So why would I say such a stupid thing? Mozart is one of the very best composers of music in history – you know along with that Bach guy.
Let’s get one thing out of the way right up front. I agree that Mozart is one of the best composers who ever lived. There’s where my problem lies. He’s too good. Way too good. His music for me, many times lapses into “too clever”. It is as if his amazing skill leads him into performing feats of compositional trickery that for me loses emotional impact.
What I would like to explore in this article is the separation of “what we like” versus “what we think is well executed, or good”. I think Mozart’s music is fantastic and some of the most brilliantly composed music on the planet. But when it comes to music from the Classical Period (1730-1820) I really enjoy the music of Haydn much more. His music strikes me on an emotional level with a sense of honesty that intrigues me. And besides, he looks like George Washington.
So this opens up the topic of how we listen to music. Each one of us brings a completely different previous experience with listening to music. One person may listen to chamber music and symphonic music all the time, another may listen mostly to jazz and some symphonic music, another may have never listened to “Classical” music beyond hearing it playing in a store a few times. So if each of those folks sits down and listens to a Mozart Symphony they will have a very different experience.
How much you know about music both from familiarity and technical point of view will drastically change the experience. If you have studied music, studied classical music, and theory, and have developed your ear to the point that you can analyze music as you hear it, that changes everything.
When you add to that what you “like” or “don’t like” and for what reason, then it gets crazy complicated. One thing I find fascinating is to ask people that don’t really know anything technically about music — “What do you like about that song?” Many times their answer will really surprise me. In one case it was a little arpeggio that the piano player slipped in at the end. Just a little “diddle-eee-dink”. That’s the whole reason they downloaded the track and bought it.
Many people are so conditioned by popular music that music that doesn’t have a vocal with lyrics is just not something they can relate to at all. They become quickly bored and move on to something else. I totally understand this but for someone who primarily writes instrumental music, it can be hard to take.
Taste (what you like and don’t like) changes over time. For me when I was younger in my 20’s, I really liked complicated jazz (the more notes the better). Now I can barely listen to that except in short doses. I’ve moved into enjoying music that is more simple and lyrical. A good bit of the music that I now love and listen to all the time would have probably been a real “yawner” back in my 20’s.
That complicated music that I really soaked up in my 20’s and now more often than not irritates the snot out of me, I still now think is great music. I just don’t like it as much now as before. It has nothing to do with the quality of the music or even the music at all. It totally has to do with me.
Another example is that I really, really, really can’t listen to opera.
Yep, I’m turning myself in. The more dramatic it is the funnier it is to me. I literally can’t go see it live or I have to leave the auditorium. I thought for a while that this was a real character defect. I actually took an extra 4 semester-hour college course in Opera Literature to try to correct this. It just made it worse. There is obviously nothing wrong with opera. Most of the great minds of music over hundreds of years have spoken highly of it.
So you like what you like. That’s great but thinking about what you think is well done is an important thing to consider when listening to music. I will always challenge students to listen to all kinds of music. If you really don’t like something, listen to more of it. There is a great quote by the 20th-century composer, John Cage. When asked if there was any instrument he really just couldn’t stand his replay was, “The vibraphone.” When asked what he did about it he replied, “Wrote a piece for vibraphone.”
So go out there and listen to some vibraphone music, some complicated jazz, and an opera or two and have fun figuring out what you think about it.
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