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Listen to Classical Music like an Expert

By Edited Oct 5, 2016 3 8

Many people are intimidated by classical music because they simply do not know anything about classical music. However, listening to classical music can be enjoyable and have many health benefits, so if you have wondered what you are supposed to be hearing, and why classical music has endured through the centuries, when popular music disappears after a few months, here are some basics that are taught to musicians who are training to be experts, that may help you to increase your enjoyment of classical music. (And if you think knowing something about classical music will spoil your enjoyment, let me assure you, it doesn't. For me, a relevant example is baseball games. Now, the only thing I understand about a baseball game is drinking the beer. But I suppose if I really understood baseball well, I would get enjoyment out of a baseball game, as regular fans do, rather than just getting wasted and consuming far too many calories. In the same way, understanding more about classical music will increase your enjoyment, simply because you know what is going on!) For each question that you can successfully answer, ask yourself whether this is a kind of sound you enjoy -- if so, you can write down the name of the composer and begin to find other works written by the same person, or people who lived at the same time and same general place, and start exploring new composers from there.

  • Sound - First, just listen to the sound of the composition. Is it written for one instrument? A small number of instruments? A large number of instruments? Is the whole piece of music in a very narrow pitch range? Does it have extreme highs, or lows, or both? If the composition is for instruments, are the instruments strings, brass, percussion, voices, or winds, or is it written for a mixture of all of them? Are there sections where solo instruments alternate with other instruments, or do all the instruments play together all the time? Are all the instruments playing notes at the same time, or does it sound like some instruments are doing one thing, and other instruments are doing something entirely different?
  • Harmony - Do the harmonies sound pleasing or displeasing? Are the harmonies predictable, or do the changes in the harmony surprise you? Does the piece sound sad or mysterious (which would indicate a minor key) or happy (which would indicate a major key), or does it move back and forth between them? If a piece has a number of sections, are they all in the same harmony, or is each section starting in a different harmony? If the piece changes harmonies, does it change slowly, or with a number of different harmonies in fast succession? Can you pick out the key a piece is in, or is it difficult to make out?
  • Melody - Is there a melody you can sing or hum? Is there a melody at all? If there is a melody, does it move gradually up and down, or does it leap all over the place, or is there a mixture of gradual and wide movement? If there is some wide movement, does it take you by surprise, or did you expect it? Does the melody sound pleasing or is it too disjointed? If you hear part of the melody, can you predict the next part, or does the melody continually surprise you? If there are multiple instruments or voices, does each one play the melody at the same time, or different times, or does each instrument seem to have its own melody?
The Music Lesson
Credit: Johannes Vermeer
  • Rhythm - Is the composition fast or slow, or does it change back and forth between being fast and being slow? Is there a regular pattern to the alternation of fast and slow? Is the beat steady, or does it seem to start and stop? Do the notes all have the same length, or are some very short and some very long? If so, is there a pattern to the variation? Is it easy or difficult to tap the rhythm of the notes you hear? Does the composition seem to break down into groups of two notes, three notes, four notes, six notes, or some other combination? Do the notes play together or separately?
  • Growth - Is the composition long or short? Does it seem to have different parts, or is it not easily divided into different sections? Does the same section seem to get played again? If it does, is it identical, or a variation of the section you heard before? Can you hear the same pattern over and over again, or does it seem similar? Does the composition seem to have verses like a song? Is there a section with just one instrument, and then a lot of instruments, and just one instrument again? If so, do those sections alternate regularly, or is there a pattern?
  • Text - Are there words in the composition? Are they spoken or sung? What language is the text in? Do the words seem to go with the melody or do they not seem to fit (like the accent being on the wrong syllable)? Are there different people singing different things at the same time, or a number of people alternating, or the same singer or speaker throughout? What do the words mean? Does the meaning of the words fit with the emotion of the music?

Armed with these basic questions, you should be able to begin to understand more about what you should listen for in classical music, and start to broaden your enjoyment of classical music. As you listen to a number of classical compositions, you can begin to understand and apply this reasoning to each piece you hear, and you should begin to feel a little less lost when listening to classical music. Of course, this article is only the beginning, and you should read other articles on classical music, and learn to identify the different styles and periods of classical music, and begin to figure out which kinds of classical music you like. And a few weeks from now, you will find yourself starting to enjoy classical music more, merely by paying attention to what you are listening to. You will find that the different periods of classical music, and different composers, will have entirely different sounds, and learn which ones you enjoy the most. And there you have it -- welcome to the wonderful world of classical music!

The NPR Listener's Encyclopedia of Classical Music
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Even if you don't listen to NPR, you will enjoy this book, which includes website links to hundreds of images and recordings, as well as recommended recordings to buy.


Aug 15, 2010 9:19pm
I find classical music soothing when I am stressed. Great article!
Aug 19, 2010 7:44pm
Thank you for a good, non-technical explanation of listening to classical music. I hope you put this kind of article up all over the place! And I hope lots of people find every one of them.
Nov 29, 2010 2:22am
So that is how to listen to classical music :) Great article.
Nov 29, 2010 7:28pm
Nicely done and I backlinked this to stumbleupon for you:)
Jan 6, 2011 2:39pm
Great Article!
Apr 4, 2011 9:35pm
Thanks for writing this article. I use several of these techniques to develop listening skills with my middle school music students, and its great that you're making this info accessible to the general public!
Jul 8, 2011 10:05pm
If you listen to classical music carefully enough, you can start to hear the individual instruments. Later, you can hear each individual player. This type of music has been very popular for hundreds of years - for a reason!
Aug 14, 2011 5:22am
Great article and good tips for listening to classical music.
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