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What Is Music to Our Ears?

By Doris Kerns Quinn / October 16, 1990

`YOU'RE too critical,'' my friend said after I made some comments about a concert we had just heard together. ``That's the way you musicians are. You can't really enjoy music. I'm glad I don't know much about it - it would spoil it all for me!'' I am not a professional musician, and so do not merit being referred to as my friend did when she included me in ``you musicians.'' But I do have a musical background and feel that it has enriched my life immeasurably.

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This brings me to the question, Does the inexperienced but appreciative layman or the musically educated individual get more enjoyment out of listening to music?

It has been argued that as a person's technical knowledge of music is increased, he becomes more critical, and his capacity for pure enjoyment of music becomes proportionately limited, whereas the uninitiated person is totally unaware of many of the elements which draw the attention of the serious student of music, and he is therefore unhampered in his innocent and unquestioning enjoyment of the music. He surrenders to it, untroubled by technicalities or disillusioning information, and not highly enough trained to perceive slight defects in the performance. Knowing little of the laws of music (its form and structure) and less about its physical nature, he is inclined to envelop it in a misty, mysterious halo as something quite incomprehensible and ``other-worldly.'' He brings a more romantic attitude to his listening, and consequently has a more highly emotional response. Therefore it is argued that his enjoyment is greater than that of the more sophisticated, musically trained listener.

The musically educated listener is also often accused of being ``highbrow'' - especially if he likes Bach better than, say, Tchaikovsky, because of the intellectual content. But who says music should appeal only to the emotions? Surely the complex fugues of Bach and others of his period stimulate the mind as well as the feelings and give great impetus to energy.

There is, nevertheless, something to be said for this argument. Learning about music does, after a certain point, tend to take away that element of mystery that is so fascinating.

WHEN I think back to my first musical experiences, I realize how different was my attitude then. Music was something so glorious that the merest melody running through my head would fill me with a happy, almost spiritual exaltation. When I attended a concert, my excitement was always high; I felt that music was something incomparably glamorous. Sometimes I attended outdoor symphony concerts, and gazing up at the stars, I listened dreamily to music from the Romantic period. I was conscious of little but the sheer beauty of the sound and the emotional response it awakened in me, and I was content.

It is indeed true that after four or five years of concentrated study of music, my attitude changed considerably. I attended many more concerts than in previous years, and I certainly did not feel that romantic thrill that I experienced then. Whereas in those years I scanned the programs eagerly for familiar compositions and composers, I later scanned them just as eagerly for anything unfamiliar. And whereas formerly I gazed in awed admiration at the performers, I began to eye them more skeptically, my ears open for many things that would have passed unnoticed before because of the glamour of a beautiful voice or the facile technique of an instrumentalist.