I’ll do my best to write this without sounding like an arrogant or pretentious whiney asshole. It’ll be hard, not just because this is about classical music, but rather because any person trying to claim why other people should enjoy something that comes down to individual aesthetic preference is going to sound presumptuous and self-righteous, let alone if that aesthetic subject is an art form that has long since established itself as elitist rich-people music to be performed in shiny buildings by people who like to interpolate Italian words into their plebeian English sentences, and kiss their fingers as they say things like “Maestro!”
But it’s not just about aesthetic preferences. If all I cared about as an observer of any creation (art, entertainment, landscapes, conversation) was aesthetics, then I’d just sit around stoned all day listening to chorales while watching Planet Earth and rubbing myself with vegetable oil. There’s more to the world than aesthetics. A completely superficially happy existence is a completely sterile existence, and that existence lies completely within the comfort of continuous aesthetic pleasantries.
For whatever reason, people tend to understand this about visual art. It’s why people like Edvard Munch’s The Scream. It’s not an aesthetically pleasing artwork; in fact, it’s kind of hideous. And yet, we’re fascinated by it. The more we look at it, the more stimulating it becomes. Who are the two people in the background? Are they strangers passing by? Are they following the Subject? Why is the Subject screaming? If we look at the painting long enough, we’re pulled into the world of the painting, and suddenly what was once kind of ugly becomes a complex mind-trip, which is really quite frankly cool.
People get this with certain music too. Have you ever listened to the Beatles’ I Am the Walrus? It’s one of my favorite songs. It’s hideous, it isn’t catchy, it makes absolutely no sense, and I love it. So does everyone else (generally). What does it provide us if not aesthetics? A word puzzle? I don’t know.
Why do I dwell on aesthetics? Because I’m throwing it out. It’s not important for what I have to say.
I grew up liking classical music before I knew most people didn’t. I didn’t distinguish music that was classical with music that wasn’t classical until I was in junior high and started getting defensive over the music I preferred because everyone started assuming I was arrogant for liking classical music. Naturally, I became arrogant about liking classical music, and developed a superiority complex about it, comparing it to the “trash and filth” on the radio in those days. (but seriously, Who Let the Dogs Out? Really?)
Since then, I’ve become a little less of an idiot and started being open to other musical genres (i.e. Beatles as mentioned above). But the division is still forced upon me. I remember once being on a road trip with some friends. I had my CD collection, which included a fair share of classical, musicals, folk, gyspy, klezmer, gospel choir, and other odd assortments, as well as a Simon and Garfunkel album and a Beatles album. My friend managing the stereo pulled out the Beatles first, and we listened to the album. Then we pulled out Simon and Garfunkel and listened to that CD. After that was over, he turned to me and asked:
“What else do you have?”
“It’s all right there in the collection,” I responded.
“I guess we can listen to the Beatles again…”
It’s not so much that they wouldn’t enjoy the rest of my collection, it’s that they weren’t even willing to try. Why are people so willing to be taken into Munch’s universe, and yet so reluctant to enter Beethoven’s universe?
As I said before: I enjoy listening to certain car-ride-worthy music genres. I love Simon and Garfunkel. I like the Beatles. I’m a fan of Queen and Led Zeppelin. But to me, each song provides one aesthetic combined with one emotion. The song can be lonely. The song can be about love. The song can be about fear. The song can be about death. But that’s it. That’s what you get. When I listen to Eleanor Rigby, I get that we’re alone in the universe. When I listen to The Boxer, I get that we need to endure. This is solid music, but it makes you feel one thing.
However in classical music, the variety of emotions that are possible to experience within a given work are stretched out to the boundaries of existence. When I was a child and I listened to Grieg’s Hall of the Mountain King, I envisioned rapidly growing mushrooms invading a coniferous forest. What popular song out there makes you envision rapidly growing mushrooms? In Shostakovich’s 11th Symphony, I can hear the icy coldness of the Winter Palace square in St. Petersburg and feel the petitioners getting massacred by Cossacks. No, this piece isn’t about some whiney guy saying “Baby, please don’t leave me.” This piece is about hundreds of the angry, wretched, and enslaved getting shot in the winter veiling the message of the oppressed rising up against Soviet tank invasions. But even that’s not important: eventually, you can distance the emotion from the imagery, and you can let the music bring out from within you profound sorrow, exultation, angst, fear, joy, and everything in between. Although, some emotions can only be described by their imagery: “How did you feel?” “I felt like… thousands of rapidly growing mushrooms were invading a coniferous forest.” Without having listened to Grieg when I did, that emotion would not exist in my emotional vocabulary.
In any case, why would I want to envision people dying or experience sorrow? I don’t know. Ask the people who enjoy Law and Order: SVU. Or like The Great Gatsby.
But the thing is – the emotional vocabulary of this music can only be experienced if you let yourself be taken into that world. The world of classical music can provide for you a flow of complex emotional language few other things can. It can allow you to feel the grandeur of epic journeys, as well as the intimacy of your infinitely microscopic self. If you were to just try to let yourself experience what it has to offer, as you do with Munch and with Steinbeck, with dramas and battlefields, then perhaps just maybe you’d be one tiny step closer to being a more complete human being. And for what do we exist if not the lifelong quest to complete ourselves?
A major point this entry misses by throwing out aesthetics as a viable reason for disliking classical music is the whole “boring” factor or the “I need words in my music” factor. But come on, these are both bullcrap excuses. If you need a beat to stay captivated by music, then find classical music with a beat. It’s a large genre – rhythmically motivated classical music exists, and just because you need a beat pounded into you with a subwoofer doesn’t mean more subtle rhythmic structures don’t have beats. That’s like only enjoying movies if they have explosions every five minutes.
And needing words to be entertained by music? Please, I call shenanigans. If you needed words to enjoy music, you’d lose interest during every guitar solo, and never listen to techno.