This is a follow-up to this post, where I discussed a bit about my journey that started with music, took me far away, and brought me back. As I’ve composed new music in recent years, I’ve repeatedly encountered requests from people who weren’t sure how to think about this kind of music, and who weren’t sure they were listening to it correctly. (Spoiler alert: you can’t do it wrong! “Listening incorrectly” is not a real thing!!) I thought it might be helpful to share some general thoughts about music and music composition in today’s world.
One thing we have to acknowledge upfront is that the world is changing: streaming services have collapsed compensation for artists. Music is becoming an ever-present commodity, perhaps reduced to a triviality—if our lives have constant background tracks, does any of that music really matter? Commercialization of the art has only increased, and popularity seems detached from substance in a way that maybe wasn’t true even 20 years ago.
In the classical world, institutions are under constant and increasing pressure. The classical music world has not been immune to the sexual and authoritarian scandals that have rocked other areas of the entertainment industry. Most concerts feature the same small list of standards with minimal attention to new works. Audiences seem to be shrinking and aging, and many organizations are closing down due to lack of funding. The future is highly uncertain.
However, we can take solace in this: the world has always been changing. The commercial situation Beethoven knew was vastly different from the one composers faced a generation before. Technological and cultural shifts erased the music of previous generations with some regularity, and it is only a recent idea to be especially interested in the music of older times. Music has largely been an art “of the moment”, and the power to crystalize the zeitgeist of any moment in time is one of music’s special powers. But it is, perhaps, also a weakness. “The moving finger writes, and, having writ, moves on.”
What’s in a name?
The broad term “classical music” is really only useful to differentiate a very broad genre from other types of music. It’s not a great term, as it covers six or seven hundred years of music, written by people in vastly different environments, for different reasons, and with different goals. While I could write pages on why this is a useless label, there is a problem—it’s really hard to come up with a better one.
Classical music, proper, has a specific meaning to a trained musician: music written in Europe (primarily) from roughly 1750 – early 1800s. This music sought connections with the Classical period of antiquity, focusing on elements of form, balance, and clarity. Some of the composers you think of as classical are, indeed, Classical (capital “C”) composers: Mozart, Haydn, and early Beethoven. However, many of the others that fill classical compilation albums do not belong in this period: J.S. Bach, Brahms, and Stravinsky, for example, fall outside of this era.
Of course, words carry impact beyond their meaning. The term “classical music” can be a barrier, and there are certainly gatekeepers who want to keep that barrier strong. There are also economic realities to consider—those who pay for the music gain a lot of control. People unfamiliar with this music might think it boring or stuffy, and some performance practices and audience standards can reinforce that concern. But it’s important to remember that this was a living tradition. Performances of what we think of as potentially stuffy music today often featured raucous audiences who threw things at the performers when they were unhappy and demanded repeats of works they loved.
I’m not suggesting we bring beer steins back to Carnegie Hall (although…), but perhaps we should consider that this music does not belong exclusively to white-haired people in expensive evening wear—the art covers the full range of human experience, and is probably a tie-in to the very first proto-human attempts at language. There’s a thought that we built cathedrals to mimic the sonic conditions we experienced singing and drumming in caves for tens of thousands of years. There is magic here, in sound—old magic, deep magic, magic that matters. It says something about what we are and what we might become.
Is there a better name?
Composers today are still writing music that falls under the general label “classical,” but that term makes no sense at all: at the very least, classical should apply to music that is older and could somehow be considered “classics.” The idea of a “modern classic” might sell books, but it’s a contradiction in terms, at best.
We must, however, still use this label as a broad differentiator. I think “concert music” is probably a better term: this suggests that 1) the music is intended to be played by humans, and 2) is designed for focused listening. It is not music to accompany a film or to be used as a background track in a yoga class. It is music carefully constructed to be worthy of a listener’s time, focus, and attention.
That is one of the distinctions of the art: Jean-Michel Basquiat said, “Art is how we decorate space; music is how we decorate time.” True, but it goes deeper: music can only exist in time. A listener can only experience a piece of music in the time defined by that piece of music. It’s nonsensical to think you could experience Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in five minutes—the work lasts well over an hour. Music only exists in time, and it defines our experience of time, just as art and architecture structure our experience of space. (I would further add that movement art, such as dance, can only exist in both time and space.)
Some practical tips for listening
You can apply this to the piece I linked in the previous post, or to any piece of music you wish. These are not firm instructions, but rather ideas that might give you some insight into how a musician would approach and think about a piece of music.
- Listen more than once. Most of this music will reveal different things on subsequent hearings. At the very least, I would listen to a new piece of music two times: first, to get an overall sense of the thing, and second, to pay attention to details. True study could require more than a dozen encounters spread over several days.
- What are the most salient (obvious) things? Do you hear divisions, or “scene changes”? Do you hear any repetition of material? Do you hear anything that “kind of sounds like” something you’ve heard before? Is there an overall shape to the piece of music, in terms of volume, speed, or emotion?
- Assume everything matters. Every note on the page was set down with deliberation. Every tiny nuance of any performance was created by someone who has likely spent tens of thousands of hours, and a meaningful percentage of her life, holding her instrument. What expressive resources are the performers accessing? Are some notes louder or softer? Are some things delayed or pushed forward? Are there differences in tone quality? What could these details mean?
Of course, there’s much more you can do with this, but I don’t want to be overly prescriptive here. Rather, I want to encourage you to engage with a piece of music—any piece, really. Give it a few listenings and see how your own perception changes over time. I’ll follow up with another post, soon, in which I share some perspectives on how a composer creates a piece of music. There are lessons in that process that can be applied to work in many other fields.