Getting Back to Music is a book-length didactic dialogue about classical music. The participants are a music professor and four undergraduate students who are taking his music appreciation class. The dialogue is divided into nine chapters, preceded by a prologue and followed by an epilogue. Two “interludes” take on tangential—but important—topics of discussion. The ninth and culminating chapter is an essay about Beethoven’s Ninth; all the other chapters, including the prologue, interludes, and epilogue, are dialogues. In addition, the book includes a glossary of musical terms, a list of all the featured pieces of music in chronological order, and a bibliography. The entire text is around 61,000 words long, making it the length of a short book. On this website, you will find the table of contents, the prologue, and all the listening guides referred to in the text. Feel free to contact me if you are interested in reading the complete book. (David underscore Salvage at . . . well, it rhymes with “wahoo.”)
The relative brevity of Getting Back to Music has to do with its very focused approach to music appreciation. No attempt is made to give students an overview of music history; nor is there any sustained effort to tie classical music to cultural movements with which students might have some familiarity from other classes. There is no coverage whatsoever of world music, jazz, or popular music.
Instead, the book approaches music appreciation by starting with certain assumptions about the expectations students carry over from popular music. Though popular music is vast and varied, the ubiquity of the three-to-four-minute-long beat-driven song performed by amplified ensembles consisting of some combination of guitars, drums, and keyboards is obvious. That listeners thus get used to a particular length for songs, a particular approach to rhythm, the presence of lyrics, and certain timbres is only natural. In the classical repertory, many pieces gratify these expectations, and such works are relatively accessible to listeners new to classical music. But such likenesses cannot be counted on. Many, many classical works make demands of listeners that popular music simply does not prepare them to handle.
Each chapter of Getting Back to Music singles out a musical characteristic that is common in classical music but uncommon in popular music. The professor then guides the students through a sequence of pieces whose first example takes a familiar approach to the given characteristic but whose subsequent examples adopt an incrementally less familiar approach. Take musical duration, for example. Classical pieces are quite often much longer than popular ones. To begin accustoming his students to this, the professor listens with them to pieces whose lengths wouldn’t be unusual in pop music; he then chooses pieces that are longer and longer until reaching a single work that is over twenty minutes in length. Another example would be lyrics. Classical pieces not only often do away with them: classical pieces often lack altogether a central story or image. To get his students used to this, the professor listens with them to pieces that are at first intimately connected to stories and images and then moves on to pieces whose connection to extra-musical things is tenuous and speculative—so-called “absolute music.”
It is not hard to think of other characteristics of classical music that might have been addressed by the professor: its approaches to harmony and form come to mind. However, the present chapters do reflect important hang-ups that I have observed as a music appreciation teacher; they also have the benefit of being largely non-technical: while some technical discussion is unavoidable, the professor makes every effort to stay away from theoretical explication.
For a text so short, Getting Back to Music features a lot of music: there are some ninety individual listening guides, encompassing music from the late seventeenth century to the late twentieth century. In large part, this abundance reflects an “immersion” approach inspired by language learning; indeed, I encourage students to think of this book as a trip to a foreign country where the inhabitants speak “classical.” However, the number of listening guides should not be daunting. They are all grouped into lists that usually contain three or four pieces each. Each chapter, in turn, has about three listening lists. The professor and the students only discuss the first listening list in each chapter, taking the pieces one at a time. After this discussion, the professor hands out two “additional” listening lists for the students to go through on their own. These lists parallel the trajectory of the list the professor and students listened to together. So, on this website, once you have passed through the first listening list in a chapter—with the exception of chapter 7, which has a slightly different organization—you will have gone through all the music the professor and students discuss in the text.
Finally, though the dialogue is didactic in nature and the professor’s insights are the most informed, Getting Back to Music is not a one-way street: the professor is not infallible, the students are not clueless; they are not afraid to challenge him, and he is not above conceding a point or two along the way. To the extent the genre allows, it was important to me to make the professor and the students real people who bring to the discussion their own experiences, opinions, and personal issues. Classical music is not a pastime exclusively for the highly educated, just as popular music is not a playground made for those with underdeveloped artistic sensibilities. Real people with blind spots and wisdom like both, and a dialogue between the two camps should reflect this.
--R. David Salvage, February 2017