Monday, August 13, 2012

Developing Our Listening Selves, and Understanding Classical Music

by Steve D. Matchett

When we apply the term "classical" to a piece of music, what does that say about that music?  It usually means that the music takes a larger form than most of the popular music that we are used to.  Popular music is recognized as songs, or what we could call the "minstrel" art.  Songs can be simple and they can be complex.  They can have strong instrumental content or very simple strumming to underlie the lyric.

Classical music has it's early roots in musical forms like chant, hymns, dances, minstrelsy, and many other smaller forms.  It developed over centuries into larger dramatic forms.  Symphonies, operas, extended sonatas, oratorios, and large scale chamber works, were the culmination of this development, although the smaller forms still remain vital too.  What we think of as "classical" music, could also be thought of as "drama" music.  This is why we hear so much "symphonic" music used as the soundtracks for films, because the symphony orchestra developed as the "instrument" of the large drama.  In opera, like in film, the music reflects on the emotions and feelings of individual characters and groups of characters in the drama, as well as the action.  The music "partners" in telling the story.  This flow of emotion and story can change moment by moment, and can have drastic shifts.  Changing tempos, shifts of key, changes of instrumental combinations and dynamic (volume) levels, all contribute to this changing dramatic flow.

Some writers have talked about the fact that purely instrumental music is like an "opera" for the instruments.  I prefer to think of it as a "drama" BY the instruments.  The instruments trade thoughts and gestures on the various topics (themes) contained in a piece.  In purely instrumental works there are no words to guide us; just the gestures of rhythm, key, etc., that the instruments convey to us through their interplay.  The music becomes self-defining; a unique world of it's own.  This kind of unfolding drama is not just the purview of classical music.  Larger works of jazz, rock "concept" albums, and individual songs themselves can have strong dramatic flow to them.  Classically oriented music tends to have a lot of this changing dramatic content since it developed this style over such a long period of time.  Contemporary Classical music has drawn influence from all kinds of music including jazz, rock, and world folk musics.  All of the different types of music that we listen to and enjoy draws influences from other forms of music.  This is what keeps the art of music constantly evolving, in all it's forms.

Music has become ubiquitous in our culture.  It's with us in electronic form almost every minute of the day.  At the grocery store, in the car, on the TV, at the doctors office, and hundreds of other places.  We learn over time to tune out the music, because it is often imposed on us, and not something we choose.  Our ears are assaulted everywhere we go.  It is hard to imagine a time when people only heard music when it was made by the actual human voice, hands and instruments.  If music were only made by real people, in our presence, we would probably have a very deep appreciation of it when we heard it.  It would be much more rare, and we would deeply value the efforts that it takes to make it, since it would only happen before our eyes.  This is how music was for millennia, and why it became so important to the cultures in which it developed.  I'm afraid we have become numb to it's constant and sometimes unwanted presence!  We hear it chopped up and predigested as the servant of every commercial scheme.  I hope we can put aside the constant background noise, and learn to hear and appreciate music anew, for itself.  It requires a leap of imagination and a willingness to be discriminating in our listening.  All music is not created equal and some music defies classified labels.  We all have to give ourselves over to the microcosm of experience that each piece of music creates.  This will help us develop our "listening selves" in order to find the full joy that music can give us.
- Steve D. Matchett, August 5, 2009
© 2009 Steve D. Matchett