Sam and the Professor – Why we study classical music – Sophia – Not confusing what's normal with what's right – Differing orientations of classical and popular music
College was almost over for Sam. A senior, he needed to make decisions soon about what to do with the rest of his life: the “real world” would be upon him before he knew it. How would he make a living? Would he be stuck at some boring desk job forever? What if he didn’t find anything? What would he do then? He didn’t want to be a failure.
To graduate, he had to take an arts class. He hadn’t done it yet, and Music Appreciation fit easily into his schedule. He figured music wouldn’t be too hard: he liked it a lot and listened to everything from indie-rock to electronica. When he learned, however, that the class would be mostly about classical music, he became impatient. Not only had his few encounters with classical been boring: his anxieties about post-collegiate life resurfaced. Why did he have to take a class about Mozart and Beethoven when he had more pressing things to attend to?
Indignant, he decided to go to the professor’s office hours one day and bring up his concerns.
The professor asked him where he was from and what he was majoring in. They chatted idly about the area of the country where Sam grew up (the professor was familiar with it) and the faculty members in Sam’s major—econ—whom the professor knew. Sam found out a little about the professor. He was in his sixth year teaching at the college and liked it there well enough. Sometimes he wished he taught at a larger school; but such leisurely conversations as this were easier to have at small schools, he was told, and he enjoyed getting to know the students.
PROFESSOR So. What brings you to office hours, Sam?
SAM Well, there’s something I don’t understand.
PROFESSOR There’s a lot I don’t understand either.
SAM Why do I need to learn about classical music?
PROFESSOR Ah! Well, can I ask you a question first?
PROFESSOR Have you ever taken a literature class here?
PROFESSOR Which one?
SAM Twentieth-Century American Lit with Dr. B---.
PROFESSOR Oh, Dr. B---‘s great! Which authors did you read?
SAM Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Toni Morrison . . .
PROFESSOR Did you ever ask Dr. B--- why you needed to learn about American literature?
PROFESSOR Well, why not?
SAM I guess . . .
PROFESSOR Maybe you already knew why?
SAM Maybe . . . because reading great literature helps you learn to write well?
PROFESSOR Okay. But the authors you named are all novelists.
PROFESSOR Are you planning to write a novel someday?
PROFESSOR So, what is it you’re learning about writing?
SAM Maybe . . . like, tone of voice. When you read a novel, you see how to take different tones of voice. And this is good for something even just like an e-mail. When I’m writing to my mom or to my boss, I should use different tones. The wrong tone can cause offense.
PROFESSOR That’s a good answer.
SAM So, even though I’m not going to be a novelist, I am going to be writing a lot and so reading literature makes sense. But I’m not going to be writing music. I don’t even play an instrument.
PROFESSOR But you are going to be listening to music, aren’t you?
SAM Yeah . . .
PROFESSOR Can’t learning about classical music help you become a better listener, whether you’re going to be listening to classical music or not?
SAM I . . . guess so. But why is it important for me to be better at listening to music—something most everybody’s good at already?
PROFESSOR Good listeners understand what they’re listening to. And the more you understand something, the less boring it becomes. The less bored you are, the more meaningful your life is. And don’t you want your life to be as meaningful as possible?
SAM Okay . . .
PROFESSOR My guess is you find classical music boring.
SAM I’ve never really listened to it.
PROFESSOR But when you have . . .
SAM I know people like it because it’s relaxing.
PROFESSOR Ugh! As if a Beethoven symphony were nothing more than a bubble bath!
SAM But, yeah. I guess I do find classical music boring. I don’t reject it. I just don’t know anything about it.
PROFESSOR And you’ve never been curious?
SAM Honestly? No.
PROFESSOR Of course not. It just struck you as boring sound.
SAM Yeah. So, why does this class focus on classical music? No offense, but, like, nobody listens to it.
PROFESSOR Okay. First, why should there be a class that focuses on music at all? This is easy. Music is unavoidable. It’s everywhere: online, in videos, in stores . . . And we all love certain kinds of music; finding someone indifferent to music is almost impossible. Whether we’re going to be professional musicians or not, we’re often going to be around music, and if we’re better able to understand what we’re hearing, the musical part of our lives will be richer and more rewarding.
