Ma playing Bach, stick with Rostropovich or (even better) Pablo Casals - Yoyo Ma is a great musician but his Bach is terrible. Unless you find you like it better. De gustibus and etc. In which case listen to it and then )

It's kind of a crazy situation we're in, with recorded music of all eras being available. You can hear so so much - and some of it does suck. Even if played masterfully, it still can suck. Even though it's old and was written by some revered old white guy. And you don't have to listen to it. (Then you'll stumble onto something that kills you like Beethoven's late string quartets or Mahler (depression!) or Bartok (cubism!) and what else is there? Our frame of reference is so strange, personally it is this I value most about 'classical' music - it was written for a different world, and offers us the opportunity to time-travel.)
posted by From Bklyn at 3:25 AM on January 8, 2016 [8 favorites]

I have played in a community orchestra, and I myself have a love/hate relationship with classical sometimes. I am using "classical" for most of this discussion to indicate a very broad umbrella of music - what most people think of when they see an orchestra playing, but that term is worth breaking down, and I'll do that later. A few random thoughts:

- You mentioned that you like opera (which is funny because one other poster said "at least you're not trying to like the opera" and he or she probably said that because opera is even more of a niche interest than classical music.) Most well-known opera composers also composed "straight" orchestra pieces, so start listening there.

- I personally find music history very interesting and music theory a -little- interesting, but neither are strictly necessary to listen to classical and like it. I feel classical writers/critics push listeners into feeling like they need some kind of complex "schema" to be a "real" listener. So do critics of all other genres, up to a point, but classical takes this up to 11. When I first started listening to classical in my late teens, I read all these articles and was frustrated when listening because I couldn't conjure up all these images and structures that the writers suggested.

There is music with an actual "program" - opera is usually this way, as the melodic gestures are often keyed very closely to the drama, but there is also music which is purely abstract. It has no meaning outside of itself, or which can be described with any authority. It's a subjective experience. In the novel "Howard's End," there is this great passage which illustrates what different listeners bring to it:

It will be generally admitted that Beethoven's Fifth Symphony is the most sublime noise that has ever penetrated into the ear of man. All sorts and conditions are satisfied by it. Whether you are like Mrs. Munt, and tap surreptitiously when the tunes come-- of course, not so as to disturb the others--or like Helen, who can see heroes and shipwrecks in the music's flood; or like Margaret, who can only see the music; or like Tibby, who is profoundly versed in counterpoint, and holds the full score open on his knee; or like their cousin, Fraulein Mosebach, who remembers all the time that Beethoven is echt Deutsch; or like Fraulein Mosebach's young man, who can remember nothing but Fraulein Mosebach: in any case, the passion of your life becomes more vivid, and you are bound to admit that such a noise is cheap at two shillings.

- Perhaps because of this idea of authority/correctness/seriousness, we lose that easy sense of listening to and enjoying the music as part of our lives. For me, the joy of listening to Chicago and Journey is mostly related to my association with high school. I don't really know a lot about Steve Perry. The Mozart oboe, clarinet, and bassoon concertos always remind me of listening to a cassette of those pieces I got from a friend as a gift. Related to this, there is this idea that you can't listen to classical unless you have a great audio system, in a perfectly quiet room, and you have enough time to listen to an entire symphony. I don't get to be in a perfectly quiet room and listen that long very often. It won't hurt it, or you, to listen casually in the car.

- "Classical" as most people use the term includes period of common practice, romantic, modern, post-modern, chamber music, etc. etc. etc. If we lumped popular forms together it would be like equating big band, reggae, punk, electronica, and smooth jazz, just to pick some genres at random. It's okay to not like them all. It's okay to not like certain composers, even "household names" - one of the best violinists I ever met locally hates Mozart.
posted by randomkeystrike at 3:46 AM on January 8, 2016 [4 favorites]

Which is my answer. Listen. Listen to this, then listen to that. Find something you like and listen the hell out of it, then listen to someone else playing the same thing (oh, and avoid Yoyo Ma playing Bach, stick with Rostropovich or (even better) Pablo Casals - Yoyo Ma is a great musician but his Bach is terrible. Unless you find you like it better. De gustibus and etc. In which case listen to it and then )

Seconding this, especially since I am literally right now listening to Yo Yo Ma's version of Bach's Cello Prelude in another tab. For whatever reason I'm becoming obsessed with that particular cello piece as of late, and after comparing a couple performances I honestly think I like Yo Yo Ma's best.

