How to Listen to Classical Music Critically

Four Parts:Educating YourselfJudging the CompositionJudging the PerformersJudging the Piece, Concert or Recording as a Whole

Not enough people listen to classical music critically. If there were more informed audience members, we would have better modern classical music, not only at the composition level but on the performance level as well. The following steps are to help you develop your own informed opinion as a classical music audience member.

Part 1
Educating Yourself

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    Listen to more recordings of classical music. In classical music there are many performance and composition styles and techniques. To develop a critical personality you must first be aware as much as you can about the subject. This is an ongoing process. There is never an end to listening and learning about classical music.
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    Go to as many live classical music concerts as possible. Not only are the concerts themselves a part of the educational process, but often orchestras have a class (or question and answer session) before or after the concert. Usually a local university professor or the conductor will give a lecture about the pieces of that particular concert.
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    Identify the different musical eras. There are many time periods in classical music. They also happened at different points in history in each individual country. This is important for building up a framework to understand style. Not only were pieces composed in different ways throughout history, they also were performed in different ways.
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    Learn about the techniques, sounds and histories of each individual instrument. It is best to start to learn about the instruments that you already know how to play, or that you like.

Part 2
Judging the Composition

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    Ask yourself, was the piece radical for its time? Think of the compositional techniques the composer used. Was it different than any other composer from that time? "Le Sacre du Printemps" is probably the best example to use. It was one of the most revolutionary pieces ever in classical music. Not only was the music of Stravinsky revolutionary for its time, but in combination with the ballet, it was one of the most forward-thinking artistic creations of all time. It is impossible for every piece to be radical for its time, but it is perhaps the first step to identifying a masterpiece.
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    Take time to understand the musical ideas themselves. There is a blurred line between what a cliché idea and an intellectual idea is. This also has much to do with the time period and nationality of the piece. The pitches (melodic and harmonic) and rhythms must communicate something, that is the bottom line.
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    Judge the orchestration. Orchestration is often something that is admired or just forgotten about. Ravel was arguably the best orchestrator of the 20th century, if not all time. The reason that so many people think that is because he could communicate his unique musical ideas very well through some of the most unusual instrumental combinations. In the end, orchestration is something that is an individual opinion, just like most aspects of classical music. When judging orchestration the best question to ask yourself is "Did the instruments that were used speak the musical ideas clearly?"
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    Think about the form. This is another thing that heavily depends on the time period of each individual piece. Did the form communicate the musical ideas in the clearest way? Did the composer use the tradition of the time in a creative way? The first movements of Beethoven's symphonies are usually used as examples of the most creative use of the Sonata form.

Part 3
Judging the Performers

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    Ask yourself the following questions:
    • Did the performers play their instrument well? Nobody is perfect, and we are all human. Recordings are going to always sound better technically than a live performance. That taken into consideration, a performer should play correct rhythms, notes, intonation and all with a beautiful sound. If the performer decides not to do these things, it must be very clear that the performer is making an artistic interpretation. However, it must always complement the piece.
    • Were the performers aware of the style? This is often a problem. 18th century French music is not played in the same way as 20th century American music. Instrumentalists often get so involved with their own musical ideas or playing their instrument well that they forget about their own part in the artistic process. A composition must be played in an authentic way or in a totally different and unique way.
    • Did the performer communicate the artistic meanings behind the music? This is often a hard step to identify. In today's classical music audiences are fooled into thinking that because a performer moves around all the time while they play, that the performer must be "musical" or "artistic." This is simply not the case. A performer must play the music in a way that highlights the brilliance of each piece. They must connect the audience to the deep hidden layer of the thought process of each individual composer. This is the difficult job of the performer. (S)he must be a clairvoyant.

Part 4
Judging the Piece, Concert or Recording as a Whole

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    Form an overall judgement. Realize good compositions are played by bad musicians and bad compositions are played by good musicians.
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    Talk to others. If you find a performance that you enjoyed, get feedback about your opinions. Often talking about classical music with other educated friends is the best way to start to have an informed opinion about it.
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