PROFESSOR Imagine watching a football game and not knowing how it’s played. You think it’s going to be at all exciting—that is, a rich and rewarding experience?
PROFESSOR Of course not: it’ll just be a bunch of big guys pushing each other around. And that gets boring real quick.
SAM I see what you mean.
PROFESSOR Now, why are we focusing on classical music—instead of, as you say, music which people actually listen to?
SAM Maybe I was being a bit harsh.
PROFESSOR You’re right, though: compared to other kinds of music, few people do listen to classical. But that’s really not relevant: just as being one of the popular kids in school isn’t important, the popularity of what we study needn’t concern us.
What’s important is that we study great things. Now, how do we know something’s great? Well, endurance is one way. Hemingway might not top the bestseller list anymore, but, almost a hundred years after The Sun Also Rises was published, people still read it. Beethoven isn’t number one on the Billboard Top Forty, but, almost two-hundred years after his death, people still play his music. We could make a similar point about science, too. There has been plenty of bad but widely accepted science done in the past, but we don’t study that; we study Darwin and Einstein, scientists whose work has endured, whose theories laid the groundwork for today’s scientific advances. Now, I’m not saying that all achievements that have endured are great. But endurance is impressive, and chances are that lasting achievements—if not always great—are at least worth grappling with. And, well, Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven have lasted. As for the music people listen to today, who knows if it will last or not?
The other reason we focus on classical music has to do with something else that is common in college: we study complicated things. When you were in elementary school, you learned simple things. As you got older, you moved on to more complicated ones. Pop songs are almost always simpler than classical compositions. They are shorter and more repetitive; it’s easier to stay focused on the music and oriented within the structure. This does not make one kind of music better than the other. But it does make Beethoven arguably more appropriate for college, where we’re learning about complicated things and hopefully expanding our ability to perceive coherence in complex structures, whether they be literary, scientific, or musical in nature.
Someone knocked on the door. It was a student named Sophia, a sophomore, who was also in Music Appreciation. She had a quick question about the in-class writing assignment that Friday. But she also wanted to introduce herself.
The professor invited her to join the conversation he and Sam were having. She took a seat and the students got introduced. Sophia had sung in a choir, and the professor asked her if she enjoyed it. She replied that she loved choir, especially when the voices came together in tune. Choir music wasn’t her life, though. She mainly listened to dance music, some pop; a friend had recently introduced her to tango, and she was listening to that non-stop these days. She listened to classical once in a while, particularly when she needed to study: the music helped her concentrate. The Four Seasons was her favorite piece, though she forgot who had written it or when. The professor asked if she found it relaxing.
SOPHIA Some of it. But other times it’s very exciting and energetic—not relaxing at all.
PROFESSOR Do you remember the first time you heard it?
SOPHIA I remember my parents playing it.
PROFESSOR Did you like it right away?
SOPHIA Yes. At least, I don’t remember ever not liking it.
PROFESSOR And you liked it even though you didn’t know who had written it or when.
SOPHIA Is that bad? Sorry!
PROFESSOR It’s fine. I’m just setting up a point. See, lots of people who know next to nothing about classical music nonetheless like The Four Seasons. Like every popular work of art, its popularity is not easy to explain. But I think we can point to a few things behind why it’s loved so much. Sam, have you heard it before?
PROFESSOR Maybe we should listen to a bit of it first. Would you mind? It’s not long.
PROFESSOR I’m going to choose the first movement from the “Winter” section. While listening, try to think about what this music has in common with popular music.
 Words in boldface can be looked up in the Glossary at the end of the book.
Composer: Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741)
Era of music history: Baroque
Life and work: Born to a musical family, Vivaldi was an ordained priest as well as a violinist. He led an orchestra at an orphanage in Venice, Italy, for thirty years and achieved considerable fame there. After his death, however, his music largely fell from notice.
