Classical music covers a very broad span of music from the Medieval to the present day. Each era of music has its unique characteristics and idiosyncrasies. To find your way towards a richer appreciation of a thousand years of musical and cultural history is no modest undertaking, but there are a few options I am about to suggest that I hope will help.
One route I have found successful, in a teaching capacity at least, has been to listen to a variety of classical music and see which piece inspires you or evokes some kind of emotional response. If there is a particular instrument, voice, or ensemble that you enjoy the sound of, this could help narrow down the selection process. My first instrument was the piano, and so I found myself interested to know more about Beethoven or Mozart. It was this interest that spurred a deeper appreciation of classical music in general.
How to Understand and Appreciate Classical Music
From this humble beginning, I began to read about the composers I liked and tried to understand how they did what they did. Part of my reason for this was to be able to perform the pieces I enjoyed in a manner close to what the composer intended. As I was also beginning to compose music too, I wanted to see behind the notes and know why these great classical composers chose the notes they did and put them together in the way that they did. In a sense, this academic approach to understanding Classical music was something that suited me and provided me with a foundation of musical knowledge that allowed me to eventually study music at university.
Appreciation of Classical music, just the same as an appreciation of Jazz or Popular Music does not have to involve years of study but can be tackled on a much more friendly footing. Tuning in to a radio station like Classic FM can be an excellent starting point. Often the music is briefly introduced by the presenter with a few choice facts about the music, then part or all of the work is played. This particular station I mention as the selection of music tends towards the more well-known and popular side of the Classical repertoire that may be an engaging and approachable way to get further into Classical music.
In the top ten Classical pieces, there is ‘Eine kleine Nachtmusik’ (K.525) by Mozart;
‘Für Elise’ by Beethoven;
‘Toccata and Fugue in D minor’ by JS Bach;
and the ‘Symphony No.5’ by Beethoven.
These pieces have been popular for hundreds of years because there is something about them, amongst many other classical works, that appeals to a huge amount of people. Trying to fathom out why these compositions appeal on such a large scale can bring about a fuller understanding of the music itself. This, in turn, can give rise to a more fulfilling listening experience.
Before we delve further into the practicalities of this I must emphasize that listening is key. This may appear like an obvious thing to point out, but music is rarely just listened to. It often accompanies us at the gym, underscores a movie or advertisement, and is heard but not truly listened to. If you try to listen hard to any piece of music, the music begins to reveal its innermost secrets.
By this I refer to subtle changes in dynamics or expression; harmonies; the rise, fall, and phrase of a melody; changes in ensemble or textures, or rhythms, motifs, and tempo (speed), of the piece. These musical elements are not things that we are encouraged to listen for. Much popular music these days may provide a singable melody with a supporting repetitive beat but it does not invite deeper appreciation unless you are a production enthusiast, and that is another story. Popular music is designed to provide a background to our activities whereas Classical music, I would argue, has more to listen for and if you wish your appreciation to develop, listening deeply is a fine place to start.
Classical music can be reduced to background music and in fact ‘Eine kleine Nachtmusik’, was broadly intended by Mozart to be just that. But, this does not mean that the music has nothing below its surface; it does, and here is where the journey into the piece begins. If you listen, you begin to pick out more details. The melody on the opening movement, which is so popular, is a rising arpeggio figure that features in this section of the work. It is in a major key. The speed of the piece is quick (allegro), and the opening melody is played by unison strings. At first, this is challenging, but break down the listening into different elements.
Start by focusing on what is often the more dominant feature of a piece of music; the melody. Listen to the ‘shape of the melody’ and perhaps which instrument or voice has the melody. Does it swap maybe from one instrument to another? Listen again to the pieces, trying this time to hear the speed (tempo) of the music, and any repeating rhythmic ideas that maybe there. With the next listening, you could focus on the changes in volume (dynamic), to see what you hear. Are some instruments louder than others? At what volume does the melody start and end? Does it remain the same throughout this passage?
These are suggestions that would benefit from a little theoretical knowledge as well as concentrated listening. Knowing, for example, the names and sounds of orchestral instruments would be helpful. Being aware that music is often a melody plus an accompaniment (homophonic), so you can identify both parts of what is being played. Some music involves more than one melody, common in Baroque music, and this would be called polyphonic. A sketch in your mind of the characteristics of the period of music you are listening to will provide a backdrop of key elements to listen out for. You could make a brief tick list to help out.
Ultimately, a combination of contextual, theoretical, and practical musical knowledge will develop your appreciation more quickly. Patience is essential as it takes time and focus to gain musical understanding and allow your listening skills to grow. It goes without saying, but a passion for the music you are listening to will greatly assist your exploration of the wonders of Classical music.