Also, because - I think with a lot of art things, the best way in is to use the right half of your brain. Forget trying to "understand" it at first - forget the technical stuff, the historic context, the nagging part of your brain that says that "this is culturally important and therefore I am supposed to like it, right"? Forget all that, and just...listen to it. It's like a new food - you taste it once. If you like it, great. If not, okay, fair, try something else. If you are on the fence about whether you like it, maybe come back later and try again. And when I say see whether you like it, I really do mean, do you like it. Does it speak to you in some way, does it affect you, do you really just dig it? That's all that matters.

Then you can go look up the backstory if you want. But if you hold out for that initial "I just dig it" tickle first, it's gonna stick with you a lot longer. That's been the way I've always approached every art - from visual art to movies to music to books - and that's the kind of thing that's lead me from being a bored 8-year-old leafing through her mom's Van Gogh coffee table books to a 45-year-old hitting up the Van Gogh room at the Musee D'Orsay, or the 6-year-old hiding under the dining room table and pretending to be Snow White while her grandma was playing Beethoven records (the music reminded me of the Disney movie for some reason, under the table was dark like it was in a forest) to being a 45 year old now thinking "I need Bach's prelude in my life."
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 4:47 AM on January 8, 2016 [4 favorites]

I think there's a difference between listening to a recording and watching a performance. I find performances interesting because I like to see how the performers are transformed through their expression of the music on the page. Also, when everyone's really in sync it's cool. When listening, I tend to focus on the different themes, the use of different keys, etc.
posted by cabingirl at 5:10 AM on January 8, 2016 [1 favorite]

it's all about familiarity. just stick some classical albums on auto-repeat and leave them on in the background. after a week, you'll feel completely different abut them.

honestly. people hugely overestimate the importance of (1) the conscious mind in taste and (2) their own particular favourites (exercise: take any comment here about emotional power or subtlety and rewrite it so it supports some other style of music).
posted by andrewcooke at 5:24 AM on January 8, 2016 [1 favorite]

Do you play music? That's how I've come to love many sub-genres of jazz and appreciate more traditional orchestral/chamber stuff back when I was in high school and undergrad.

A Music 101 class (but was really western music 101). We had a text and a few CDs with key works and the book would talk about both the defining characteristics/features of the genre and larger historical context. It also was helpful to know the difference between baroque vs. classical vs. romantic, etc. Understanding the structure of a movement in a symphony, for example, gave me something to listen for while also being exposed to high appeal/commonly played pieces. (We also had weekly listening tests where we had to identify the piece from a set list, which forced me to listen to the pieces many times per week. While sometimes familiarity breeds contempt, I often find it breeds appreciation in music. Not always, but often!) I'm a big old nerd, though, and enjoy learning/thinking about stuff in a highly structured social environment though.

I think the key is thinking about how you prefer to learn and then figure out how to create that kind of experience.
posted by smirkette at 5:36 AM on January 8, 2016

Would humor help?

Composer and musocilogist Peter Schickele created P.D.Q. Bach (1807-1742)?, "the twenty-first and oddest of Johann Sebastian Bach 20-odd children." With tongue planted firmly in cheek (not always his own), Shickele parodies much of classical music-- but his parodies often include insights into how the music works.

The most famous example of this is the Beethoven's 5th Baseball Broadcast.
posted by underthehat at 5:44 AM on January 8, 2016

Erik Satie & Chopin were my gateway drugs. They both wrote relatively short pieces that are approachable in the same way a pop song is. Since they're solo piano compositions, you can imagine them as frameworks for more modern music - I hear Beatles echoes in thier stuff all the time, and that makes it less foreign for me.

Mozart of course, was the Led Zeppelin of his day, a huge rock star with grandiose, overblown machinations - the arena rock of Classical, especially his Requiem,which is both monstrous and sublime. It should be played at 11 on the volume knob.
posted by Devils Rancher at 5:47 AM on January 8, 2016

For me I remember a turning point when I was for some reason walking down a parkway on a rainy autumn evening listening to Bach's solo cello suites. That stuff really rewards listening, leaning into the music, concentrating like you'd concentrate on your breath in meditation, letting the cello sound become the spearhead of your whole consciousness, not thinking about the past or future or analyzing but just throwing yourself into the fire.

It's strange music. I like to think of it as alien or divine. It goes on and on unfolding and twisting and undulating like an endless thought that seldom resolves but is always starting something new... The sawing pattern that comes around 2:00 is a real "hook" for me.

