The difficulty of becoming familiar with classical music

I mentioned in this post that I’ve never really been able to “get” classical music — that even my enjoyment of Bach is superficial and basically non-aesthetic in nature.

That’s not entirely true.


Some time ago I thought I could feel a nervous breakdown coming on, the same way you can sense strep throat or a migraine looming in the distance hours or even days before the symptoms begin. Not that I would really know, never having experienced a nervous breakdown, but there’s an instinct for these things; it’s like the way people instinctively know that beer tastes like horse urine even if they’ve never tried the latter beverage. I could feel my spirit shifting around uncomfortably, straining a bit at the walls of its tabernacle, and an inarticulate inner voice whispered something that felt an awful lot like “Set thine house in order, for thou shalt die and not live.”

And then a new presence appeared — a piece of music demanding to be played in my head: “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring.” Something resisted it at first, but finally I opened to it, let those Ezekiel-wheels spin into my mind, let that good angel take possession and drive the devil out. It’s a remarkable piece of music — never pausing for breath, never missing a step, and yet somehow it feels entirely unpremeditated: you can tell that Bach sat down at his harpsichord one day and just played it, never knowing any more than what the very next note should be. “Take no thought beforehand what ye shall speak, neither do ye premeditate: but whatsoever shall be given you in that hour, that speak ye: for it is not ye that speak, but the Holy Ghost.” The music is about taking one step into the dark, and then another, and then another, and — unaccountably — never making a single mistake, never a single sin against perfect beauty.

When the chorale had finished, I knew I would be just fine. Saved — pardon the unpardonable pun — from a fugue by a cantata.


So I guess I understand the “Bach, therefore God” argument a little better than I let on. Of course all that “really” happened was that I felt a little strange, recalled a piece of music I had heard, and felt normal again — but the fact remains that I can’t even begin to describe what the experience was like, subjectively, without casting it in supernatural terms and drawing heavily on the Bible. I experienced it as possession: a bad spirit had taken up residence, and a good spirit drove it out. “Om isn’t just a sound,” someone says somewhere, “it’s a person” — and I could have said the same thing of the Bach piece. And really, is it any less nonsensical for an angel to appear in the form of a piece of music than in the form of a carbon-based organism?

But was it really an angel? And does the whole experience somehow prove that there is a God? No, and no. I’ve no warrant to jump to such conclusions. But I can understand why someone might.


So why, when I was making my confession of musical philistinism, did I forget all about this experience? I’m not sure. I knew that the piece in question was by Bach, but somehow I didn’t make the connection.

“Bach” for me means The Art of Fugue and, really, nothing else. I can name a few other compositions — the Goldberg Variations, the Brandenburg Concertos — but they’re just names. (I think this can be attributed to my having come to classical music by way of geekdom, having first met Bach in company with Gödel and Escher.) Beethoven is the Fifth and Ninth Symphonies (though I can never remember which is which)  and “Für Elise.” I doubt if I could identify a single piece by Mozart. I’ve listened to Don Giovanni many times but would be hard pressed to hum a few bars from it; I find it totally unmemorable. The only other composers with whom I can pretend even the shallowest familiarity are Chopin (Hofstadter’s influence again) and Shostakovich (because some Myers-Briggs book said his music should appeal to the INTP personality type). Chopin — whom I know, for some reason, by his mazurkas rather than his études — is pleasant enough, but I can’t tell one piece from another. I did a pretty good job of convincing myself for a while that I could dig Shostakovich, but it didn’t stick; I remember none of his music. Aside from a few other isolated pieces — “Clair de Lune,” Pachelbel’s Canon in D, Handel’s Messiah, Dvořák’s seventh Humoresque, the usual Tchaikovsky stuff everyone knows, one other piece which I can’t name but know is by Haydn — that’s the extent of my musical knowledge. My “several unsuccessful attempts to cultivate a taste for classical music” have consisted mainly of listening to Art of Fugue, Don Giovanni, and Beethoven’s symphonies over and over and hoping something would click.


But why should it be so? I grew up in a house where classical music was played just as often as pop, so why am I now thoroughly familiar with Simon & Garfunkel and the Moody Blues but almost completely ignorant of Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart? Maybe just because that’s what I liked, but I don’t think that’s the whole answer. My parents and siblings also played a lot of pop music that I didn’t really like, but I have no trouble remembering what it was. With most of the classical stuff, my memory is a complete blank. I know Vivaldi was played a lot; I can even remember what the record covers looked like — but Vivaldi is just a name. I have zero recollection of his actual music. Really nothing whatsoever.

