Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Classical Training

Dudamel having too much fun

You may have noticed a trend in the recordings I tend to write about. I am not much of a fan (let alone expert) of jazz, showtunes, opera, or classical. While showtunes and jazz would be fun to see live, I don't care much for listening to them at home, and opera is a whole different challenge for my not-classically trained ears.

When it comes to classical music, I have no problem enjoying it. I have a problem distinguishing between the pieces: I wouldn't know Bach from Beethoven or Brahms, Mozart from Mahler or Mendelssohn. In fact, I often tend to "tune out" classical music, which makes it great for grading papers or reading, but not so much for "hearing" in the sense of 1000 Recordings to HEAR Before You Die.

My wife listens to a lot of podcasts because, as I've mentioned before, we spend a lot of time putting my son down for naps/bedtime, and after the "routine" (bath, pajamas, books, etc), all that is required of us while my son falls asleep is our presence. So while I often listen to music while I wait for him to stop thrashing around, she listens to NPR's This American Life and Radiolab.

She told me about a month ago that she heard a Radiolab episode she thought I might enjoy. I don't spend a lot of time listening to podcasts, but I started getting into listening to the 1000 Recordings Podcast while I wash dishes, and since there was none this week, I browsed the podcasts I had downloaded for her. As I was looking I came across the one she had suggested for me.

First, I highly recommend checking out this episode. It's well worth the 20 minutes. But here's the Cliff's Notes version if you don't want to commit the time. This guy, Bob Milne, claims to be able to hear two complete symphonies in his mind at the same time. When pressed by a neurologist, he upped that to four. I had the same response as the show's host, Jad Abrumrad: "That's total bull****." So the whole episode focuses on how they tested this claim.

What really amazed me was not just that this guy can do this, but the way he does it. He literally sees the orchestra playing the pieces as a 3-D movie that he can zoom in and out of, increase the volume of certain sections, change the speed. He also gets certain "emotions" from chords. As Abrumrad protests, everyone has a strong emotional relationship to music (although more and more I am realizing there is a large variance between people on that one). But Milne's experience sounds much closer to synesthesia (for example, how Tony of the 1000 Recordings Podcast sees colors when he listens to music).

Well, damn, if I could do all that then of course I would be able to discern between all the classical pieces. I could probably even differentiate between different orchestras! Here's the bottom line: I'm really jealous of Milne's brain, and Tony's, and anyone whose relation to music is that organic and natural. Because I feel like I have to be an intense listener. I study my music collection like a textbook: I know how many 5-star songs I have (133), how many of the Rolling Stone 500 Greatest Songs of All Time are on my iPod (316) vs Pitchfork's list of 500 Best Songs of the Decade (185). I know songs by the first second of guitar feedback on a track. Songs that reference other songs are my favorite, because I feel like I'm in on a secret (check out "You Were Right" by Built to Spill for a great example) which may be a reason I love covers so much.

My brain is analytical about something that really should be, I feel, more emotional. I have a very good memory, not just about music, and I am into statistics (my brother and I used to keep stats while we played Nintendo's Major League Baseball, for entire seasons). I have a strong passion for music, but I feel like I am working extra hard at something that some people have a natural ability for. I hear a song and the first thing I notice is, logically, the lyrics. In 5th grade I excitedly memorized my first song ("2 Legit 2 Quit" by MC Hammer), but if you asked me to play the notes on a piano I'd be nearly hopeless. I'd probably get there, because I have an obsession with this stuff, but I'm without talent.

All this is to lead up to the four composers listed in the Radiolab podcast; Schubert, Brahms, Beethoven, and Mendelssohn. Two I've heard, two I haven't gotten to yet. My ears have adapted since I heard Beethoven's Missa Solemnis (the only notes I wrote in the book were "slow and boring") and Brahms' Four Symphonies (for which I wrote no notes at all, probably wasn't paying close enough attention). I think I'm getting better at identifying the patterns in jazz, taking pleasure in the lofty voices of opera, and finding the common threads that tie all the pieces in the book together, but for some reason, I still have a bad habit of drifting off when I listen to classical. Hopefully, by the time I get to Schubert's Ninth Symphony and Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto (listed in the book under violinist Yehudi Menuhin), while I may not have 3-D, technicolor ears, I'll hear something in this genre that grabs my full attention.

I'm not sure what it's going to take, though, because it sure hasn't come naturally to me.


  1. Great post Mike!

    First off - the poster - I laughed my ass off - well done - lol! In case you didn't know, that's Gustavo Dudamel, conductor of the LA Phil - he's kind of the hot shit right now in classical music.

    So to your post - I'm really glad you made this post, because I know many, many people are in the same boat as you are when it comes to classical music. My short response is, don't give up on it.

    The issue with breaking into classical music really has nothing to do with being smart, or analytical, etc - it comes down to a familiarity issue. One of the biggest misconceptions about classical music is that it should be as easy to "get" as pop music. I mean, it's all music right?

    The reality is, music is not all the same. Some genres use radically different languages to communicate their messages. These musical languages are just like spoken languages. Our native tongue, as Americans in 2012 is popular music - that's our American English. Classical music is like a foreign language, because it musical language it is based on is very different than popular music languages.

    Another misconception is, that you have to me "classically trained", or have a freakish mind, or "technicolor ears" to understand it. Not true at all - all it takes is more familiarity. I'm not sure if you ever studied another language in school, but if you did you know what happens. When you first start, you hear the language being spoken, but it goes in one ear and out the other. You know, intellectually that is it a legitimate spoken language and that it is communicating something, but your brain lacks familiarity with the language, so it sounds like utter gibberish which you can't make any sense out of.

