Why You Should Compose

Musical ideas sound so spectacular in my head. I can vividly hear this perfect constellation of notes — but whenever I try to score it, the brilliance fades. Recently I came across a comforting bit of insight from Mendelssohn, who said to a composer friend that ‘if we only wanted to accept the ideas that agreed perfectly with our desires, then we accomplish nothing at all or at most very little … If it [a composition] does not become a work of art in the highest sense, at least it is an exercise in forming and portraying ideas.’ I agree with this wholeheartedly. Composing isn’t necessarily something you work towards, but also something you use to become a better musician. We should compose music for the same reason we write: to collect our thoughts and form them into something permanent, to see what you know and what you believe.

I have composed from the first time I held an instrument in my hands; once I’d memorised a few chord charts, I was off. And the stuff I composed, aged about 8 or 9, was undeniably absurd. I would simply pick chords at random — say, D7 to G to E minor to A to F#7 — and didn’t particular like to repeat anything, because that would be boring, I thought. It was almost like tone rows: I wouldn’t repeat a chord until I had exhausted all the others.

When I learnt to read notation, which wasn’t until the somewhat late age of 14 or 15, I had all these ideas but no clue what to do with all of them. I gather this is a common problem. I’d just write these ideas in linear, unrepeating succession and call it a piece. I had pieces that went on for 20 minutes like this. Of course, I also got rhythms and notes wrong because scores were still very unfamiliar territory, and I couldn’t do even the most basic sight-reading. Only recently, by which I mean in the last several months, have I begun to learn how to manipulate musical themes, how to understand harmony, how to properly read a score, and so on.

Below is one such piece I wrote. According to my computer it was last modified in 2012, and I suspect I wrote it a year before, at which point I would have been 15, maybe 16. That’s three years before I listened to any classical music and back when my musical diet was exclusively rock and metal. At this stage, I was a bit less of a haphazard composer. But this piece still sounds to me like unrelated ideas slapped together in an inartful way. (I do still like that 13/8 outro though.) Here’s the midi recording:

The very last thing I composed, before a near total hiatus from music for a year or so, was an extreme metal EP that I recorded and a year later actually released. I made a whopping $2 from it (before tax…), and got two — not one, but two! — reviews. Extreme metal reviews are amusingly ridiculous. My little EP was given this flattering (I think) description: ‘The force of the pounding beats is enough to convert skyscrapers into craters and the discordant guitar excretions, grinding bass tones, and surrounding shroud of distortion are eerie enough to suggest an alien presence behind the decimation.’

By that point I was composing as a means of discovery. I didn’t really find any of the music I was listening to satisfying, and was trying to write the music I wanted to hear. When this failed, I resigned myself to the fact that music was a dead end. The discovery of classical music thankfully saved me from this horrible conclusion.

Therefore, until a couple of weeks ago I had barely composed anything since 2014. Having stupidly broken my ring finger nail, my ability to practise guitar has been limited, so I started writing music instead of playing it. The first thing I attempted was to try and squeeze as much as I could out of the simplest motif. I used to always opt for the most complex idea possible, which is sheer folly. You generally end up with a piece that never coheres. This exercise was an attempt to overcome that impulse. Apologies about Sibelius’s poor midi impersonation of a guitar:

As you can see, I didn’t quite succeed… And the music isn’t particularly inspired — in fact, it’s pretty insipid. But I think it’s a more logical piece than those I’ve written before. So, that’s some progress at least.

For comparison, here’s one of the few pieces I’ve written in the last few years, probably early 2016. It’s a short piece for two pianos, and essentially consists of three sections piled on top of each other. It doesn’t cohere at all. However, the ideas in it are way better than in the guitar study above. Saying that, I’ve no idea how playable the first idea actually is:

This week I started working on setting the Stabat Mater. Ambitious, I know, but I don’t expect it to be particularly good. I chose it because I know I’ll stick to it. Among the pieces I most love, several settings of the Stabat Mater make the cut. From Szymanowski’s colourful and sumptuous Polish version to Haydn’s underrated masterpiece; from Palestrina’s gorgeous, perfect setting to James MacMillan’s aggressively sublime work that premiered last year; and from Vivaldi’s lyrical Stabat Mater to Arvo Part’s plainly beautiful one. I may not yet believe, but when I’m listening to these works, I am certain, at least, of the transcendent.

