New Bedford Symphony Orchestra (NBSO) logo

New Bedford Symphony Orchestra

If You Like Music

By David Prentiss

If you like music, there is no reason in the world for you not to like classical music, and there are several reasons why you might end up liking it a lot. So if you consider yourself a person who likes music and enjoys discovering something new, you should keep reading. And even if you already know that classical music isn’t your thing, you should keep reading because maybe, just maybe, you’re wrong. Let me explain.

Classical music is like all other types of music when it comes to what makes music, music: it has melody, harmony and rhythm just like rock ‘n roll, jazz, country and world music does. And like all other music, it can’t help but wrap itself around our emotions. But there are some obvious differences, too. Classical music songs tend to be longer, and the melodies often have more combinations or variations of notes in them, and are not repeated as frequently, so it can take longer before we really become familiar with them (i.e., be able to sing along or hum them). Some classical music also has harmonies in them that we aren’t as use to hearing as what we come across in other types of music. And while classical music has rhythm all through it, the rhythm isn’t usually expressed with a continuous drumbeat like most other types of music.

Interestingly enough, these differences have a good news/bad news aspect to them. The bad news is that because of the way classical music uses melody, harmony and rhythm, it is actually a bit of a challenge for our brains (at first) to process the music. (With new research technologies, scientists have been able to learn a great deal in recent years about how our brains process music.) The good news is that I said “at first”—once we listen to a piece of classical music a few times, our brain starts to get comfortable with it and can process it just as well as it does other types of music. And then there is a really, really good news aspect to all this: once our brain gets to that comfort level with classical music, the sensory pleasure and emotional impact that it has on us is immense. Think of the intensity of Carlos Santana’s guitar solo in Europa (the live version, of course), the joy of Bruce Springsteen’s Rosalita, or the depth of feeling in Yesterday by The Beatles. Once classical music becomes one of the types of music that you like, it will take you to all those places, and maybe even to places beyond.

Now, some people claim that you can’t like classical music unless you understand it and you can’t understand it unless you study it and you can’t study it unless … whatever. People who say such things are mistaking a part of something for the whole. There are aspects of classical music that can be studied in great depth and for those who are so inclined, I am sure that the rewards are great. But classical music is music and what a composer of classical music or any other type of music is saying in his or her music is simply this, “has this ever happened to you? Haven’t you experienced this same tone, insight, shock, anxiety, release? And when you react to (“like”) a piece of music, you are simply replying to the composer, yes.”

I think that the reason Leonard Bernstein, the man who wrote those words, could compose symphonies and West Side Story is because he understood the essence of music. That essence is quite simple: music is meant to please us and move us. All good music does that. Including classical music.

So, now that you are willing to give classical music a try, what should you do? I recommend listening to Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5. You know how it starts (or you’ll recognize it immediately once you hear it, I guarantee it). Listen to all four movements (i.e., songs) of the symphony a couple of times each. What Beethoven does with melody, harmony and rhythm is amazing. Listen, enjoy and let the music take you someplace. I know it will.

David Prentiss is the President and CEO of the New Bedford Symphony Orchestra.