A few years back, I took twelve colleagues to a Pirates game. The American and Japanese spectators cheered for the hometeam, booed the umpire, and jumped out of their seats to watch a double-play. The two Englishmen in the group, on the other hand, gave up and left their seats after two innings and spent the rest of the evening wandering around the stadium.
We were all watching the same game, of course, but we weren’t all seeing the same thing. Those of us raised in baseball-playing countries had a sense of the game as a whole, so we could easily tell what each play meant. The Englishmen, meanwhile, were just seeing a succession of random, disconnected movements that signified nothing in particular.
I am convinced that the same thing occurs with classical music, and for the same reason. People who listened to classical music as children just get it, and they don’t have to think much about it. Their brains just know what to do.
To those of us who didn’t listen to classical music as children, on the other hand, a symphony makes as little sense to us as baseball does to an Englishman. Sure, we can pick out little snippets of melody here and there, but the whole work sounds disconnected, rambling, and pointless. Our brains can make little sense of what we’re hearing.
If, like me, you’re trying to enjoy classical music later in life, it’s best to ignore most of the advice you’ll get from classical music fans. They’ll tell you to “just listen” or “just enjoy it.” They mean well, but they have no idea how classical music sounds to the rest of us. (It’s like telling the Englishman to “just watch” a baseball game and hoping he magically intuits innings, at-bats, strike zones, designated hitters, etc.)
The truth is, if you want to get it, you’re going to have to work. That might mean reading a few books or taking a class on music appreciation and sweating it out. The good news is that your effort will eventually pay off.
I also have a hunch that those of us who learn to listen to classical the hard way might actually pick up on a few things that escape the ears of those who absorbed it from childhood, just as someone learning English as a second language sometimes finds odd little quirks in the language that escape the notice of native speakers.