Music Appreciation


Tangentially inspired by a conversation with a friend, I've decided to somewhat expand my knowledge or classical/orchestral music. I mean, I've heard a lot of it, I enjoy it, I own quite a few CDs, but I feel like I don't really have very much range or depth of knowledge. So I've bought a couple of books, Classical Music 101 and Opera 101, both by Fred Plotkin, former performance manager for the Metropolitan Opera.

They both come highly recommended and focus on giving a broad introduction to listening and enjoying the music. The classical music one features a huge list of performances to get and listen to in order to follow along with the book, which is sort of good and bad. On the one hand, following along and buying the music will give me a nice set of good recordings of a wide variety of works. On the other hand, even buying hunting around and buying these CDs used/on the internet it'll probably cost over $1000 to get everything he recommends. The trick is that he wants you to buy specific recordings so that he can make reference to interpretations and arrangements exhibited. So it's not enough to buy Beethoven's 7th Symphony, you have to buy the recording of Beethoven's 7th Symphony made by the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, conducted by Wolfgang Sawallisch and available only from EMI Classics in a deluxe boxed set of all of Beethoven's symphonies. Which is nice, insofar as it meanst you wind up with all of Beethoven's symphonies, but less nice insofar as it's a lot more expensive than the $6 Naxos recording of Beethoven's 7th.

The Opera version is somewhat cheaper, insofar as he covers fewer works, though of course operas tend to be more expensive to purchase than other classical CDs, given that they tend to come with more CDs plus a libretto.

But of course, if anyone were interested in exploring the classics along with me and sharing music purchases, it could be a lot cheaper. Is anyone interested?


I think this approach to music appreciation is all wrong for me. The way I see it, with the music that I already listen to, I enjoy the process of listening but don't much care for analyzing it. This is partly a consequence of my taste in music -- one does not listen to the Ramones and admire Joey's strategic use of level 7 gain on his amp instead of level 6. It would be pointless if not actually inappropriate.

But I think it also has something to do with a particular value of mine, which I was recently thinking about after finding a book in the library called "How to Look at Modern Art". My problem is essentially this: if I'm looking at it in the way that I'm most interested in looking and it doesn't look appealing, why should I learn a different way of looking instead of, say, going and finding something else to look at? Similarly for music, and I think the two situations are very close indeed. Generally speaking I neither look at art nor listen to music in any sort of rigorous, educated way, but my looking and listening nonetheless serves a particular purpose which is not necessarily identical to the one valued by people who write books on how to listen to music and how to look at art. I'm unsure what their purposes are and could, I'll grant, possibly benefit from finding out... but I haven't yet felt that I'm poorly served by my own purpose, so I'm not particularly inspired to learn theirs just yet.

Okay, the real problem is that instruction manuals for art appreciation make me incredibly defensive. What do you mean, I don't know how to listen to music?! Put on headphones! Press play! Enjoy! Repeat! Good lord! I can tell you rationally that the authors probably have a lot to teach me, but at the barest hint of them trying to do so I become extremely stubborn and resistant. Hell, it even happens with literature classes. I don't know how I've made it through school this far.

It's interesting; I think the author of the book would actually largely agree with your argument. His major point in the first couple of chapters is that listening to music is, at heart, an emotional and intuitive exercise rather than an analytical one. If you're sitting in a concert hall attempting to deconstruct The Rite of Spring on a rational level, you're missing the joy of music (and arguably missing the point of The Rite of Spring).

So if listening to music is an intuitive activity, why read a 500 page book on how to do it? Because, Plotkin argues, the listening experience is enhanced by knowledge and analysis operating at a background, subconscious level. Using your example, you might not comment to yourself on Joey Ramone's use of his amp, but you might notice it as you're listening. As you've listened to music more and as you've learned to play the guitar, the knowledge you've gained of musical technique enhances your listening experience even if it doesn't cause you to deconstruct the songs you hear.

So the book is focused primarily on developing skills that add depth to the listening experience. The author isn't interested in giving a chronological account of the history of music, he doesn't want to carefully classify musicians into different eras and styles, and he doesn't want the reader to memorize composers' biographies. Instead, the book's organized around the instruments of the orchestra. He discusses a given technique, then gives assignments to listen to a given recording while actively listening for the technique discussed. The idea is that once you've learned of these things on a conscious level, you'll begin noticing them on a subconscious level in your regular music listening.

I'm sounding like an evangelist, and I should point out that I'm just attempting to give the author's thoughts on the subject. I have some complaints about the book thus far (the author can be a tad preachy at times, and has a propensity for the melodramatic). I'm receptive to the ideas behind the book, but I've yet to get to the full-on skill-building part of the book yet. I'll have more thoughts once I've gotten into it a bit more deeply.

I've thought of doing similar, when I was very interested in beefing up my jazz collection. I looked at "Top 100" albums lists and every jazz library would be remiss without xyz, and in the end, I decided to find additional compositions by artists I already liked, and then branch out from there by reading about those composers and their influences and collaborations. The cycle repeats itself and you do basic internet searches about new finds. You start to recognize patters and techniques common to the music you really enjoy and then can further research that. Of course, my background in playing in ensembles helps, but I imagine you can do the same thing on your own.

Back to your point, about having to get particular recordings so he can illustrate an example of phrasing or interpretation: Chances are, unless you are a musician of many years, you probably won't notice the subtle differences in major works from one ensemble/conductor to the next. I only notice major differences between works, and I've studied music for 15 years.

All that aside, good on your for expanding your collection and taking an interest in classical music. In NYC, I think 96.1 is a good classical station, as is 93.9 (NPR) in the evenings. My parents could probably help you out with acquiring recordings; they have a pretty good collection, and Dad may be able to shoot you individual mp3's rather than entire albums if you decide to go that route. I can get you their contact information if you want.


Sorry I've been slow in the commenting (and the posting, and everything else). Work was pretty all-consuming last week, but I'm getting the hang of it now.

Shortly after posting this, I realized that getting Mr. Plotkin's recommended listening was a pipe dream at best.

To start, a quick survey of the full list proved daunting; it cost just over $100 to buy most of the CDs recommended for the third chapter. This made me anxious by itself, as that's quite a lot for me to spend. Then I got home and realized that each of the subsequent 17 chapters had recommended listening lists that were at least twice as long as Chapter 3's. Buying all of them is, to say the least, untenable.

Further, I'm faced with the problem of availability. The book was published in 2002, not too long ago, but still long enough for some of the CDs to go catastrophically out of print. While most are still available, and the ones that aren't can often be found used for $10 or less on Amazon, there are a few on the list that are either impossible to find or are available from rare music sellers for $120 or more. This, also, is untenable.

So I've adopted a flexible attitude: Make a good faith effort to find the album, if it's not available look for a decent substitute for the piece in question. I'm also ransacking the New York Public Library, which has a rather extensive CD collection. They don't have everything on the list, but I've already found more than one catastrophically-out-of-print CD in their catalogue.

I like your strategy of finding music/musicians you like and then working backwards and forwards through influences. For now, I'm looking to expand into a broad swath of music just to see what and who I like, and then I'll explore from there.

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This page contains a single entry by Zach published on June 9, 2006 12:31 AM.

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