The Importance of Listening to Classical Music
As George Frideric Handel states, “looking makes each of us a focused observer, listening makes each of us a surrounded participant”. Music has the unique aesthetic of being able to construct and construe the world from an auditory standpoint. It captures and reflects aspects of the world and our place in it, where other art forms fail to reflect the world in this way. Wayne Bowman also comments that “if visual experience is of things out-there, sonorous experiences is of events in-here”. Our social relatedness depends crucially on sounding out and listening for each other’s intentions and meanings in the sonic inflections, timbres, dynamics, accents, and inflections of speech. The same attentive listening skills also applies when listening to classical music. It is no surprise that listening to music makes you a more informed musician from a cultural and historical standpoint but listening to classical music also helps you become a better musician. Imagine you’ve chosen a new piece of music to learn and you’re not quite sure how a section is meant to be played, or you’re not quite sure how to interpret a particular phrase. One of the most effective ways to figure out what to do in a piece of music is to listen to what other great pianists have done! It is often said that good artists imitate, and great artists’ steal. I cannot count the number of times I have listened to a recording of a piece I was learning and used the same phrasings/ideas that other pianists have done in their renditions.
Listening to recordings is not only important to find out what you like, but also what you don’t like. No single recording is the ultimate standard of what a piece should sound like! Music is a subjective art form, with millions of interpretations, and there are no two performances of a piece of music that sound exactly the same. Therefore, we encourage our students to listen to as much music as possible and find out how different artists interpret the same piece. Doing so will provide you with a gigantic resource pool of ideas choose from, the important point is that you should always provide yourself with options when interpreting music.
Another important point to remember is that listening to classical music does not mean just listening to piano repertoire! Although our main goal here is to help you with your piano skills, we all must strive to improve our general musicianship. Often times you may hear our teachers use analogies such as “sing the melody like operatic soprano or flautist who’s playing the melody in an orchestra”, or “imagine that the bass in the left hand is like the low brass section in a wind band”. Without knowledge of orchestral or operatic/art song repertoire, it may be difficult for you to completely understand the analogies your teacher may use in lessons if you have no knowledge of orchestral instrumentation or voice types. Listening to other forms of classical music may also inform your interpretation of pieces you are learning. Oftentimes, piano composers take inspiration from orchestral works/other forms of classical music and vice-versa. They can use the same melody or sometimes, piano works can be transcriptions or arrangements of instrumental and/or vocal works.
You will also find that listening to classical music makes you a more effective listener when evaluating your own playing at the keyboard. I mentioned earlier that you listen to multiple renditions of the same piece so you can figure out what you like and what you don’t like about each recording. Listening to performances of classical music done by professional pianists can help you understand what technique and melodic projection sounds like at a high level of proficiency. Listening is by far the hardest skill for any musicians to master, from an early age up to professional musicians. Cultivating this skill early on and consistently is one of the most important things a musician can do to further their own playing skills.
There is no denying that classical music is often made up of many complex layers and for first- time listeners, they may have no idea on what to listen for. So how can we break down how to listen to classical music? Often, you can find program notes of complex pieces online that analyze melodic themes, the composers’ intentions, and unique features of the work you’re listening to. But what can you do if you still find yourself overwhelmed the sheer amount of information overload? Ask your teacher for guidance! Dio Piano School’s faculty are all excellent musicians who have lived and breathed classical music their entire lives. We are well equipped with a wide breadth of musical knowledge and can guide you on what themes to listen for, what voices are being brought out in a recording of a piano piece, and how a certain piece of music can relate to another piece. These are just a few tips that our faculty can provide you when faced with listening to classical music.
Classical music enriches the soul. When your level of musicianship increases, you will find that you can notice more intricate details when listening to recordings and performances. Often when we listen to a friend speak, we not only listen to what they are saying but how the emotional inflections in their voice inform us more about the full meaning of their words. Our goal at Dio Piano School is to help each one of our students be aware of all the possible inflections in any given piece and how it enriches the experience of listening to classical music. Music listening is a rich form of thinking and knowing, it is a source of self-growth, self-knowledge and enjoyment for any musician at any level. It should not solely be seen as a challenge to the mind, but as something to be enjoyed.
Written by Adrian Tu