What Is Music to Our Ears?

By

`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.

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.

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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.

I became aware of poor musicianship, bad taste, and insensitivity - though I was always glad when I didn't find them. Where formerly I allowed myself to float away on wings of song into the world of the imagination, I found myself listening critically for form and structure, trying to classify, trying to impress certain things on my memory, listening for many things. Sometimes I found myself becoming annoyed with myself for these reactions, and wistfully wishing I could recapture the innocent thrill I once got out of concerts.

Yet on the whole I am convinced that learning about music - although it does tend to destroy the type of listening enjoyment I have described - brings so much that is of value that the loss is practically nil, the gain a great one.

When one studies music history even in a superficial way, he achieves a broader outlook, his curiosity is aroused, he begins to lose his fear of the unfamiliar names on the programs. A desire to become more thoroughly acquainted with the vast musical literature results, and this desire grows continually. One finds himself becoming less biased. Thus the possibilities of kinds of music he can appreciate are enlarged.

Even a slight acquaintance with the fundamentals of harmony and counterpoint, and of musical form in general, opens one's ears to beauties unrecognized previously, and brings an intellectual activity to listening which adequately replaces the former dreaming attitude.

Good training in music and the cultivation of true musicianship may make one more critical than his unsuspecting friend who sighs ``Wasn't that lovely?'' after the performer with the beautiful voice has just committed unpardonable musical blunders. But on the other hand, training enhances the performance of the true artist because it brings an appreciation of many fine points that are lost on the crowd.

And far from making one ``highbrow'' or narrow-minded, the intelligent study of music should make one realize that there is a place in the world for many kinds of music. Simply because one has learned to appreciate the beauties of Bach does not mean that one must throw Tchaikovsky out the window just because he is the opposite of Bach in intent and content. One begins to realize that there is room for all kinds of music.

All this was brought home to me quite clearly one day. I had been listening to a recording of the Bach B Minor Mass. It was the first time I had heard the work. When I first listened to the opening ``Kyrie'' with the score open in front of me, it was just a lot of beautiful sound. Then I played it through five times, each time following a different voice part in the score - first the soprano, then the alto, and so on. I then played it the sixth time without watching the score, and was delighted to find that it all made sense and was one of the most powerful works I had ever heard.

The same day I went to one of the city churches to hear a performance of Rossini's ``Stabat Mater'' - a theatrical, showy, operatic piece - shallow, if you like, but brilliant. I had a little difficulty adjusting at first, but soon I was enjoying it, because I stopped listening for something that wasn't there and began to appreciate what was there. The difference between the two works might be compared to the difference between eating a thick, juicy steak and a delicious piece of rich pastry. They are certainly equally good, but dramatically different. The first is undoubtedly the more substantial, satisfying, and nourishing. But the latter adds zest and delight to the meal.

Similarly, our musical diet should be well-balanced and flexible enough to include a large variety of styles. A more intimate knowledge of the nature of music can bring this desirable balance to our listening.

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