Music Appreciation

Many people take music appreciation courses in college. The teacher force-feeds the students classical music, and plays various pieces. They give required listening, and give tests based on knowing terms and “dropping the needle” at a given point of a piece, expecting students to know the piece and things about it.

Is that music appreciation? Does that encourage people to love art music?

I don’t think so. Because memorization of terms does do anything for appreciate. Knowing what a sonata is by definition does not force a person to enjoy it.

This talk by Benjamin Zander is what a music appreciation classes want to be when the grow up. Discussing a piece, describing the events, getting inside of it–THAT makes people love music because something previously not understand become clear. People know what to listen for! That’s amazingly powerful. People know how to engage the piece and have had their attention guided to specific series of events. But everyone can notice something in a piece. Next time you listen, pay attention to what pops out to your ear. That’s no accident. The performer and composer are working together to feed you what they believe is the most important thing in the piece.

Posted on in Classical Guitar Tips


  • dimrub

    Prof. Robert Greenberg’s “The teaching company” audio courses are amazing that way. They are aimed at a lay person, without any formal musical education (someone with such an education may find too many of the facts trivial, or not explained in sufficient detail), but he succeeds to drag the listener into the world of the piece (and the composer) in a way I didn’t know was possible.

  • Sans Direction

    I failed to appreciate music. My transcript says so. However, I blew the top off the grading scale for Blues Jazz and Rock at the same institution and the Jazz course at another institution.

    Since then, I have approached it like a guitarist. I don’t know about other instruments, but I know that there are straight rock guys who can talk about Robert Johnson, Django Reinhardt, Jerry Reed and Andres Segovia. They don’t know the music, they don’t appreciate the genre, but they will always always always appreciate someone who can flat-out play. This is good, because it develops a wide appreciation, but not good, because it isn’t deep. For example, a shredder watches Crossroads, where the Karate Kid defeats Steve Vai with an electric variation on Paganini’s 5th Caprice. So, the player has little knowledge of classical music beyond Eliot Fisk’s recordings of Paganini. (A bit of autobiography there.)

    Thing is, I don’t have this problem, the guitar-centric understanding, with jazz. As with classical, there’s a huge library of jazz music, and you could take all guitar-centric recording out and not make a huge dent in that library. I have awareness of enough of the big names of the canon that I can negotiate through the library, which allowed me to understand the vocabulary. I do not have enough knowledge of the classical canon to really dig in enough for me to understand it. I think this is part of the barrier to entry beyond what Benjamin Zander gets into.

    Thanks for the pointer to the video.

    Good call. I had not considered that. Maybe the biggest barrier is just getting into it. I’m a big believer in following your interest. And I think that if music appreciation teachers weren’t so locked in teaching by time period, we’d be better off. Start with a cool sound 20C piece, then move from there, exploring what came before and influenced it.

    In the end, it’s just about finding what you enjoy. Maybe we should try to be less focused on respecting “the greats” of the canon, and more focused on finding cool stuff we like. Interest in other areas will come.