I think this fractal unfolding style is defining of the baroque era. It's lovely how Bach pulls it off with just one cello. Then listen to the Brandenburg concertos. All these themes weaving into each other like an ocean of melodies that sometimes builds into a crashing wave like the climax at 4:00 and then again a minute later—I get cascades of goosebumps from this stuff, especially with good headphones.

Brahms, Cello Sonata No. 1 with Yo-Yo Ma and Emanuel Ax – stream it to your TV or something, don't be like me and write an internet comment while you listen. It's Brahms's homage to Bach and the theme that keeps coming back is based on a Bach fugue. The third movement is fugue-like and this fugue stuff is really wonderfully baroque, sometimes so much it makes you dizzy.

Bartók's Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta from 1936 – which I think is a nice intro to less "tonal" music, you can hear how it builds slowly without it feeling major or minor, it's more like this throbbing immensity with subtle melodies you can't whistle, also textural like Bach but with more of a constant tension, sometimes total emergency. It's beautiful in a sublime and kind of scary way. The shift at 9:30 is just badass. Just look at the composer.

After all that you deserve to watch Björk interviewing Arvo Pärt.
posted by mbrock at 6:16 AM on January 8, 2016 [2 favorites]

On the humor front, I would also look up some old Victor Borge videos. Not because he was the world's greatest musician (although I think he had pretty great technique), but because he understands the motifs and assumptions of the genre exceedlingly well, and uses that understanding to play with them in really delightful and sometimes very funny ways. Part of that of course is how he plays with the expectations of the audience themselves. I think sometimes if you see the assumptions of a genre inverted or poked fun at, you get an appreciation for them you might not have otherwise.

Other suggestions from me this week: Edvard Grieg's Peer Gynt suite - I'm enjoying "Solveig's Song", Jean Sibelius's Kareliya and Finlandia, Gorecky's Third Symphony (esp. the "Song of Sorrowful Songs"), Tchaikovsky's Symphony #1 in G Minor "Winter Dreams" are all pieces that I turn to in the grey and cold months because they're so deeply evocative of landscapes for me. YMMV.
posted by Emperor SnooKloze at 6:27 AM on January 8, 2016 [3 favorites]

Widen your definition of "classical." Mozart is classical. So are Gershwin, Dvorak and Copland.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 6:30 AM on January 8, 2016

Three suggestions:

1. Fantasia, seriously. It's a great variety of music from various eras, easily accessible, and with little explanatory asides in between pieces. If you end up not liking the music, the animation is still interesting, so there's no downside.

2. Mozart, Twelve Variations on "Ah Vous Dirai-je Maman". The melody is instantly recognizable, and as a result, you'll be able to hear the development of the piece. In my experience, the hardest thing for beginners to understand about classical music is the fact that pieces are not mere repetitions of rhythm and melody, as in pop music. It takes some time to get used to that, and to pick up the subtlety. That's why I like this: because you can't forget where the melody started, you will be able to mentally compare and comprehend what Mozart is doing.

3. There used to be a radio show called "Understanding Classical" or something like that. I'm at work, so my Googling is limited and I can't find it for you right now. I heard it on WNED in Buffalo, but I believe it was out of WCRB in Boston. Hopefully someone else knows what I'm talking about and can provide a link. But it was a show for beginning listeners that explained what was happening. Very instructional. Something similar from my home radio station is "Essential Classics". They play some of the most famous classical music (Claire de Lune, 1812 Overture, etc.) as kind of a gateway drug. You can stream it online, and that's a good place to start.

One thing to remember with regard to film scores is that there's a lot of diversity in classical, and as someone mentioned earlier, film scores aren't representative. Classical music, to me, is not background music. Lizst's Hungarian Rhapsody #2 isn't something you put on while you're vacuuming. When I listen to classical at work, I often find myself focusing less on the work I'm supposed to be doing and more on the music.

That said, one final suggestion. One aspect of classical being used in films that makes it easy to like is cartoons. Looney Tunes, for example, is "tunes", not "toons". Many of the skits are accompanied by classical pieces, often to great comic effect. There are much worse ways to get into classical music than by watching old Looney Tunes.
posted by kevinbelt at 6:41 AM on January 8, 2016 [2 favorites]

the george szell/cleveland orchestra version of tchaikovsky's 'symphony no 5 in e minor' has always been a favorite.

i find myself feeling very differently about classical pieces depending on the performer. recording era also seems to play into it, as i seem to prefer a lot of the 50's/60's recordings to stuff that was made in the 80s when digital recording and cds were "new" and stuff in the 90s when digital recording and CDs were cheap/easy to manufacture.
posted by noloveforned at 7:14 AM on January 8, 2016

Ooh, watching FANTASIA is a great idea! Both of them, too - the original, and the 2000's remake. Disney actually intended for FANTASIA to be a regularly-updating collection of shorts, where every couple years he'd swap out a couple of the segments for newer ones (bye-bye "Rite of Spring", hello "March of the Pines" or whatever) so it would be like this constantly-renewing and constantly-re-releaseable thing. Also, so that it would continue to introduce people to more and more classical music.

