The Classical Music Concert and the Physics Talk, or Why I Hope More Young People Aren’t Avoiding Classical Music Because They Can’t Master It Immediately.

So, in a previous post I promised I would write something up in answer to a question posed to me at the Takacs concert, namely, “How do you experience live classical music, and how much of the time during the concert do you feel that you’re fully present to the music itself?” I made some grand claims that I would get to it next week, but I’ve recently discovered that what I have to say on the subject is short enough that perhaps it’s better just to put it into words now while it’s fresh in my head.

The answer, of course, is different depending on whether we’re talking about classical music that I know quite well or something I’m hearing for just the first or second time. If I know it well, then of course, the experience is no different than watching a concert of any other kind, at least in terms of my “presence” to the music. I’m there to feel the familiar rhythms and trace the melodic twists and turns as they make their familiar, welcome shapes known, while savoring the subtle variations that creep in to remind me that the music is being created right before my eyes. But I think what my friend was asking about was in fact the other case: what happens when you go to a classical concert and see music performed that isn’t already well known to you?

In such a case, of course, I inevitably can’t manage to keep the full force of my attention on the music the whole time. And part of this, of course, is simply that natural tendency for our attention to wander; in time it takes to play a 40 minute quartet like “Death and the Maiden,” anyone not familiar with it is bound to occasionally be distracted by the remembrance of some chore they have to do when they get home, for example. But even beyond this, I find that when I encounter classical music for the first time, I cannot follow it fully the first time through. What happens is that I latch on to a musical thread that I can identify (the initial theme, perhaps) and attempt to cling to it as it winds its way around, twists, turns, and changes form. I hold on to it for as long as I can, but inevitably it eludes me, turns some corner where I lose sight of it, or simply vanishes altogether.

Sometimes when this happens, I am lucky and a new theme appears to take its place, but more often, I discover that the latest “musical idea” was presented a while ago while I was still obsessed with the original, and that I now have to do some catch-up work if I want to get on the same page. Its situations like these where my brain can cease to be fully “present” to the music, opting instead to simply stand in place like a lost child in a big city, spinning in circles and taking in the blur of faces and sounds around me as I wait for someone familiar to come and scoop me up. Thats what my friend meant, I think, by being “lost in the ambiance,” and while he described it as something he was mildly ashamed of (he called himself a “bad classical music listener”) I think its simply a necessary part of encountering a piece for the first time. Perhaps my friends with more experience in listening to classical music will disagree with me there, and perhaps with time one learns more of the “tricks of the trade” and can more readily anticipate the addition of new themes to follow, but I, at least, have simply come to expect that from time to time I will be thrown off the melody’s track, and will have to wait till it shows itself again more prominently to find it again.

I’m not ashamed of this because it’s not unlike my experiences in reading a great book: if its something simple like a “Hardy Boys” mystery, of course, I can probably read it straight through without stopping, but if it’s more complex, like “The Brothers Karamazov,” perhaps, then I inevitably have to stop, re-read, retrace, and turn pages backwards and forwards from time to time to make sure I’ve followed all the subtleties.

Even with such re-reading, of course, I don’t get everything the first time through, and it takes many tries at a book, I think, to absorb it’s story fully. In a classical concert, however, you aren’t given the luxury of pausing to clear your head or turn back the page and start over with a particularly tricky passage. As Emily Dickinson might have said, although I stopped for “Death and the maiden,” it would not stop for me. And hence, if I were hearing it for the first time, I could easily get lost in its mysterious passages.

These thoughts had been bouncing around in my head all throughout last week, popping up from time to time, as I struggled to find a way to adequately describe the experience. Then, on Friday afternoon, I found myself thinking about it again– in the middle of a physics seminar. And it was at that moment that I realized, live classical music is very, very much like a great physics talk, to me. There is so much going on in it that it can be frighteningly hard to follow. Now, if you’ve seen it before, if you know the field, then of course it is simply a delight to see how this particular presenter explains the topic, but if you’re new to it, you cannot help but get lost from time to time. And for me at least, when I do, there’s nothing for it but to sit and wait for something to appear that I can sink my teeth into again– perhaps the re-emergence of a familiar theme or idea, or perhaps the introduction of a new concept made so obvious that I cannot help but notice it. But in the meanwhile, it does me no good to stare dizzily at the mathematics appearing on the screen before me. Chances are, I missed something I needed in order to understand them a few slides ago, while I was distracted by the other part of the slide that was more approachable to me. And I don’t feel particularly ashamed by that: I am doing the best I can to get as much as possible out of the talk when I am, shall we say, “sight-hearing it.” Just as layer upon layer of intricacies have been carefully built up into a symphony, so too have years of research lead this presenter to be able to summarize a complex equation in just a few sentences, but why should I feel bad if I can’t shortcut these years of work on the very first time? In fact, if anything, the music has a clear advantage here, because at least when I get intellectually “lost” in it, there still remains a wealth of emotional enjoyment available to me until I can figure out where it’s going again.