My modest little Stabat Mater is for lute and soprano. (The score is currently written with a guitar in mind, but I plan to move it up a minor third, which is roughly the pitch of a lute, if I ever finish it.) I thought it would be interesting to break up the Stabat Mater into two sections and put a toccata between them. The idea being that there is a period of reflection after the poem describes Mary witnessing Jesus’ death. Now, I’m still not exactly sure what a toccata is, but I’ve interpreted it to mean a half-improvised, typically virtuosic piece. The Sibelius recording/score below lasts from the toccata until the ‘Sancta Mater’ stanza, which is as far as I’ve got, with most of it fully scored. (There’s also some sketches for the section before that, but they’re not included in the recording.) The one glaring problem this attempted composition has brought up is that I have no idea how to write for voice. But that’s why one should compose, to help build a bridge between your imagination and your actual ability. Anyway, here it is (with Sibelius’s equally poor impersonation of a lute):

I’ve noticed that I really struggle to compose without a guitar to hand. I can just about manage it by humming each line, but my ability to imagine music accurately is severely under-trained. There is, I understand, a prejudice in favour of composing without any instrument to hand. I would love to get to a point where I could read an orchestral score, say, and realise it fully in my imagination, but at the moment that seems impossible. I mean, just imagine being able to hear an entire orchestra in your head, over which you have full control? It would surely feel like a superpower. And I suspect the only way to acquire it is by practising composition.

Is Romanticising Musical Illiteracy Anything New?

There’s been a great and reassuring backlash to Charlotte E. Gill’s piffle suggesting, essentially, that to help students learn music we much teach them less, and to a lower standard. The dissenting letter warns that ‘Gill’s position could serve to make literate musical education even more exclusive through being marginalised yet further in state schools.’ I get the impression, however, that this revolution Gill advocates has been underway for some time.

In the UK, children have weekly music lessons for the first three ‘key stages’ (years 5-14). Somewhat understandably, it isn’t a compulsory subject in key stage 4 (14-16) — though quite useless subjects like computing and citizenship are. But neither is music, as often taught in schools, a particularly useful subject. The lessons I had (this is little over half a decade ago) were a great example of the aimless and undisciplined cacophony that comes with profound musical illiteracy. It was rare that students would even get to the stage of bashing out a few notes on a xylophone or flimsy keyboard. Idle chit chat would be interspersed with what resembled a kind of very childish playtime: fiddling with all the amusing sounds on the keyboard, ones that sounded vaguely pornographic or others that were just absurd, such as one key which when pressed would produce an exclamation of ‘dictionary!’. It is a struggle to come up with something we learnt in three years of music lessons (from 11-14).  Being generous, there were a couple of decent lessons on ragas (so much for Gill’s assertion about the hegemony of classical music).

So my experience runs counter to Gill’s impression that ‘for a creative subject, music has always been taught in a far too academic way, meaning that theoretical knowledge is the main route to advancement.’ And in my school at least, I and many other progressed just fine with very limited theoretical knowledge, a fact that I don’t celebrate. GCSE curriculum is very accommodating for non-classical music, and except for the Bach chorales, you could get away with very minimal music theory. A Level music can be a lot tougher. You have to have a solid understanding of Western Classical Music and be able to identify styles and periods and instruments by ear, as well as being able to notate musical extracts by ear, and in many cases you have to study — gasp! — entire orchestral works. Now, I just think, So what? But I do remember back when I was sixteen and without any knowledge of classical music that this was indeed a very daunting task. It was, and no doubt still is, quite a jump to that even basic analytical standard. If the idea of musical literacy were better introduced into the key stage 3 lessons in many schools, the numbers doing music later on would grow from their pitiful levels now, and indeed the diversity of music students, as Gill is concerned about, would increase.

However, even at A Level, there are ways to bypass musical literacy. You can study popular music, modern musical theatre or jazz in place of the Western tradition. And again, this betrays the Gill’s ignorance in thinking music education isn’t diverse enough — indeed, it may well be too diverse. I’m not sure, either, that those who actually study classical music at A Level show any great level of understanding — or at least, they are not taught or encouraged to think about music except in lifeless analytical or dubious programmatic terms. Here’s what I mean, in an apparently ‘exemplar’ A Level music essay on ‘How did Baroque composers convey the meaning of the text in their music?’:

Composers often used tonality and harmony to convey the meaning of the text. For
example, in choruses such as Handel’s Hallelujah and Glory to God, both of which are in the oratorio the Messiah, the tonality is D major and although this immediately evokes an emotion of joy because it is major, since they were in D major, the baroque trumpets were able to play and be prominent which is vital for movements with such celebratory libretto such as ‘Lord God omnipotent’ and ‘good will to men’. In fact, the entire of Monteverdi’s Versiculus Responsorium, the first movement of his Vespers is played and sung on a D major chord following the opening chant.

I remember this style of essay well: the regurgitation of ‘analysis’ which was spoon-fed to us and unsurprisingly meant we all wrote pretty much the same thing, unthinkingly. (This is, however, hardly unique to the one subject.) And how one can confidently talk of antiphonal writing or counterpoint, say, in an essay while having little idea what they mean — as well as being encouraged to be unnecessarily detailed in your writing, always including dates of birth and death, and full titles of works even when briefer ones would do, though I’ll admit that may just be personal preference.

Anyway, I’ve not experienced this great tyranny of music theory in schools that Gill describes. But one man’s meat is another man’s poison, and I rather wish Gill’s description of an ‘elitist’ music education were closer to the reality. Surely the best schools are the ones with orchestras and high levels of music theory and an ambitious and disciplined approach to music education?

