The music appreciation society

Snap, crackle and pop

The sky was all you could see from the music room’s high windows. Blue, grey, white, opalescent—variations on a theme. The teacher didn’t talk about colouration, though. His instruction was more basic, and I wasn’t introduced to synaesthesia until I read Rimbaud, Huysmans and Boris Vian ten years later. No, for now, his mission was simply to get us to recognise the instruments of the orchestra and the sounds they make. It was just another opportunity to acquire some cultural capital in primary school.

Record player

Long-playing records, still a rather new and valuable technology, were treated in class as ritual objects. They’d be allowed to slip from the paper sleeves that protected them in their cardboard covers. There was a special way of holding them, with one finger in the central hole and a thumb at the edge, slightly sharp where the vinyl had been moulded. After a wipe with the anti-static cloth, they’d be placed delicately on the turntable and the stylus was carefully lowered into the spinning grooves.

The expectant silence would fill with electric crackle, quieten as the needle went home and then—ta-ta-ta-ta-dah!—the first notes of  The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra or Peter and the Wolf.

It was better than maths.

Inform, educate and entertain

the third programme

In the 1950s and 1960s, the BBC’s Third Programme was a route to cultural capital for many British youngsters. I know people with distinguished careers in the arts who still speak with feeling of how the radio opened windows onto worlds unknown in their subtopian bedrooms. And there was much to admire in its Leavisite, Arnoldian ideal of bringing ‘the best which has been thought and said’ within reach of all—though also much to question.

By the time I wanted to learn about classical music, many post-war certainties had gone (including, I fear, the state’s commitment to democratic meritocracy). ‘The Third’ had become Radio 3, competing with entertainments undreamt of in the Fifties. Still, the BBC’s commitment to its founding ideals of informing and educating, as well as entertaining, remains extraordinarily intact. Radio 3’s tone and accessibility may be different from its sometimes-idealised predecessor but it remains a wonderful and free resource to anyone who wants to learn about classical music and the high points of European culture generally.

Building a library

Nowhere is that more evident than in programmes like Composer of the Week or CD Review, whose knowledgeable presenters offer authoritative music lessons for grown ups.

Composer of the week

This morning, the writer Jessica Duchen considered the relative merits of different recordings of Chopin’s Ballades—four innovative works for solo piano composed between 1835 and 1842. She elegantly negotiated the challenge of describing the narrative aspects of music that has no words but which is said to have been inspired by the poems of Adam Mickiewicz, even if no one can agree which ones. And she explained with great sensitivity what she admired and found less successful in a range of recordings.

She spoke of atmosphere, of story structure and drama; of gorgeously translucent, delicate, almost sepia-hued tones; of an astute long line feel for structure and pace, sharp edges and phrasing that sings but also speaks; and a great deal more besides, illustrating her points with extracts from performances recorded over more than 80 years. It was a masterclass in musical explication, and as I listened, I had the habitual illusion of understanding what was being said.

But, of course, I didn’t—or at least not beyond a vague, non-communicable and instantly forgotten impression.

The paradox is this. In order to describe what is happening in a piece of music and why, you have to understand it first. If you do understand it—at the sophisticated level required to speak on Radio 3 or teach music to schoolchildren—how can you understand what it sounds like to those, like me, who just don’t? Not knowing what it’s like not to understand, those who do tend to rely either on technical terms, such as ‘an extra octave doubling below the trills’ or on metaphors, such as a ‘skittish account that seems to run away with him at times’. Neither is very helpful to me.

Outside, listening in

There is another paradox, too, one that may have some bearing on the relationship between classical music and the great majority of people today. It is this.

The effort to explain what Tessa Jowell once called ‘complex culture’, as exemplified in broadcasts such as Building a Library, implicitly divides the world into those who know and those who don’t—those who, in Pierre Bourdieu’s terms, hold cultural capital and those who don’t. In trying, with the noblest intentions, to overcome an inequality of knowledge and power, music educators risk reinforcing that very inequality. Like shamans or priests, they can seem to hold special knowledge to which they are willing to induct those who show commitment, aptitude and loyalty. But the bar of understanding is such that many will fail to get over it.