The Four Seasons “Winter.” I. Allegro (1725)
Instrumentation: solo violin and orchestra
Duration: 3 minutes and 20 seconds
Form: ritornello. (The solo violin and orchestra trade sections of music.)
Comment: Each concerto was inspired by a sonnet Vivaldi wrote about that season. The lines that correspond to this movement can be translated as follows:
“Shivering, frozen mid the frosty snow in biting, stinging winds;
running to and fro to stamp one's icy feet, teeth chattering in the bitter chill.”
PROFESSOR So what did you think?
SAM I guess . . . it’s fast. A lot of pop songs are fast.
PROFESSOR True. Did you notice how at the beginning of the piece there was all this pulsing, this “pum, pum, pum, pum”?
PROFESSOR Does that remind you of pop music?
SAM Now that you mention it . . .
SOPHIA There was kind of a strong beat.
PROFESSOR What about the length of the piece? Did it seem long or short to you?
SAM Not particularly either way.
SOPHIA Yeah, it was about normal I think.
PROFESSOR And, though there weren’t any lyrics, could you understand how the music related to the text that inspired it?
SOPHIA You could really hear the trembling and the chattering of the teeth.
SAM I liked it. I thought the violin was kind of shrill at times. But I understood what the composer was trying to do. It really does paint a picture of winter in your mind.
PROFESSOR So, I think part of what makes this piece so popular is that it gratifies a lot of expectations that listeners derive from popular music. Pop songs tend to be under four minutes long, just like what we listened to now and all the other movements of The Four Seasons, for that matter. In this piece at least, Vivaldi’s not asking us to step outside our normal expectations for musical duration.
SAM I can think of some pop songs that are longer than four minutes.
SOPHIA So can I.
PROFESSOR Me too. But we’re talking about norms here. Naturally, there are exceptions.
SAM But I don’t see why length is such a big deal.
PROFESSOR It’s a big deal because we should not confuse what is normal with what is right. Things that aren’t normal often make us uncomfortable; in other words, they strike us as being “wrong.” For instance, we may think a particular three-hour movie is too long; we sit there watching it, getting bored, uncomfortable. Now, maybe the film is too long: maybe the story isn’t interesting enough to deserve our attention for that amount of time. But the film is not too long just because it lasts three hours: nowhere is there some immortal truth that says films are always best if they’re only two hours long. It’s the same with music: there’s no rule that says songs are always best if they’re under four minutes.
Now let’s talk about the rhythm—that “pum, pum, pum, pum.” Pop songs often emphasize the beats like this, usually with a drum set. We’re used to this underlying rhythmic regularity, this heavy beat that gets us dancing, or, at least, our foot tapping or hands clapping. Here, Vivaldi is giving us music that’s “beat driven.” And pop music is nothing if not beat-driven.
SAM There are lots of songs without drums in them.
PROFESSOR Of course!
SAM But, like, what’s the big deal if pop songs all emphasize beats?
PROFESSOR My answer’s the same. Music that’s beat-driven is a norm, and we shouldn’t confuse what is normal with what is right. We can’t claim that music is better when it has a strong beat, that music whose beats do not get such emphasis is lacking something or isn’t as good.
SAM So if beats aren’t good, why does every song use them?
PROFESSOR Aren’t you saying here that whatever’s popular is right?
PROFESSOR Well, what makes you think the ubiquity of beat-driven music means it’s good? Just because we encounter something a lot doesn’t mean it’s good.
SAM But a lot of people like drum beats and the goal of writing a piece of music is to reach people, right? To make them feel something. And if beats help people feel something in the music they hear, then aren’t beats good?
PROFESSOR But just because a lot of people like a song doesn’t mean it’s good. Haven’t you ever disliked a song that’s popular?
SAM I . . . I guess I have.
PROFESSOR If I told you your opinion was invalid because lots of people like that song and it’s all subjective anyway, how would you feel?
SAM Okay, I see what you’re saying.