I also wrote an immediate response to the article a few days ago, but it wasn’t especially interesting, which is why I felt compelled to write another.

Reflections on Learning Classical Guitar

Why the guitar? It’s a quiet, harmonically-limited, high-maintenance instrument compared to the piano, its chief polyphonic rival. The guitar has to be retuned daily, if not hourly, and restrung every month or two. It can play only four or, at a push, five notes simultaneously, whereas the piano can play up to ten. However, the guitar is by far my preferred instrument to play and to listen to.

In my more cynical moments, the piano seems a poor emotionless substitute for a full orchestra. It is far too mechanised. Most of the time, a guitarist needs two fingers to play one note, and the sound produced will be almost totally dependent on how the guitarist does this. The guitar therefore has a much greater variety of sounds, even if it lacks the orchestral scope of the piano. The piano, on the other hand, has just one attack, the hammer, variable only very slightly, and is incapable of glissandi, most harmonics, vibrato, and so on.

There is in fact a rich history of piano-bashing, particularly back when the modern piano was perceived as a great vulgariser. One shouldn’t take this too seriously, but Berlioz, a guitarist himself, in his excellent Memoirs goes on an enjoyable little rant about the great corrupting effect the piano was having on orchestral writing. Concluding, he writes that ‘the piano, for the orchestral writer, is a guillotine that severs the head of noble and of churl with the same impartial indifference’!

Perhaps it is a blessing of sorts, then, that the guitar isn’t quite manipulable enough to emulate full orchestral scores. It makes it a humbler and more intimate instrument, and one which the player has to exercise a much greater degree of control over. This is why it takes more learning than the piano to play tolerably.

The lute was once preferred over the keyboard, until at some point in the Baroque period. The instrument perhaps reached its peak in the first half of the seventeenth century, or there about — certainly the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were when it was most prominent — and then its use rapidly declined. It was possibly its own doing, becoming an impossibly high maintenance instrument, with over a dozen courses (double strings) becoming commonplace. It faced extinction in the Classical era, but thankfully it was revived as part of the 20th century Early Music revival, and now you may well have better chance finding a lute recital in London than a guitar recital.

It’s a common mistake, however, to think the guitar is a child of the lute. The guitar is more a descendant of the vihuela, a Spanish instrument contemporary to the lute. It died out quicker than the lute but was superseded by the Baroque guitar, though it was more of a continuo instrument than a solo polyphonic instrument. Here are two Fantasias by Mudarra played on a Vihuela.

The guitar today owes a lot to Fernando Sor’s innovations during the Classical era. His compositions are not especially interesting musically but their pedagogical use has survived centuries. (His contemporary, Mauro Giuliani, is also worth exploring. I find his work more fun too, particularly his guitar concertos.) Julian Arcas, Francisco Tarrega and then Heitor Villa Lobos kept it alive during the Romantic era and into the 20th century. The guitar became a more common instrument, however, when gut strings were — forgive me for this — gutted, and the instrument actually held its tuning thanks to nylon strings. Segovia had popularised the guitar before then and continued to after, but in many ways his death liberated players from his dictatorial and sometimes incorrect pedagogy. The other twentieth century guitarist probably most worth mentioning, especially from a British perspective, is Julian Bream, for whom much of modern guitar music was written. Probably the most famous of which (and justly so) is the Nocturnal after John Dowland by Benjamin Britten, which is based on a song by English lutenist John Dowland, Come Heavy Sleep. The song melody emerges sublimely at the end. Here’s Bream playing the second half of the work:

I imagine a lot of this is as new to many readers as it was to me. From about 10-18 years old (that is, a few years ago) I was an electric guitarist. In that time I did Grade 8 electric guitar and much more importantly Grade 8 theory. Following a few years of not playing, having become terrifically unsatisfied and upset about music, I picked up the classical guitar after having almost miraculously discovered classical music. There were many factors influencing this, but having developed a love for classical music on my own, the internet was my primary means of discovery, and I would be amiss if I didn’t mention the importance of one blog, The Music Salon, whose author’s biography I found very encouraging. He made the transition from electric guitar to classical guitar at around 20, a similar age to me, albeit some decades ago, and became a very accomplished professional guitarist. I’m not sure I aspire for, or am capable of, the latter, but when considering whether to take up the classical guitar I had many doubts, as ridiculous as they may sound, about being too old to be any good at it.

Anyway, what I wanted to note is that the electric guitar does not in fact share the traditions of the classical guitar. You may be able to trace it back to the vihuela, but the electric guitar’s more obvious predecessors are the 19th century steel-string folk guitar and the banjo. It is something of a historical coincidence that the electric guitar seemed to be developed and popularised at the same time as the modern classical guitar, during the early-mid twentieth century.