I think a big part of the problem is probably the lack of lyrics — or of lyrics which I can understand, anyway. (Pieces with English lyrics, like the Messiah, are much more memorable.) Remembering a song is easier than remembering an instrumental piece for the same reason that learning how to spell a new English word is easier than learning how to write a new Chinese character: it’s made up of familiar components which have names.

The absence of lyrics also means that there’s no way to “look up” a piece of music you’ve heard and find out what it is. If I hear an unfamiliar song which I like on the radio, it’s easy to find out what it’s called and who it’s by. When it comes to instrumental music, it’s not so easy. For example, the garbage trucks in Taiwan play music to alert people that they are coming, sometimes “Für Elise,” and sometimes Tekla Bądarzewska-Baranowska’s “A Maiden’s Prayer.” Despite having heard that latter piece hundreds and hundreds of times during my eight years in this country, I never knew what it was until a few minutes ago, when I had the bright idea of googling “Taiwan garbage truck music.” There’s no way to look up a melody and get its name, so except in special cases like this one Google is useless.

Even instrumental music from a movie soundtrack isn’t so convenient to look up. I thought one of the pieces in the film Hilary and Jackie was remarkable, so I looked up the soundtrack — and got a list of twenty opaque names like “Prelude from Suite No. 1 in G Major,” any one of which could be the one I was after. I had no choice but to track down each piece on the list, listen to it, and see if it was the one. I got discouraged halfway through this exercise (this was before everything was on YouTube) and never did find it.


Those godawful names for the pieces are a problem in their own right. While several classical pieces do have proper names, it seems the vast majority have only these ugly, soulless, totally forgettable genre-number-key labels. Trying to remember which pieces you like is like trying to remember the Dewey Decimal numbers of your favorite books. “I just love 873.01 V 819-2! What a masterpiece! Even better than 872.01 V 819 in my opinion.” (Virgil’s Georgics and Eclogues, respectively; the only library books that happened to be on my desk.)

Why did so many musicians put up with those horrible names? They’re as bad as Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1, a name which most everyone has the good sense to reject in favor of Whistler’s Mother. (There’s also an Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 2, a portrait of Carlyle in the same style. Whistler’s Mother is so iconic that No. 2 now looks like an L.H.O.O.Q.-style parody.) At least with Whistler’s title I know it refers to one of his gray and black paintings. If I had perfect pitch, I suppose “G Major” would be just as informative as “Grey and Black” — but I don’t have perfect pitch.

But informativeness aside, how did composers stomach those names aesthetically? Bach didn’t name his sons Boy 1, Boy 2, Boy 3, and Boy 4 — that would have been barbaric — so why was he so willing to inflict similar barbarisms on most of his compositions?



Filed under Music

5 responses to “The difficulty of becoming familiar with classical music

  1. I feel similarly about sculpture and ballet – but I don’t (nowadays) feel any need to force myself to ‘appreciate’ them fully and deeply.

    I just accept that these art forms (every bit as artificial and recent in human history as classical music) are not for me.

  2. Assuming your question was not rhetorical, then my answer to why those composers did not name their best compositions like children is this – most musicians are not good with words, the best composers believed they were something like angelically inspired, and did not want to link their beautiful compositions to second-rate titles.

  3. Bruce, you’re probably right. As I said in the earlier post, I’m more or less resigned to my inability to appreciate classical music.

    I wonder, though, why you would say sculpture is a recent development in human history, since it actually predates history proper, going at least as far back as the 22nd century BC.


    Stephen, I see what you mean — but in my opinion, “Orchestral Suite No. 3 in D Major” is a second-rate title. And children, no less than musical compositions, are something of heavenly origin for which no name can be adequate — and yet everyone and everything will inevitably have some name if people are to talk about it (a poet who refuses to title a poem is in practice deciding that its first line shall be its title), so why not try to give it the least-bad name possible?

  4. Samson J.

    And then a new presence appeared — a piece of music demanding to be played in my head: “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring.” Something resisted it at first, but finally I opened to it, let those Ezekiel-wheels spin into my mind, let that good angel take possession and drive the devil out.

    Pretty interesting. Is there an official Mormon position on guardian angels or the like?

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