Inside Music Appreciation

2011 Symposium2

For some years now, I have been interested in music appreciation. I have come to consider it something of an oddity. At the center of any text or class on music appreciation is the premise that in order to appreciate music, one must understand how music works; how it is put together. The listener, or so the logic goes, must know what to expect, what devices and practices the composer used, so that the listener can be privy to all or most of what the composer was up to when he or she created the music. To this end, students learn about such things as sonata-allegro form, rondo, motivic development, modulations to the dominant or tonic, and so forth.

When I first learned these things in a high school music appreciation class, I was excited to uncover these things as I listened, and was eager to share my newfound enjoyment of classical music with others. Almost form the outset, though, the premise upon which my teacher had worked from began to unravel. My non-musician friends, and even my parents, cared very little about motives and development sections. They either liked or disliked classical music, and it instruments of the orchseemed to have little or nothing to do with how much or little they knew about the music or the composer. This realization has haunted me literally for decades. While I have had students that got as excited as I did from learning “music appreciation,” there have been far more that did not. Yet some of these still enjoyed classical music. Doesn’t that discredit the whole music appreciation enterprise? Well maybe, let’s look into that.

It certainly cannot be true that everyone who enjoys classical music is well-grounded in composers, musical forms, historical contexts, and all of the topics a typical music appreciation course instructor covers. I know this from talking to people who attend concerts, and from the fact that if audiences were that well trained in classical music, there would be no need to try to get them up to speed with pages of “program notes” in symphony orchestra program booklets. This whole issue of knowing about the music, composer, and times is made necessary, if it is necessary, by the fact that classical music is and has been for at least the last century, been performed well separated from the culture and lifestyle for which it was intended and in which it was created. The dance forms, aristocratic living, and ultimately over the top romanticism that probably signaled the beginning of the end of the era we attribute to classical music, have long since been replaced by more casual and accessible art forms. So the first inkling that we need any education to appreciate music is here: we are attempting to enjoy music of a distant and largely unknown time and culture.

performance anxietyThis being so, the problem is not that we need to be educated on the music, but rather that we need to be educated on the life and times of those for whom and by whom it was composed. Music is quite capable of “transporting” us to a different frame of mind, emotion, or, with a little extra knowledge and imagination, culture and era. Film makers do this all the time, using music from the time period in which their story takes place. What were the people like who first heard this music? What did they do with it? How did they receive it and enjoy it? Is it necessary for us to receive it and enjoy it as they did, or can we find connections to this music in ways that uniquely belong to our own time and culture?

I believe we can find such connections. The march form is a perfect example. Marches originally were largely written for military purposes. Militia and armies needed something to travel on foot to, and so musicians were employed to keep everyone moving and in step. Later, marches became popular in places where no marching was needed or taking place; they became popular in concerts. A whole new type of march, the concert march, evolved. These marches were faster, and had harmonies that were embellished with pop and jazz chords. They would never be mistaken for functional marches, but became popular for their brilliance and virtuosity. In the process, people connected with marches in an environment that was markedly different from the original one. Is it possible for people today to connect with symphonic music in a similar way? I will discuss this question in my next post.

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