So transitioning from electric to classical not only presents technical difficulties but also even greater cultural difficulties. You are inheriting a different tradition, such that the feel of the music, the performance practises, the nature of the score and improvisation, and the role of the guitar (the electric guitar is always part of a band, for instance) differ profoundly. Nevertheless, going from electric guitar or acoustic guitar to classical, despite the necessity of much unlearning, is still beneficial. You already have an interest in playing music in an era where that urge has withered. Why bother learning to play music when a five-inch slab of plastic can play all the music you’d ever want for you? In some ways, I’m grateful to have begun learning before the birth of Spotify, when music was not as omnipresent and music libraries not nearly as voluminous.

The thing about the electric guitar, also, is that it tends to attract talent, as its repertoire and style is often much more challenging and accomplished than other popular instruments. A metal guitarist in particular will know their phrygian mode from their lydian, can play scales and arpeggios with rapid precision, have a grasp of some degree of rhythmic complexity, and will be very capable improvisers. (With the popularity of this instrument and considering the sizeable minority of its players who are genuinely skilled and disciplined, a mass exodus to classical guitar is not an altogether impossible dream…)

All that said, the chasm between electric and classical is still great. Just to begin with, the classical guitar neck is like grabbing an elephant’s leg — so different to the narrow, slender neck of an electric. Your fingers don’t know quite where to go. All those habits from electric guitar playing — the left thumb hooked around the neck, the long left-hand stretches, the flexible postures, the devious ability to cloak mistakes with distortion — just get in the way. This is not even to mention the disconcerting switch from plectrum to fingers and the switch from single-voice to multiple-voice playing.

This is all such that, though I was a quite good electric guitar player, I’m a more clumsy, amateur classical one. Several wrong notes on electric guitar and it can still be a great performance. Several wrong notes while playing a Scarlatti sonata, say, and you’ve buggered up bigly. Classical instruments are naked things whose colour and dignity and beauty depend on who dresses them. With an electric guitar, the amplifier does most of that for you, and can easily cover up the blemishes. Though to my ear now, the lack of a human touch is painfully obvious.

The most useful classical guitar exercises I’ve found are those that deal with tone and balance. Scales and arpeggios are absolutely essential to make one an accurate player, but accuracy cannot make dull playing enchanting. For one exercise I just sit and play a B minor chord, for instance — B F# B D — and each time I try to accent a different note. This is much harder than you would think. But particular stuff like this is vital to learning the guitar: we may not have the sheer number of notes available and complexity that a piano has, but ours is by far a more expressive instrument.

The other problem is reading scores. Pieces for electric guitar grades will generally have two staves: the top one in musical notation, the bottom one in tablature. For me, this meant I read the tabs for the notes and the score for the rhythm. As anyone switching from rock to classical guitar will likely find that their playing will be much faster than their ability to read scores. Nevertheless, it’s worth the struggle. That sense of accomplishment when you learn a great piece is unlike any other. And in an era of low-attention spans, one where I included struggle to read books without very quickly and regularly distracting myself, it is strange and marvellous that I’m able to spend hours with the guitar without even the fear of distraction.


The final thing I want to do is recommend some resources and works for newcomers to the guitar, particularly those migrating from another instrument. The stuff that comes to mind:

  • The two books most helpful to me were Scott Tennant’s Pumping Nylon and Charles Duncan’s The Art of Classical Guitar Playing. Study those and you’ll have a solid foundation of guitar technique. (If anyone has other recommendations, please do say.)
  • Concerning repertoire, Fernando Sor’s studies are excellent, as everyone will tell you. Starting out, something like Luys Milan’s Pavanas are quite good. (However, the tempos are much faster than one initially thinks. In mensural notation the lowest value was the semifusa, the semiquaver or sixteenth note. So although a pavana is not a fast dance, I play the pieces as if the notes were half the value, otherwise it’s like a bloody dirge.) A lot of John Dowland’s work is manageable for someone of modest ability (though, of course, some of it really isn’t). One of the first pieces I learnt was Flow My Tears, which is the song version of his famous Lachrimae.
  • Some general tips are to explore the entire guitar, play ponticello (at the bridge) not just under or around the soundhole, play with a footstall or leg rest as much as possible and resist the temptation to slouch on the sofa with the guitar in hand, keep a contained and controlled right-hand and left-hand position (unlike the wild leaps of electric guitar), practise loads of finger-independence exercises, and don’t abandon your ‘a’ (ring) finger.
  • Read about music as much as possible. Even if it doesn’t seem relevant, reading people like Charles Rosen, say, will make one a better musician.
  • Also eat loads of jelly cubes and for goodness sake don’t use emery boards for filing your nails! (I use a glass file and P1200 sandpaper).

The last piece I learnt was John Dowland’s Frog Galliard, quite a popular piece for guitar. It’s probably of about intermediate skill. The fast runs are easier than they might initially seem (though that doesn’t mean I don’t frequently muck them up). The story goes that there was a ugly and petite dancer in Elizabeth I’s court with a face ruined by pox and an oversized nose. But boy was he a good dancer, favoured by Elizabeth for a time, and she referred to him as her ‘frog’. A galliard, by the way, was a dance in six beats popular in the Renaissance, appropriately characterised by a lot of leaping and jumping. Here’s a video:

Whither Classical Music Fans? (Part II)

Part I: How I Came to Love Classical Music

Part II: Converting People to Classical Music

There’s that old Charles Rosen line about the death of classical music being its oldest tradition. Well, that’s one tradition I could do without. The perception that it was a dinosaur, whose modern variations are unlistenable, put me off completely. Those of us who grew up without classical music struggle to see any relevance in it. And ‘relevance’ is what matters above all else to my generation.

Contrary to what many seem to expect, Bach and Mozart, say, are not automatically appreciated. To someone unfamiliar with classical music, they sound blandly similar — one’s just a bit more sombre than the other. For me, it took works with a very unique and striking language to persuade me of classical music’s worth. Hence Charles Ives. And Rite of Spring. And Bartok’s String Quartets. Then I could go back and piece things together. I heard Brahms and Tchaikovsky and Dvorak in Ives, so I could then enter that world.

There was really no greater barrier for me than this idea that classical music is dead, and that the future is popular forms (rock, metal etc.). Even when I’d finally gotten into classical music, I was for a long time under the frightening assumption that the best had long past, that I’d come late to the party. Early modernists, though they had a more familiar style, were still a century old.

The canon may be a problem. Note that I say this with great reluctance, given my natural deference to tradition and antiquity. But just because the canon is popular with existing audiences doesn’t mean it will be with newcomers. From my perspective, it was much easy to enjoy the music of Thomas Ades than that of Bach, say. (The one exception, though this may just be me, is Beethoven, who has a certain muscle, whose Seventh Symphony is so dance-like, that his work immediately appeals.)

Thomas Ades’ In Seven Days was the first of his works to grab me. It starts with a clear pulse, has a recognisable chord sequence — it sounds almost pop-like at first. Some critics didn’t like this: ‘Unfortunately, all I heard was one banal idea morphing into the next, vague references to symphonic rock or to movie soundtracks, endless, rippling motion up and down unimaginative scale progressions.’ That last criticism could be made of Beethoven for goodness sake. And is there intrinsically something wrong with ‘vague references to symphonic rock or to movie soundtracks’? I wish classical composers would look at why people like pop more, and use it to inform future works (this is very much distinct from simply borrowing from the language of popular music). It is not that the audience or the ‘consumer’ is always right — most certainly not. But neither is the composer always right (nor the music critic). And sometimes a bit of populism can be a grand thing, as with Aaron Copland. Anyway, here’s Ades’ In Seven Days:

Late 20th century and 21st century music is excellent because it’s largely abandoned total atonality, isn’t embarrassed to be speedy and comprehensible, but is no less adventurous because of it. The era of incomprehensible music seems to be over, the clouds lingering from the Second World War finally giving way to the sun. Quite popular new works like Hans Abrahmsen’s song cycle Let Me Tell You, for example.

Or for something more festive, Anna Clyne’s Masquerade, which opened 2013’s Last Night of the Proms:

Despite my progressive tone, I’m not arguing for classical music to take its sensibilities from the modern world. Concert etiquette, the reverence for silence, is a wonderful thing, and for many of us that meditative intensity is a chief appeal. Nor do I think that performers in jeans and T-shirts or Yuja Wang-esque dresses is going to persuade anyone but the culture writers at the Guardian. My focus is wholly aesthetic, as it should be. What do people in the 21st century like about music, and how can classical music respond to these desires.

And what they do like can in fact be anti-modern. During a pre-concert talk I was at, it was said that younger listeners are particularly attracted to sacred music. I cannot say with any certainty whether this is true for others, but it’s certainly true for me. The beauty, the use of silence, the spiritual versus the material, all feed a desire that is in our society on the brink of starvation. Probably the most popular contemporary composers — as in the ones who are most popular outside the classical music world as well as within — are Arvo Part and, to a lesser extent, John Tavener and Gorecki. Tabula Rasa, Spiegel Im Spiegel, Song for Athene, The Protecting Veil, Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, so on. Sure, John Adams is popular, but his reach is limited. Steve Reich and Philip Glass are the only others, but as someone who went through the typical prog-rock phase of liking minimalism, I can assure you very few make it through all 50 minutes of Music for 18 Musicians, or even the first 10 minutes. But with Arvo Part, you can’t stop. Here’s his 2009 work Adam’s Lament:

If classical music is going to appeal, it needs to find it its place in society, its niche, something contemporary society has abandoned but people still long for. But that niche isn’t complexity, it isn’t challenging the listener per se — it’s beauty. This doesn’t mean ‘easy’ or ‘light’ music. It doesn’t mean ‘pretty’ music, either. The most popular music of the 20th century among the general public (though you can of course dispute me on this) are likely works like Holst’s Planets, Rodrigo’s Guitar Concerto, Copland’s Appalachian Springs, Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. Sure, some of these are perhaps ‘populist’ works — largely tonal, metrically intelligible — but if you want to attract people who live and breath popular music, dodecaphony is not the way to start. (As if hinting something, my spell checker wants to replace ‘dodecaphony’ with ‘cacophony’.)

You can engage new listeners with more challenging music, but it probably has to be packaged in something digestible. Gerald Barry’s spectacularly funny opera version of Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest is a good place to start:

A difficulty, though, is actually getting someone to sit down and listen to an entire work. Even a 10 minute work seems too long for many. Short of buying a concert ticket for them and transporting them there, I’m not sure how to counter this. (Even then, a friend has memorably conveyed to me his incredulity that I enjoy sitting down for a couple hours in motionless silence just listening to music. People act like like it’s some solemn pilgrimage that requires inhuman levels of discipline and self restraint.)

Admittedly, I do suffer from this kind of agitation myself in other regards. I struggle with cinemas, unable to simply sit back and enjoy a film, always instead wanting to look things up, check my phone. I watch television often as background entertainment, something I have on while I read the news or cook or do mundane tasks. I almost never sit down and just watch a TV show. I can’t say I read books without distraction, either.

For some reason it’s different with music. I don’t exactly know why — I wish I did. I imagine it’s that I have an vague idea about what I’m listening to: I can understand the syntax if not the exact words; I can hear the architecture of the music, its basic structure; I can hear intervals vertically and horizontally; I can identify themes, motifs, fragments. When I first listened to classical music I heard notes — pretty notes, radiant notes, jarring notes, so on — but they seemed to come and go like stones dragged in and out by the waves. And so it all just washed over me.

My saving grace was some basic music education I’d had, which helped me to understand the music though with no small effort on my part. I knew my scales and modes, could read music in a basic sense, knew my supertonic from my subdominant and all that, but couldn’t compose a listenable piece of music, nor sight read, nor perform at all well, and only just scraped my theory exams. I realise nowadays this might be considered a bit more than amateur — few amateur musicians (non-classical) seem even to know what the harmonic minor scale is — but it was enough. I don’t think it is too much for children to learn these basic things in school, as opposed to the awful music lessons I had in which, if it was a particularly productive lesson, we would spend an hour trying to play the melody of My Heart Will Go On on the keyboard (not from a score of course).

Another problem is fandom. Is there really such a thing as a classical music ‘fan’, despite the title of this post? You can be a fan of One Direction or an Arsenal fan. But there isn’t the same kind of tribalism in classical music.  Fans of popular music acts hold them up as idols, are obsessed with their personalities and their image. They want to know everything about their idol’s biography. They enjoy the celebrity. But they don’t really want to know about the music. They don’t make aesthetic judgements, they don’t judge a new song by its artistic worth (nor would they be able to).

Classical music ‘fans’ invariably know more about a composer’s works than a composer’s biography. The work exists beyond the composer, too, and can be judged as a separate object, one that is interpreted by its performers (quite often to the irritation of its author, it must be said). This distinction between classical music composers and performers — as opposed to the hermaphroditic composer-performer setup in popular music — is surprisingly unclear to most young people.

Moreover, we all in popular culture are impatient listeners, people who hear foreign sounds and when we don’t like it we put it down to taste, and when we hear sections with no clear pulse and no repetitive loudness we feel totally lost. It’s difficult to instil the idea in people, and this was true for me, that just because you don’t at first like these new sounds, doesn’t mean you can’t learn to like them. The idea of a kind of musical literacy is derided as irrelevant, even snobbish. There’s that famous drawing (on the right) from a punk magazine informing you of all the musical language you need to know to form a band. Okay, it’s half-joking, but nonetheless accurate. The entirety of punk can be reduced to three chords; the entirety of pop to four. The music theory of popular music is so impoverished in comparison to classical music, and the huge gap in between can be pretty forbidding.

There’s also a gap between generations. It is disconcerting when you go to classical concerts and see how old the audience often is, whereas rock concerts tend to be very multi-generational. Pop culture is the culture that everyone in every social class passes on to their children. No one seems to have the confidence to stand up for classical music and to say that it is sheer abuse to rob so many of great music because of the culture they’re born into.

And yet opportunities are much greater now than ever. As someone under 25, I can get the most expensive tickets in the Barbican, say, for £5 usually. There are plenty of other similar deals. As a student, I get concessions of at least 50% in most venues. At other venues you can get ‘secret seats’ quite cheaply (£20 to see the ENO, for example). There’s no dress code, and etiquette is very simple. There’s really no barrier, and a hell of a lot of incentives. Rock concerts, sports matches — they’re the ones that are prohibitively expensive. There really is a lot of effort to make it easier for poorer people, or for struggling students like my humble self, to access live classical music. And on top of all that, there’s YouTube and Spotify and Apple Music. But so few want to listen.

I’m not sure what I’m suggesting should be done — but hopefully these ramblings are useful to someone nonetheless, limited and biographical as they are. Let’s end with John Dowland’s Flow My Tears for no particular reason other than it’s a fantastic song that everyone should love:

Whither Classical Music Fans? (Part I)

Part I: How I Came to Love Classical Music

[Update April 2017: Egh, I’m not sure about this piece. It’s more interesting as a demonstration into how humans organise chaotic thought-processes into neat half-true stories than it is as a piece about music.]

I hated classical music. It sounded florid and pompous. It seemed archaic. It had no relevance for me. I’m pretty sure this is the same reaction most people have to classical music; indeed, it’s the default position of our culture. Yet somehow I changed. This is one of two posts where I try to detail that process. My hope is that the posts will give some insight into how we can make sure future generations inherit this incredible art form, given its unpopularity in our time.

Charles Ives

What started my interest, I think, was a simple question. When I was about 17 and doing music A Level, we had this wonderful chief examiner chap come in. He was a thin older man, about 70, with a full white beard and a fantastic personality. For some reason, he played me the last movement of Charles Ives’ Second Symphony, the one that builds up festively with ‘Columbia, the gem of the ocean’ until ending on a sharp violent chord. The question that he asked rhetorically, and has bothered me for three years now, is why did that chord contain every note of the chromatic scale but one?

I had barely listened to classical music before, and for about a year and a half after I didn’t explore it any further. But that one question — little more than an aside — I always came back to, and never forgot the name Charles Ives. This was the seed that had lodged itself in the pavement cracks. I guess the question fascinated me as it has so many implications. What are the aesthetic reasons for assembling notes a certain way? What kind of person would end a symphony — a form of music I knew nothing of, except to know it was important — on a probable joke? Was classical music really the stultified archaic art form I thought it was?

The best thing you can do to make someone interested is ask the right questions. Don’t wax lyrical about your favourite music, but provoke with good questions. Instead of playing La Mer and saying, This is Debussy’s musical representation of the sea, ask the person, How do you imagine the sea sounds? Think of the slow work of nature, of waves, of the wind, of the expanse, of the imagery and mood — how do these sound? Then play La Mer. Introduce Charles Ives’ Fourth of July by asking the fun question: what kind of racket is produced when two marching bands walk into each other? When people told me about classical music I couldn’t be more put off. You have to want to explore it, and you have to be made curious to do that.

Let’s rewind. Before this I was a rock and metal fan. My tastes from about 5 to my late teens went from Buddy Holly to Alice Cooper to King Crimson to Blut Aus Nord and more. Generally by about 15 my tastes became more pretentious, with phases where I was a Yes fan and an extreme metal fan and so on. Underlying all this was, I think, an urge to find better music. I hit a block at about 16. I didn’t really discover any new music, and I was completely unsatisfied listening to what was in my library.

Music up to this point had been the primary focus of my life. I was a guitarist above all else, and had played in bands since starting secondary school. I was arrogantly amateur, refusing to learn music theory for years, then only doing so under the strong encouragement of my uncle. I rejected all forms of music but the ones I liked (thus very hostile to classical music), having what some might call a ‘progressive’ vision where all that mattered was the music of the future, which I perceived to be forms of rock and metal. This attitude, as you might imagine, trapped me completely. I wanted something from music that I could not get from within the narrow confines I had stubbornly made for myself.

An example of the kind of things I listened to during this period of my life (by no means was all of it extreme metal, though). It was a dead end.

At about 17 or 18 I all but gave up. Although I had a few moments that had influenced me, notably the above Ives question and a very tentative interest in minimalists like Arvo Part and Steve Reich (every pretentious rock musician seems to have had a minimalist phase), these moments weren’t relevant until later. My experiences with music at school were also abysmal, with our main music teacher turning out to be a con man, running off without explanation. Our results were not good, as you can imagine.

I went to university and tried to shift my focus to other things: my experience with music began to seem like a pointless flirtation. When you have spend much of your life dedicated to music of some kind or another, that’s a pretty horrible realisation.

So what happened? It wasn’t until the summer of last year when I was 19 that it all changed. It was the oddest thing. I was having a conversation with dad, one of those long post-dinner ones with drink. Now, he is a music enthusiast but exclusively with rock and its variants. Somehow, the topic of the impossibility of getting into classical music cropped up. I agreed with his points, that the many works were too formidable, that the culture seems too distant, that it just doesn’t grab you like rock does.

But then I said to him that I’ve been intrigued by this Ives guy a bit, and I was. The odd thing is, I think this was the first time I’d discussed how to enjoy and understand classical music — ever. In the popular music world, one just doesn’t discuss how to listen to music — it’s taken as self-evident. I started, to my own surprise, to talk vaguely about Ives’ eccentricity, and then for some reason began to talk about him as if I were intimately familiar with his work (quite the opposite was true). It was as if there were this heavy boulder at the top of a hill that I’d been pushing at for years, and all of a sudden it began to roll uncontrollably. Those questions began to nag me again: what was that chord at the end of the symphony? Why was Ives such a maverick? Why was he described to me as a controversial figure?

