WHAT IS GREAT MUSIC?

Photo of Ravel piano score excerpt painted on a city building in Minneapolis.

Ravel in Minneapolis

A good question to ponder, with perhaps a different answer for each of us.  For some, great music is music you can dance to.  Or make love to.  For others, great music can lift the spirit from the depths of despair.  Or maybe it’s just relaxing.

I have to admit, I’m not much of a dancer, and frankly, for my money, music and sex make for a rather uncomfortable mix.  But I am a sucker for those romantic, poetic images that can be found in many of the great standard tunes sung by the likes of Sinatra or Nat King Cole, or in the great art songs of Schubert, Brahms, Debussy or Fauré.  For me, great music can be a voyage of mystery, nostalgia, and fantasy.

How About You?  Think of your favorite popular songs or classical works.  Is it the lyrics that get your attention?  Are you hooked by melody, harmonies, or perhaps the backbeat?  Better yet, is it some combination of two or more of these elements that produces a synergy that “sends” you?

It’s Personal.  Back in the mid ‘70s, before the days of “big-box” stores, the internet or MP3 downloads, I worked a summer or two in the records & tapes department of one of our big downtown department stores.  As sales staff it was our job to help customers find what they were looking for.  But unlike with other kinds of merchandise, we found that most of our customers came in already knowing what they wanted, jealously guarding their preferences, and unwilling to consider other things.  And while there might have been a handful of hits that drew lots of sales (that summer the big album was Rumours by Fleetwood Mac), I was struck by the wide variety of artists and genres that met these individual tastes.

My Classical is Your Renaissance.  The same might be said about classical music lovers.  Someone who enjoys opera may not care much for Brahms (who never wrote an opera), whereas a Brahms fan may turn up the nose at Donizetti or Rossini (who wrote mostly opera).  Some prefer symphonic music, while others live for chamber, solo voice or choral.  In other cases, preferences fall by historic period, for example, Baroque vs. 20th Century avant-garde, or Renaissance vs. Romantic periods.

What’s the Matter with Kansas?  I can relate to having those deeply held personal preferences and the frequent myopia that accompanies them:  When I was younger, it was all I could do to get myself to listen to anything new, especially popular music.  I had always had to “be sold” first.  I came to enjoy the group Kansas only after having sat through many card games with friends who constantly played that music.  At first I didn’t care for it, but before long I owned a few Kansas albums.  If I still couldn’t regard it on the same plain as Bach or Rachmaninoff, nonetheless I found the music far more complex, sophisticated and affecting than I would ever have dreamed.

This pattern has repeated often in my musical life.  As I trained to be a classical singer, I only very slowly acquired an appreciation for the rich culture of opera.  Over time, I’ve gotten to know and appreciate the tranquil dignity of Baroque, or the intimacy of chamber music.  Even with my favorite composers my full embrace of some of their pieces took time and patience to achieve.  But once I had, my world was so much the richer from then on.

Make an Investment.  Sometimes the most rewarding musical experience, in the end, is that which requires an investment of time to get to know it.  For example, If you’ve never really familiarized yourself with a work of classical music, why not try this “investment” exercise?  Maybe you’ve had a curiosity about a famous piece or a great historic composer, whether Gabrieli or Gershwin, but never got around to looking into it.  If it’s famous, it’s probably great, having withstood the test of time, and is therefore worthy of your time.  And you’ll probably be able to find it easily online.

Let the Music Learn You.  You can listen to music actively or passively, while doing something else, allowing it to insinuate itself into your ear.  Listen to your chosen work once or twice a day for, say, two weeks.  Then leave it alone for another two weeks, then come back to it.  You may just find it has grown on you!  If it’s well crafted, you’ll begin to appreciate the finer points of it.  You might even gain a background curiosity about the piece and its composer, history, cultural context, etc.

You Don’t Have to Be a Genius.  Such an exercise doesn’t require you to be a musicologist.  You need only the ability to listen, or at least to hear.  In the process, you’ll be developing, over time, a more discerning ear.

Take the risk!  The most you stand to lose is a little time, a little effort, and maybe the acquaintance of music you end up not caring for.  (If you don’t like the piece, try another work in a contrasting period and style.)  What you stand to gain, however, is the enrichment and gratification born of something truly high-quality that you’ll always have.     

Make New Friends.  Once you get to know a great work of music, it’s like making a new friend for life, one you’ll never tire of.  Then, along with the familiar, you’ll keep discovering new qualities (or foibles) that will engage and fascinate you.  Besides those things that have attracted you to your favorite songs, you’ll come to appreciate other elements of this music, and of music in general, that will “send” you.  And – dare I say it? – your tastes will be elevated and refined.
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