PROFESSOR This is a big issue that deserves more discussion. But right now the point I’m making is much simpler and doesn’t depend on us untangling the relationship between popularity and quality. I’m just saying there are things we’re used to from pop music, and these things condition our musical expectations. Some classical music does gratify these expectations; but a lot doesn’t. And just because it doesn’t, doesn’t mean the music’s bad or fundamentally boring.
But let’s get back to Vivaldi. In addition to his pop-song duration and driving beats, there’s something else in the music we’re accustomed to. Can you guess?
SAM No . . .
SOPHIA Um . . .
PROFESSOR What’s something else, like, all pop songs have in common?
SAM They’re often about . . . love?
PROFESSOR Not a bad guess. Be more general.
SOPHIA Pop songs are all about . . . something?
SAM I don’t get it.
PROFESSOR What’s Vivaldi’s piece about?
SAM Well . . . winter.
SOPHIA It’s almost like a movie without the movie.
PROFESSOR And pop songs have lyrics, and those lyrics are also about something. So, we’re used to music that tells a story or paints a picture of someone’s personality or mindset or expresses some attitude toward some concrete experience. This is all fine. But it’s not something music has to do. There’s lots of music that isn’t about anything at all, music that lacks any lyrics or descriptive title or . . . anything but the notes and rhythms and instruments and so on. And we shouldn’t think that, just because the music’s not “about” something that there’s something missing. Or the music’s less good. So Vivaldi’s also working within our expectation that music be about something; it’s not hard to relate to The Four Seasons the way we often relate to music—which is, to put it simply, by comparing what it has to say with our own experience.
There are many other musical norms we inherit from pop music.
The songs are usually very repetitive. After the first minute or so, we return to music we’ve already heard, and sections are only about thirty seconds long or so. And there are norms for dynamics and instrumentation. Usually a pop song toggles between one or two dynamic levels. Often a song starts out quiet and then gets louder. Maybe with the return of the verse the music gets a little quiet again. But, honestly, contemporary popular music is generally just . . . loud. And this brings me to another norm. Pop music is amplified. And I think amplification profoundly alters the musical experience.
SAM I don’t see how just putting a mic in front of something makes such a big difference.
PROFESSOR It sure makes the music louder.
PROFESSOR Doesn’t that make quieter music harder to appreciate? Loud becomes normal, and normal becomes right. Given how used we are to loud music, won’t quiet music seem more remote, less catchy, less infectious, more boring than it would if the norm for loudness didn’t exist?
SAM I guess that makes sense. But it also sounds like you think all pop music sounds the same.
PROFESSOR That’s only because I’m listing abstract norms. Of course there’s lots of room for differentiation within the parameters—or, general characteristics—I’ve outlined.
SAM I mean, like, country and metal are two completely different kinds of music.
PROFESSOR And I think my list of abstract norms would apply to both genres.
SAM Metal’s louder.
PROFESSOR Of course. But if metal and country are totally different from each other, then classical music is another universe entirely. All these norms I’ve been mentioning often leave one ill-prepared for classical music, which frequently doesn’t adhere to them. Classical movements are often longer than four minutes. Much longer. Classical music has a more fluid approach to beats and rhythm: the beats are lighter and the rhythm less regular. Often classical music has no subject matter whatsoever—it’s not “about” anything. Classical music is nowhere near as repetitive: the music changes more continually; the sections are longer. Furthermore, there are often lots of louds and softs and in-betweens in the same piece. Classical music almost never is amplified, which means it’s generally softer.
All of this makes classical music less accessible than it should be. Beethoven, Mozart, and the rest encounter a whole raft of expectations that their music has little interest in gratifying. Appreciating classical music means being able to set aside many of your pre-existing notions about how music works and taking up a different set of expectations.
How we do this is by starting with pieces—like The Four Seasons—that conform significantly to what we’re used to. Then, incrementally, we listen to pieces that move away from what we’re familiar with until we arrive at pieces that really seem to come from a world quite apart from popular music.
Would you be up for doing this?
SAM Okay. I’m going to have to leave soon, though.
PROFESSOR Leave whenever you have to. But I just had a good idea about what we might listen to next.