When I play classical music for young children they love it. They delight in its energy, in its ups and downs, in its quiet moments followed by sudden surges. It is notable that as they are enjoying the music, are unaware of what they are listening to, and they don’t know what an expositions or development section is, or the names of all the instruments in the orchestra. They may not even know the composer’s name, or anything about him. Yet they delight in the music.
Years from now these children will probably be told by somebody that they really can’t enjoy this sort of music unless they learn a great deal about it: about the form, the composer, the era in which it was composed, about the instruments that are playing it, and about how it is like or unlike other music written by other composers that they also must learn about. They will be told that after all of this learning, then, and only then will they be able to enjoy classical music. When you stop to think about, it really is a curious belief system.
I was very much like those young students of mine—in love with classical music. I listened to it for hours at a time as a child. Luckily for me, though, I never lost my childhood love of the music. I just kept listening to it, kept practicing it, and kept loving it. My passion for classical music carried me right into college as a music education major, and still carries me along nearly 40 years later. While I must confess I do enjoy mapping out the development of a sonata movement, and enjoyed taking courses in which I learned how, I’m just as happy dwelling on the emotional appeal of the music as the intellectual one.
Classical music is so loveable, it doesn’t need to be made into an intellectual exercise to be enjoyable. The emotional element of classical music is more powerful, more appealing, and more relevant to most people than tracking theme groups ever will be. I’m convinced this is true for all ages, including and perhaps especially for school-age children.
As students enter their teen years, feelings are front and center to them. A musical work that matches their emotional temperament will usually be enjoyed by teens. I have found many middle school students especially enjoy Beethoven’s music, and also composers Richard Strauss, Berlioz, and Verdi. These composers wore the emotion of their music on their sleeves, and students recognize a bit of themselves in the impulsive outbursts of human emotion these composers are apt to bring to their music. When we realize that the music is about affect and not intellect, we are apt to take a more effective approach to music. Music is first and foremost about sharing emotions in community. That is why music making is found in virtually every culture. Our teaching of music should reflect emotions and community before anything else. The learning of sonata form, motivic development, and the inner workings of Bach’s fugues should be undertaken after students have enjoyed the music, and are spurred on by their enjoyment and interest to investigate how the music they love works. In other words, analysis should follow, not precede response to the music.
Children and adults are fully capable of affectively understanding classical music, and intuitively understanding at least some musical structures, including meter, grouping, and tension-release patterns. This is plenty to go on for most listeners. By providing encouragement and opportunities for young people to hear classical music in homes through recorded music, and at live concerts, many more will cherish a love for this music even if they haven’t been so thoroughly trained in how to appreciate it.