For weeks after, I obsessed over Ives’ work. Within a month I’d heard 90% of what he’d written. I didn’t understand much of it, that’s for sure. But there were bits that seemed as if they were written in plain English, and were so wonderful, nothing like the abstract language of most classical music (so I perceived it). He recreated sounds — memories — and distorted and tinkered with them, creating an incredible soundworld that somehow managed to transcend itself and speak to the universal condition. It took time, but I got that much. When I first heard the choir come in at the end of Thanksgiving and Forefathers’ Day it felt as if I had entered heaven. It took reading about his music and others’ to understand the other 80% of what was going on, but my foot was in the door and I was damn well sure I wanted in.

Ives’ Holidays Symphony was the work above all others that totally convinced me of the worth of classical music.

I’m still not sure exactly why or how the interest was triggered, but I did know it the epiphany was long overdue. I had for years developed a great interest in music, searching for meaning and asking myself many questions. It’s just unfortunate that I’d found myself trapped in a musical culture that is so unfulfilling. I knew deep down that I was playing and listening to kitsch, to crap. The trouble is, I never really knew what I wanted to hear.

I apologise if that was all too biographical. My next post will be a sort of letter to my younger self, trying to work out how it is that we can convert any young person to classical music (not that I consider myself at all representative of the average young person). When it comes to classical music I’m pretty much an egalitarian, and get so annoyed when people think classical music isn’t for people like them (something almost no one who likes classical music actually believes). It’s for all of us — it’s a common cultural inheritance. I don’t see any good reason why any young person — or any person — can’t enjoy classical music.

I’ll leave you with a piece of juvenilia. When I was about 18, and had retreated into myself musically, failing to discover any new music that felt meaningful, I started recording a lot of music. It was largely rubbish, and I thank God I found classical music a couple of years after. But here it is anyway for you to, erm, enjoy…

Everyone — Especially Every Child — Should Create Their Own Musical Instrument

One of my fondest memories from my childhood was creating a diddley bow. It’s a plank of wood, essentially, with a string nailed on. I used an old tin box for the bridge, and slightly ruined the beaten-up aesthetic by attaching a spare guitar tuning peg. Here’s me with it, when I was about 13, I think. Hence the long hair. My head, mercifully, has been digitally severed:

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It was a father-son creation, and later I made a second ‘baritone’ diddley bow, as I liked to pretentiously call it, with both my dad and my grandad. The diddley bow is (or was) a predominantly African-American invention, a sort of beginner’s instrument for black Southern kids. You adjust the notes with a bottle or slide — that metal thing on my index finger — and hit or pluck the string with the other hand. Given the right choice of bridge, which also functions as a resonator, it is much louder than a normal acoustic guitar. In many ways, it’s much more like the dobro, the metal acoustic guitar also popularised by African-American musicians.

Here’s the diddley bow in its entirety (you can tell the age of the photo by the positively archaic stereo in the top right corner):

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If anyone wants to make one it really is so simple: plank of wood, couple of nails and a tin box or bottle. I added some wooden ‘barriers’, one might call them, to stop the boxes moving, but that’s only because I wanted to be able to reliably tune it. If you want to be adventurous, I don’t imagine it would be too difficult to build a very crude fretboard.

There is something uniquely delightful about creating your own musical instrument. There are so few things left to tinker with. The digitisation of all things means that the age of fiddling with radios and cars and so on has long past. A musical instrument is a rare device in that we can understand its construction — and do it ourselves. Anyone can get some string, make it taut, and pluck a note from it. Anyone can get a bottle and blow into it, to hear a note reverberate through the glass. And anyone can add liquid to change the note.

From these fundamentals, an inventive mind, especially a child’s mind, would see limitless possibility. Get some garden hose tubing and a funnel and you’ve got at trumpet. Wrap elastic bands round an open box and you have a harp (of sorts).

With a friend, I once built, or rather rebuilt, an electric guitar from spare parts. We did almost everything, from the tuning pegs to the wiring to the makeshift tone knobs. (Thank God the frets were still in tact is all I can say.) It was by no means easy, and far from safe — we never quite completed the ground wiring — but quite possible, a testament to what I’m trying to say: creating instruments, even complex ones, is so accessible and so fun. In what other area can the laymen still tinker and experiment away so easily? It strikes me, moreover, as being a wonderful way to introduce children to music and, more importantly, the mechanics of music: to plant in them a fascination with the creation of music.

Let’s end with a very short youtube video of a boy playing a homemade trumpet he made for school. In what suggests a delightfully American imagination, he decided to call it ‘The Wizz Popper’: