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Before we delve into this, let me say that classical music is not the only kind of music I like. As you’ll see in future posts, I listen to a lot of jazz, folk, bluegrass, rock, pop, disco, soundtrack and world music as well. I even listen to techno every once in a while. But classical is the music that I always come back to.

I heard some classical music when I was growing up in Iran. My dad’s favorite was (and one of my own is now) the Rodeon Shchedrin’s arrangement of Bizet’s Carmen. Of course, it was a separate revelation to hear Carmen in its originality later on. I also grew up with my dad’s collection of Classical Up To Date, a genre of classical music that added a drum set, bass and electric guitars to the orchestra — and emphasized them. Sacrilege by my standards today, I only listen to that genre for nostalgia.

My pace of listening to classical music picked up when I came to the U.S. in 1984. I had two stations on the FM dial to choose from for classical music, and then two more for jazz.

To talk about classical music, in this post, I should first define what I mean by classical music. Wikipedia has a great article as what is generically referred to as classical music. When I refer to classical music, I’m mostly referring to classical music of the Renaissance, Baroque, Classical and Romantic eras.

So, why classical music, above all? One thing’s for sure: classical music is time-tested. It’s been around for eons and still played and revered, even among people who aren’t aficionados of it. It’s used in countless commercials, movies, referenced in book — like my own, True Lovers’ Knot — and no matter which corner of the globe you’re on, you can find someone who is playing a time-tested piece in a concert.

But is being time-tested enough of a reason? Of course not. Let’s talk about instrumentation, and let’s pick on The Beatles, whom I don’t care for that much. You’ve got 4 guys, 4 instruments, with completely repetitive chords and melody in songs that last 3-4 minutes. How much can you throw in there? With the exception of a few of their songs, they didn’t throw much in there. Take, for instance, this score, the first page from Beethoven’s 9th symphony’s second movement. There are two lines each for flute, oboe, clarinet, fagutto (bassoon), corni (French horn), tromboni (trombone) and violin, followed by one each of trombe (trumpet), timpani, viola, violincello and basso (bass violin). The is a staggering 19 instrument lines — not to mention the choir lines — that have to live with each other in harmony. And, to top it all, Beethoven wrote it while he was completely deaf. He couldn’t hear a thing. Nothing. Nada. Zilch.

I recently read about everyone’s favorite artist, Kanye West and his proclamation, “now, the greatest artist that God has ever created is now working for him.” It pains me to throw Beethoven’s name with West’s in the same sentence, but I can assure Kanye that he doesn’t have a single edge on good old Ludwig, with the exception of being possibly more popular, but then I haven’t accounted for the population explosion in our time vs. Beethoven’s time, and he was popular back then.

But is managing harmony between 25+ lines — including the choir here — enough to convince the reader that classical music is worthy of a try? Of course not. After all, when Cecilia Bartoli sang Ouvre ton coeur in Chant d’Amour — one of my favorite albums of hers — it was only a piano that accompanied her voice. To entice the listener, classical music uses other things in its arsenal, such as melody, tempo and chord progression. Almost all pop and rock music in the world use only 3-4 chords. You may not realize it if you don’t play an instrument or don’t have a trained ear, but it’s basically the same thing over and over, usually with the same volume and the same tempo throughout. Note that I said most, as there are exceptions to this as well. For instance, take a look at the chord progression in Steely Dan’s Rikki Don’t Lose That Number. Pretty gnarly if I may say so. But the combination of these few elements — harmony, tempo, melody, chord progression, various instruments/sounds, volume — makes a case that classical music should not be ignored.

Let me also propose the idea of entropy and organization as a factor here — no, I am not high on drugs. Organization usually takes more energy than disorganization. Imagine the task of hanging a painting on a wall. You go to the tools drawer, take out the hammer and a nail, hammer the nail into the wall, and hang the painting. Now that you’re done, you can just throw the hammer down on the ground and continue about your tasks, or you can take a walk back to the drawer and put the hammer in the drawer. A hammer that is in a drawer is more organized, and it took more energy for it to be organized. You’ll find that for most things to be organized, they require energy to be put into them. Music is the same way. The energy and knowledge that goes into the creation of a pop song is not the same as that which goes into composing a classical piece. For players, playing a pop tune on a piano is relatively easy compared to playing a classical piece. Even when you compare really hard to play popular music piano music, they pale in comparison to playing Chopin’s Ballade in G Minor on the piano — BTW, I think that outfit is hideous. It takes years and years of hours per day of meticulous practice to do the latter. It clearly takes less energy to get to the stage of playing Elthon John on the piano than it takes to playing Chopin.

Another factor which makes listening to classical music very enjoyable is the interpretation factor. Almost every orchestra in the world has played Mozart’s 40th symphony. Subjectivity allows a classical music listener to find a performance that matches his or her taste. On the other hand, one can only get one a couple of versions of The Beatles’ It’s Been a Hard Day’s Night. I have listened to every version of Bach’s aria Erbarme dich from his St Matthew Passion that has been available on YouTube and I have my favorites; there are also ones that I stopped listening to the moment the alto started singing.

Now, don’t get me wrong. There are plenty of horrible classical music pieces as well. Horrible artists have lived throughout the ages, not just since 1950s. Take the universally beloved Pachelbel Canon in D. It is everything a classical piece should not be: extremely repetitive, boring and no meaningful chord progression — 5 to be exact. Classical music snobs like me detest this piece. Can it be soothing? Sure. But if you want a good classical piece that is also soothing, listen to Bach’s Air on the G String instead.

As for classical music post the Romantic era, I must say that I am very, very selective of what I listen to. I do not like most modern classical, but there are always rules to exceptions. Shostakovich and Khachaturian come to mind, but then their music is not really modern classical to begin with.

So, those are some of the reasons why I prefer to listen to classical music above all else. In another post, I’ll delve into the other music I listen to and the why and the what.

Ross Naheedy

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