    However, when you start to learn about the language, and especially when you hear it more and more, your brain starts to be able to pick out individual words in what you're hearing, then phrases, then sentences, then entire paragraphs. With more familiarity, it slowly stars to become clear.

    Music is absolutely the same. I wrote a bold about the fundamental difference between classical and pop music - it might be a little heady, but if you're interested, here's the link: http://www.anthonyjosephlanman.com/?p=580

    My point - don't give up on classical music. I can tell you, even if you don't hear it yet, there are vast differences between Bach and Brahms for example - for me the difference is a big as looking at the difference between Public Enemy and John Denver.

    One thing I think everyone needs who is not familiar with classical music (and I was there believe me) is an "in". They need to hear that one piece of classical music that just makes you go HOOOOOLY shit - that.is.awesome. With about 1,200 years of classical music available, your piece is out there - I GUARANTEE your piece is out there. Whether you will find it or not - that's the question.

  2. Tony, I enjoyed your post explaining the difference, and I also appreciate listening to the classical recordings via your podcast because it provides me with an insight into the pieces that I don't get on my own. In fact, that's probably at the top of the list for why I like the podcast. I was wholeheartedly about to agree with you on your assertion that I'll get it one day, but here's the thing: I was listening to my iPod last night (putting my son to sleep, of course) and Huun-Huur Tu, the Tuvan throat singing group, whose Tuvan folk music has clearly not been a part of my pop education. Yet, from the first moment I heard this strange, almost atonal style of music, I loved it. I feel the same about Dimi Mint Abba, with its North African/Middle Eastern influence and much of the Indian raga stuff I've heard (although to be fair, both of those have made small inroads to American pop music). How is it that classical music is actually tougher to understand than these recordings that go back long before any kind of formal music composing? Maybe because those styles play on our instinctual sense of melody, but I don't know the answer. I will continue to try to educate myself: as I mentioned, I don't mind classical, I just haven't found anything that blows me away (yet).

  3. Well, I haven't heard Huun-Huur Tu yet, so I can't speak to that, but the Dimi Mint Abba and Indian stuff, while based on different scales than we're used to, is still close enough in form and execution for us to pretty easily digest. And all this music has one thing definitely in common, which is repetition. Classical music (at least the old stuff) doesn't have a whole lot of repetition, which brings me to the second huge difference between classical and popular styles - development.

    In a typical pop song, we usually have the form of: one idea that makes up a verse, and a second idea (sometimes even a modified version of the verse idea) that makes up a chorus. Sometimes introductions, bridges, solos etc can be thrown in there, but that's the basic formula. This verse and chorus material is then alternated and repeated for the duration. There may be some variation thrown in, like changes in instrumentation, or layering of lines, but it's basically repeating.

    Before I continue, I'd like to clarify that I am not in any way implying that classical music is somehow "better". I think it's just as much an amazing feat to write a great and timeless pop song as it is to write a great and timeless symphony.

    So, back to development. This is one of the distinguishing features of classical music, and it does not exist in popular music. That's one reason why it's so difficult to grasp - this is a big part of that "foreign language" I was talking about earlier. The forms used are also radically different.

    One example of development I always use is the first movement of Beethoven's 5th Symphony. It opens with that famous DUH DUH DUH DUUUHHHH..... And that's essentially all that movement is - just those four notes. It's about the journey that Beethoven takes that four note motive through - how he develops that small musical idea and creates an entire movement from it. As for the form of it, it's in "Sonata" form - a topic way too big to talk about here, but the form essentially exists to foster development - nothing like it exists in the popular music of any culture, let alone our own. If you'd like to hear a kind of humorous take on the form, check out: http://youtu.be/f0vHpeUO5mw

    I'm not sure if you're aware, but I also do a strictly classical music podcast called "All the Cool Parts" - if you're interested in learning more about classical music, I would recommend starting there. Another really good one is the Naxos podcast, although I don't think it's been active for a while.

  4. And I hope I don't come off as "Lecture-y" here - I'm just passionate about the music - maybe overly so :)

  5. Nah, that's why I enjoy listening to you talk about classical on the podcast: it's sort of like the programs that explain what you are listening to. I listened to that youtube clip, and I think that kind of helped. I don't know why I like stuff really, just that I like it, so it's good to hear someone who has some music theory background to explain it to me. Maybe I should go back to school and take some music theory classes; maybe I won't hate that as much as I hated business.

  6. Hello. Thank you for your nice comments. I don't know how to explain what I do, it's just easy for me. I always thought everyone could do what I do; perhaps we all assume others see everything the ways we ourselves do. It interests me to see your intense desire to learn more about music, which makes me happy. I, too, have desires to learn much about what is unknown to me in other fields. Again, we are all explorers. For some reason I was born knowing things in music,resulting in me always wanting to do something else. I learned to follow what's easy for you; this is your talent. But when it's easy for you, you can't see it. Everyone else does, but never you. Or me. Again, than you for being kind. Bob Milne

  7. Mr. Milne, thank you for your comments. I really was blown away by the experiment featured on Radiolab and then by your performances I was able to find on Youtube. It's a shame when one's talents don't match his interests (I will never be a rock star is what I'm trying to say) but I think you're right that we often miss our own talents in not recognizing that they are, in fact, talents. So far I haven't discovered any that have gotten me into the Library of Congress or featured in a neurological experiment, but there's still time I suppose. Thanks for reading!