The nice thing about most “classical” music is that it was written long before any kind of recording technology was available. Unlike today, when you can listen to almost any piece of music whenever, and as often as you like, composers knew that you might only get one chance to hear their music. So most good classical music is written to be understood and enjoyed the first time you hear it.
That’s not to say that it doesn’t benefit from careful listening, from repeated listening, and maybe even doing the odd bit of homework in advance. Lots of traditions have grown up around classical concerts, and they’re all there to help you enjoy a piece of music the first time you hear it. A century ago, that might have been the only chance you ever got to hear it the way the composer intended! So concert programmes include programme notes, giving the background on a piece; concerts are listened to in silence (so everyone has the chance to hear the music); and sometimes there are pre-concert talks explaining the music (check the venue’s website to find out). These are all, still, great ways to help you get the most out of a live performance.
But really, you just need to listen. That’s something different from the way you hear music during everyday life. We’re always hearing music from the TV and in shops, and many of us use it as a background while working or relaxing. A live concert is different. You can’t just switch it on or off – what you hear is completely unique, and it’ll only happen once. It’s not available on any recording, and it’s being performed by living, highly-skilled people, right in front of you. They’ve dedicated years of their lives to preparing what you hear tonight. What they do is difficult, nerve-racking and unrepeatable – and they want you to enjoy and respond to it.
So prepare yourself for a concert. Get there a little beforehand, give yourself time to relax and get into the mood for a very special experience. And once the music starts, give it a chance to work on you. If it’s exciting, go with that, and don’t worry if you find yourself tapping your feet or nodding your head a bit. If it seems boring, or you can’t make out the tune – well, odds are that’s what the composer intended. Trust them - they know what they’re doing. They may be preparing the ground for a surprise, or deliberately trying to lull you into a dreamy state. Enjoy it for what it is. Adjust yourself to the music’s pace, and keep listening. Music is all about taking you to a different world, and giving you the chance to experience emotions you never knew you had.
Baroque composers were craftsmen. They wrote music to make a living, not to express themselves – and if their music didn’t please and entertain, they were out of a job. So it’s amongst the easiest music to listen to. Baroque instrumental music comes in short movements, often based on songs or dances, and rarely longer than a pop single. There’s always a sense of rhythm – and when, as in a concerto, the composer is giving star players a chance to show off, the music can be brilliantly exciting. But it can also be deeply emotional. Bach, Handel and Vivaldi are all experts in creating slow, haunting, songlike tunes, and just letting them unfurl. Baroque vocal music is a bit harder to get used to – especially the astonishing sound of the counter-tenor, an adult man who’s trained his voice to sound like a choirboy! Remember that baroque-era singers were megastars, and that if their music sounds like they’re just showing off at great length – well, they are! Sit back and enjoy the fireworks.
The Classical Era
This can get little more complex - but it doesn’t have to. Mozart, Haydn and their contemporaries developed ways of making music more than just a 4-minute thrill. In their symphonies, concertos and chamber music, tunes become characters engaged in games, conversations, and passionate drama. But it’s still all about emotion. Listen a bit more carefully to the first 3 minutes of each movement, when the main tunes (the “characters”) are introduced. (They’ll probably be repeated, just to make sure that you really get the chance to hear them). Then keep listening to find out what they get up to. Classical era melodies often sound formal, measured and rather elegant, but that’s just their surface appearance. No music can be more deeply sad – or more exuberantly happy.
The Romantic Period
The classical masters did the groundwork; now Ludwig van Beethoven took the next step and made himself the main “character” in all his music. And things have never been the same since. This music isn’t just entertainment; it’s the composer expressing their hopes, dreams and sorrows in front of the whole world. It’s larger-than-life, which means it’s also a lot longer. A symphony by Mahler can last 4 times as long as one by Haydn! You still need to listen out for those all-important tunes, but composers developed new ways to help listeners. Many more instruments joined the orchestra, giving the composer a whole range of special effects to highlight the action – thunderous full brass sections, colourful new woodwind instruments and all the bells and whistles of the percussion section. Sometimes composers even attached titles and stories to help listeners follow long stretches of music. Most modern film music is based on music of the Romantic era, and that’s often a good way to listen to big Romantic works – as if you’re watching an imaginary film.
Modern classical music – and beyond
Music written after 1900 sometimes has a scary reputation – but once again, all you need do, to enjoy it, is listen. With many composers, that’s easy – Stravinsky, Shostakovich, Britten and many others simply brought fresh new sounds to the worlds of classical, romantic and even baroque music. Others, like Bartok, Philip Glass and Frank Zappa and gave western traditions an energising shot of folk, pop and world music. But some modern composers – like Schoenberg, Webern, Stockhausen and Boulez - can seem a bit more intimidating. They wanted to re-invent the whole way we listen to music, and to many listeners, what they write doesn’t sound like “music” at all. But that depends upon what you mean by music. Go in without preconceptions, and you’ll hear surprising, original, and beautiful sounds that are sure to get a reaction from you, and maybe even move you deeply. Who says a clashing discord has to be an “angry” sound? Why can’t it be exciting – even joyous? Like any modern artist, today’s composers want to make you think – but above all, to make you feel.
Richard Bratby is a music critic for Metro and The Birmingham Post, writes programme notes for various UK orchestras and music festivals, and works as Events Officer for the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra.