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.