The only caveat is if you find that images linger in your head for a long time when you'd rather not, you may find yourself incapable of hearing the piece "Carnival of the Animals" without thinking of James Earl Jones intoning, "This is what happens when you give a flock of flamingos a yo-yo."
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:17 AM on January 8, 2016 [1 favorite]

There's a lot more to classical music than film scores. Most film scores are contemporary compositions, written in a classical style. Some of it is very good (most of John Williams oeuvre is very good music; the score for Lord of the Rings is good, regardless of what you think of the movies), but much of it is swelling strings and chord progressions to give you emotional cues for the movie, not to be good music on its own.

Rather than diving in to the deep end right away, try easing in. Start with Gershwin (Rhapsody in Blue, An American in Paris), Stravinsky's Firebird Suite, Mussoursky's Pictures at an Exhibition, Dvorak (not New World Symphony, lovely as it is, because it's all over the movies).

Leonard Bernstein and Aaron Copland have huge discographies and widely varying styles -- Bernstein Conducts Bernstein and Copland Conducts Copland are in my everyday playlist . Try wind symphony music (Frank Ticheli, Gustav Holst, Percy Grainger). For something a bit more out there, but not 20th century avant-garde atonal, Paul Hindemith's Symphony in B-flat or Metamorphosis.

A personal suggestion is to stay away from the "101 strings" versions of anything, or the "baby X" compilations.

The suggestion above of Fantasia is a good one. Classical music, but not the 100 most loved or suchlike.
posted by jlkr at 7:21 AM on January 8, 2016 [1 favorite]

You might enjoy reading Alex Ross' The Rest is Noise, which covers the scope of 20th century classical music. It comes with a listening guide, and on his website you can listen to good size clips of the pieces that he talks about. It was excellent for me in terms of both understanding how classical music works while discovering what sorts of pieces I like and dislike. It's massively readable, not dense at all.
posted by everybody had matching towels at 7:21 AM on January 8, 2016 [1 favorite]

Pick a few pieces, or even just one or two, and listen to them a lot!

I play a lot of classical music. I play with an orchestra which plays many modern and more difficult to listen to pieces. I usually Do.Not.Enjoy. them at the beginning of rehearsals, and grow to love them over repeated playing and listening. Exposure, repeated exposure, can really help with understanding and appreciating the musical language and syntax. That familiarity with a given piece leads to the delicious anticipation of knowing that the next section is a toe tapper or a tear jerker.

This is how you build your classical music "vocabulary."
posted by k8oglyph at 8:16 AM on January 8, 2016 [4 favorites]

Listen to the same piece over and over.

Don't keep moving from one composition to another without repeating anything. If you do that, almost everything will seem indistinct, like a blur.

My advice on classical CDs.
I especially recommend getting The Vintage Guide to Classical Music. It could work great to just read through that and listen to some of the music he's talking about as you go. However, it's in chronological order, so you might want to skip some of the earlier composers at first — classical music tended to get more and more interesting and eclectic as time went on.

My list of top 10 compositions to start with.

posted by John Cohen at 9:01 AM on January 8, 2016 [2 favorites]

Classical music makes much greater use of dynamics (soft to loud, ppp to fff) than popular music. Dynamics were pretty much driven out of popular music by car radios. Even today, you need a pretty damn nice car to be able to hear PPP while still being able to tolerate FFF. Also, pop music can be played in a stadium, but classical needs a really good hall. Get good audio equipment.

The classical music world is huge, spanning centuries and continents. Hardly anyone can say they like it all. The styles range from the purely emotional to the purely mathematical, from the purely melodic to the highly rhythmic.