To some extent, that is true of all human knowledge and, despite centuries of radical experimentation, formal education remains structured by the division between those who know and those who want to know. But my science and maths lessons were not like my music lessons. I didn’t find the subjects easy, but I believed that effort was all that was necessary to acquire them. When my music teacher told me I couldn’t be in the choir because I sang flat, I learned that the failure was essential to my being, like being long-sighted.

How many people learn young that classical music is not just something that takes effort to understand but also that it demands something—an aptitude, a sensitivity, a social background—that they don’t have and cannot acquire? How many, lacking the type of intelligence that makes music’s language feel like home, simply come to believe that the classical music world has nothing for them and no interest in them, except on its own terms? And how many who do possess a music intelligence, like Radio 3 presenters, understand how the rest of us respond to music?

Can you hear me now?

There is a long-standing joke that the British abroad try to communicate with those who speak other languages by speaking s l o w l y and LOUDLY. The joke, in so far as it’s funny at all, is that they don’t understand the disdain with which the perfectly intelligent citizens of other lands regard their well-meaning condescension. It sometimes feels like an accurate image of the problems of communication that exist between those for whom music is a mother tongue, and those who have acquired it, more or less proficiently, in the classroom.

BBC Fawlty Towers


  1. My own experience is pretty much parallel to this – the same experience with singing, the same experience with learning about the orchestra, and probably the same experience of others taking music further (O-Levels, A-Levels, etc).
    Maybe other people looked at me doing art and thought the same thing (there are certainly lots of people who claim they can’t draw after primary school art lessons).

    But what’s interesting is the extent to which the real economy of classical music is now underpinned by music for film and TV. We might not attend to it specifically, but we are surrounded by orchestral music – we just saw Gravity last night and I’m pretty sure there was an orchestra shaping my experience of that film. Some people believe that we should be as literate about the media as we should be about classical music and ironically that might be the same thing in some aspects – the music class literacy of the orchestra is the media class literacy of music in films.

    I have another more serious question, based on the democratising culture/cultural democracy argument. Normally we’d interpret the sort of music education that you refer to as democratising culture – ie educating the masses to appreciate high culture. And you point out some of the real benefits of that in terms of opening the associated power structures up. We also need to remember that there is a strong autodidactic tradition in Britain. The alternative, usually framed as cultural democracy, argues that every part of society has culture and this should be respected and valued. So for instance folk music. But I would argue that you have to learn to appreciate folk music as much as classical music, no? And folk music underpins a lot of pop music, perhaps also in an invisible way?

  2. Your point about film music touches on one of the key ideas in ‘From my life’, namely the extent to which music can be descriptive. I sometimes get the impression that ‘programmatic’ music, such as Smetana’s string quartet, or Strauss’ ‘Heldenleben’ (another piece I first heard on Building a Library) is seen by some music lovers as less valuable because the music refers to something outside itself. That is certainly the case of film music, which has relatively recently been given serious attention, although again, I have the impression that some people regard it as a lesser category of music because the composer is in the service of others: director, producer. That question of the ‘instrumentalisation’ (pun intended!) of music is one to which we’ll return in this project.

    Thanks for reminding me of the ‘self-improvement’ traditions in British culture, still evident in many towns by 19th century library buildings and Mechanic’s Institutes. Many working people did see access to art, literature and especially music (forming a choir costs only knowledge and time, as the traditions of the Welsh valleys attest) both as a good in itself and as a way to challenge elite power structures. I don’t see democratising culture and cultural democracy as alternatives though: both can be true. The Welsh valleys made elite music, like Handel, their own while continuing their older music traditions and adding to them too.

    I wouldn’t say that you necessarily have to learn to appreciate folk music (or classical, or jazz, or any other of the world’s musics) because a person may feel instantly drawn to a kind of sound. But perhaps you’re saying that folk music can be as rewarding to study and learn about as classical, which I’m sure is true. Tessa Jowell, when Secretary of State for Culture, spoke elliptically of the value of ‘complex culture’ and it is often said that classical music’s superiority lies in its complexity, which seems to me the kind of argument that would appeal to people who like crossword puzzles. There isn’t anything intrinsically good in complexity, except satisfying minds that enjoy it. And it isn’t only pop music that starts to lose its attraction when we become over-familiar with it.

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