So I hope most people out there, especially people my age, aren’t afraid of listening to classical music just because they can’t immediately appreciate all of it like a pro the first time they hear it. No one, not even the smartest of the professors I know, claims to be able to follow all of a talk they see the first time they see it. And if anyone my age told me they had read “Brothers K” once, taken it in fully, and concluded that they understood the story but that Dostoevsky needed a strong editor*, I would  simply assume they were an intellectual phony. Any yet I sense all that time that part of the reason people don’t like classical music is because it takes a small amount of actual work to get to know it, even if much of that work can be done passively by just listening to it over and over again. I think, often, young people go to the symphony with their parents and can’t immediately appreciate every single note, and they see folks around them applauding and acting as though they understood the whole thing and conclude they’re just not cut out to be symphony goers.

In my opinion, however, it’s the people brashly pretending to understand it all who are, in fact, doing a disservice to the music. I can’t imagine that most of them really have achieved that deep of an understanding. And that’s just fine, but they shouldn’t be disingenuous about it, because it scares off young people who feel like they must not be smart enough to appreciate it right away. Maybe 300 years ago when symphonies were much more commonplace, and everyone knew the details of symphonic form well, and had also experienced several bad symphonies for every great work of Mozart’s they heard premiered, people could be expected to get more out of a symphony on the first try. But these days, when we are left with only the greatest, and most complicated pieces from which to learn to appreciate classical music, I hope that no one feels bad when they have to listen several times before they start to learn what makes the music special. In fact, I hope they feel great about themselves that they were willing to listen more than once.

*By the way, someone I know actually DID say this once. But they were a young freshman trying to prove their intellectual worth in an intimidating crowd of smart people at the time, and I think they’ve since learned their lesson.


About Colin West
Colin West is a graduate student in quantum information theory, working at the Yang Institute for Theoretical Physics at Stony Brook University. Originally from Colorado (where he attended college), his interests outside of physics include politics, paper-folding, puzzles, playing-cards, and apparently, plosives.

2 Responses to The Classical Music Concert and the Physics Talk, or Why I Hope More Young People Aren’t Avoiding Classical Music Because They Can’t Master It Immediately.

  1. Katrina Nilsson-Gorman says:

    Huh. This is so interesting Colin! As a music major, I think about this all the time. I have a tendency to drift off during concerts during the development of a piece and I’ve always felt rather ashamed about this. There is a vague tugging of some educational instinct at my conscience telling me that I should really attempt figure out what sort of keys the piece is drifting into or at the very least, not thinking about the laundry that I forgot to put in the dryer before I left the house.

    In any case, my thoughts on the matter really boil down to the fact that I think the composer him/her self usually tends to explore foreign territory during the development. The general idea is to get lost, confused, and perhaps a bit distracted. How else could the resolution, the return of a familiar theme, be so intensely satisfying?

  2. Paul West says:

    People who know how much l love classical music often seem jump to the conclusion that I approach it intellectually. I wish that were true, but in fact I experience music emotionally, and that is in itself sufficient reward for me to enjoy classical music concerts. It does thrill me to have someone who actually knows explain to me what is going on. It is also great fun to learn of the clever things the composer has done to create what just sounds beautiful. I imagine that the gorgeous melodies of Rachmaninoff’s Paganini variations must be almost universally appealing, yet it is endlessly fascinating to me that the most famous of them all was the result of Rachmaninoff employing a technical trick of flipping the original Paganini melody upside down and backwards. Imagine doing that with anything else besides music and getting such a delightful result! The intellectual layers of musical composition do offer the advantage of endless rediscovery. I fell in love with Brahms’s fourth symphony almost 40 years ago, and yet I was so excited to realize while listening to a live performance this summer that I finally could follow where most of the variations begin in his amazing chaconne last movement. One must wonder why that should be any problem at at all, yet for me it took the explanation of a pre-concert lecturer for me to understand how to follow that simple detail. My advice to anyone contemplating attending a classical music concert for the first time is to relax and enjoy the sounds, let them elicit whatever emotions they may provoke, even if that results in the mind wandering and day-dreaming. If the music appeals, there will be opportunities later to understand how it does such miraculous things at another time. Live performances are absolutely the best way to enjoy classical music.

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