I see jlkr has recommended Aaron Copeland and Leonard Bernstein. They are the American Greats. Some of their work will be familiar to you. You could also try Ferde Grofé, who was as American as anyone despite the name. Also George Gershwin whose classical output was not huge.
posted by SemiSalt at 9:14 AM on January 8, 2016 [1 favorite]

I learned music theory in college in a very very strange way from a strange book. Not sure that's applicable but I do think trying to study the development of classic music as series of innovations in composition is worthwhile even for everyday enjoyment of a modern piece. In the same way that knowing a bit about the history of painting will give you more enjoyment of impressionism, knowing how medieval music notation was invented (or rather, discovered) can make the intricacies of the more popular later forms which break or innovate on that tradition even more accessible.

For me, it all starts with Bach. Bach explored what composed music could do, running through scales essentially exploring different melodic structures. Especially Harpsichord pieces really attune your ear to what classical composition is trying to do. I'd begin with Bach.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 9:30 AM on January 8, 2016

You ask what you should be seeing, and then you say that you've progressed into "musical theater and then light opera and proper opera" (all genres where the music is integrated into drama which you are supposed to watch and look at), and then you say that one reason you have a hard time is because classical music is linked to "film scores" in your mind (and again, films are something you watch)... so maybe live concerts are the way to go for you.

If you want to continue the "watching/story" connection, you could look at program music, or religious music (masses, requiems, etc. where the music is part of the ceremony). But especially as you get into stuff from the 18th and 19th centuries, you will find lots of classical music that is not supposed to be a story, and not supposed to be "seen" (although folks would watch the musicians live, of course.) It's something completely different. Maybe you can shift your perspective--people have cannibalized classical music for film scores (and for Looney Tunes) because of the emotions it invokes--but it was there, invoking those emotions, before the music director put it in a film.

If you can read music, try reading along with scores at the IMSLP; if not, try closing your eyes.
posted by Hypatia at 9:45 AM on January 8, 2016 [1 favorite]

Listen to BBC Radio 3, at random
posted by communicator at 12:35 PM on January 8, 2016 [1 favorite]

Lots of great suggestions here. Let me recommend again Bernstein's Young Persons' Concerts. Also, a book built around a preposterous conceit: The Fifty Greatest Composers and their Hundred Greatest Works. It will give you some idea of why people think Bach was great, and greater than Schumann (who also was great!!). Not that ranking is important, but it provides a context for thinking about what you're listening to.
posted by persona au gratin at 3:41 AM on January 9, 2016

Thanks for starting this, there are some great links in the comments.
posted by ridgerunner at 4:43 PM on January 9, 2016

One thing about classical music as opposed to pop music is dynamic range. Classical music really plays with loud and quiet in a way other music doesn't. For this reason I highly recommend listening to it as loud as you can. This is the only way I can enjoy opera, for instance. It helps remind me that there are 50 or more instruments playing at once. Also, Switched On Bach is great!
posted by irisclara at 8:40 PM on January 9, 2016

I highly recommend the BBC's Story of Music in Fifty Pieces. Each segment is about 15 minutes long, and it gives you the whole thing, from pretty early music on up through Adams and Reich. If you find you like the more modern stuff (which can be very different from Bach and Beethoven), you might also like Radio 3's Fifty Modern Classics (although those may not work if you're outside the UK).

When you're ready for more, the Great Courses series recommended above is really good.

You might also want to check out Coursera's Introduction to Classical Music, or this older version, Open Yale's Listening to Music at the Internet Archive.

Finally, take a look at any of the many resources suggested to you here and head on over to your local library. They probably have a lot of classical CDs you can check out. Try picking a variety of things - maybe some early music, plus some Haydn, some Mahler, and something written after 1960 - some Crumb or Riley or Glass. Sit down with all those discs and your favorite beverage and listen, and make some notes - how does the Mahler differ from the Crumb? Do you hear different instruments? Different rhythms? What catches your interest, and what sounds boring? Why? And most importantly - how often can you tell what they're going to do next?

posted by kristi at 11:31 AM on January 12, 2016

My wife just informed me about a show on Amazon Video called Mozart in the Jungle about classical musicians. It just won a bunch of Golden Globes, so I started watching it. It's not like, the Wire or anything, but it's enjoyable, and of course there's music. The music is not the foreground, though. It's really a show about people, with occasional diagetic classical music. You can watch a couple of episodes and go from there.
posted by kevinbelt at 7:03 AM on January 14, 2016 [1 favorite]

I have a book called 'Teach Yourself Classical Music' which I recommend but it might only be available in the UK.

I also think you should listen to Berlioz's 'symphonie fantastique'.
posted by ihaveyourfoot at 8:04 AM on January 14, 2016

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