It’s not always easy being a music listener

There are pieces of music I barely understand, even after serious attempts to do so. And it can make me slightly anxious wondering why. Sometimes I imagine it is because they are sublime, so brilliant that they almost blind you — this has been my experience with a lot of Bach. Other times I wonder why on earth I bother — is there actually anything to be gained by repeated, concentrated listening to Stockhausen’s Gruppen, say? And then there are those total blind spots, mine being Mahler. His bloated works seem to me like the allure of the planet jupiter: an awesome, intimidating planet that’s really just a gas giant.

As a listener, one has to train oneself. You have to have a good musical memory. All music is remembering what came before, enjoying the note or chord of the moment, and anticipating the direction of travel. If you are genuinely just letting it ‘wash over you’, as so many people say, you might as well be given an automated machine that plucks random notes of a scale. Music only works when the listener observes and remembers the patterns of the music, or else phrasing and surprise and development is meaningless to them.

New musical styles will obviously mean new demands on the listener. I am least acquainted with late romanticism, perhaps, so it takes many more listens before I can step back and perceive the music’s architecture. There is something mathematical about music in this sense. Music is an unanswered question, but pieces of music are attempts at answers — the working out when one tries to solve an equation. A listener has to follow the logic of that working out, and that should be an interesting and revelatory thing, but not necessarily easy until it is learned.

There are too many instances to count where a work was utterly incomprehensible to me — then a month later I’d be listening to it with such understanding that I would feel as if I were inside the music itself. I’m never exactly sure what I did to get from A to B, except listen a lot, nor am I sure why certain works can seem so abstruse at first. But that process is among the most exciting things about music, like shaking and feeling and eventually ripping open a Christmas present. I’ll end with Brahms’ Symphony No. 4, just one recent instance of this:

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