Do You Need to Understand Classical Music to Appreciate It?

Do you have to understand something to like or appreciate it?

Clarinet mouthpieces
A selection of clarinet mouthpieces, ranging in size from E-flat sopranino to B-flat contrabass

Think about all the cultural things we experience: art, music, theater, dance, cuisine, literature. And more. People study and hone their craft in these fields for years — decades — to bring professional quality products (for lack of a better term) to the rest of us.

But does that mean we also need to be at that high level as audience members? Certainly not.

Classical Music Insecurity Complex

Miles Hoffman wrote an op-ed piece for the New York Times about this as it pertains to classical music. The title, “A Note to the Classically Insecure” caught my eye, as I’m passionate about classical music and, therefore, want to show people why I think it’s awesome.

He describes how so many people suffer from what he calls “Classical Music Insecurity Complex”. Basically, people will hear a piece of classical music, say they like it or not, but then hastily add that they really don’t know enough about music to give an opinion.

As Mr. Hoffman puts it:

“When people leave the movie theater they rarely hesitate to give their opinion of the movie, and it never occurs to them that they don’t have a right to that opinion.”

Those movie-goers most likely know nothing about the technicalities of making a movie. I’m one of them. But I can still tell you if I liked a movie or not, or whether it moved me emotionally. Same goes for art, or literature, or cooking. We can also add the trades in there. I don’t have to know a darn thing about carpentry to admire a beautiful piece of wood furniture.

It’s okay not to know something

Over time, classical music has been elevated to Something Only Certain People Can Hope to Understand. And if you’re not one of those “certain people”? Please just go back to the rock you live under. As a result, I think people get intimidated and back away from classical music.

Fortunately, there are quite a few of us who don’t agree with the snobby sentiment. Indeed, I write this blog (albeit sporadically) because I firmly believe you don’t have to understand anything about classical music in order to enjoy it. I try to explain pieces in a way to help you understand and, perhaps, enhance your enjoyment of them. But if you just listened to the music and didn’t read my commentary? That’s okay, too.

Admittedly, classical music can seem intimidating. There’s a vast library of music that spans centuries. Where do you start? That’s another reason I write this blog. You may find a jumping-off point from a piece you like, which leads to listening to more by that composer, which leads to finding similar composers. In addition, try listening to your local classical radio station or find some playlists on a streaming service.

Above all, just listen. Over time, some things will become more familiar (even if you still can’t name them). As a result, you’ll start to notice that certain composers or styles move you more than others. Keep exploring. Ask questions. I love getting questions here on the blog. I love when people come up to me at a concert to ask me about my instrument. I love this world of music and want to share it with people!

Psst… What’s In the Picture?

I picked this picture precisely because many people wouldn’t know what it is. That’s great! It’s a chance to learn something new. These are mouthpieces (with reeds and ligatures (to hold the reeds on)) for the many types of clarinet that I own. The smallest belongs to the E♭ (E-flat) piccolo clarinet and the largest two belong to the E♭ (E-flat) contra-alto and B♭ (B-flat) contrabass clarinets. Without the mouthpiece, reed, and ligature, the clarinet won’t produce a sound!

Thank you for reading the blog! Have fun on your musical journey. Please feel free to ask me questions, or share a great new-to-you piece you’ve discovered!

Lori Archer Sutherland

Lori Archer Sutherland earned a Bachelor of Music in Theory and Composition degree from the Ohio State University and a Master of Library and Information Science degree from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She composes, performs, and teaches clarinet. She plays bass clarinet with the Crystal Lake Community Band and the Woodstock City Band, clarinet with Winds Off the Lake Woodwind Quintet, and is the founder and organizer of the Knock on Wood Clarinet Choir, where she plays an even bigger clarinet. Check out her site and podcast at tonaldiversions.com

6 Responses

  1. Becky says:

    Knowledge does allow someone to have a deeper appreciation of an ingenious or difficult accomplishment; however,by deeper, I do not mean greater. The only time I find a lack of knowledge annoying is when someone critiques.

    • I definitely agree on the critique part, and that’s basically the main time I get annoyed, too. And yes, there’s a distinction between deeper and greater.

      For me, since music is my passion, knowledge lets me have both deeper and greater appreciation for it. But I don’t know if I could honestly say that same for something I’m not as passionate about. It poses an interesting question.

  2. Brenna Layne says:

    Great question, and great post! It’s interesting to think about how fickle we humans are about this stuff. I expect that some of the people who insist they can’t appreciate classical music because they haven’t studied it are the same people who have no problem appreciating a pop song despite never having formally studied pop music. It’s always possible to appreciate something, regardless of your level of expertise. We appreciate things in different ways depending on our levels of knowledge and experience, but a lack of knowledge or experience doesn’t preclude appreciation.

    • I agree! And while knowledge can certainly help give us both greater and deeper appreciation for something, it doesn’t mean that we have to have that knowledge before we’re “allowed” to appreciate it. I think that’s where the snobs have it wrong – they want to be gatekeepers and require certain things before a person is allowed to enjoy a “higher” art form (and even labeling something as a higher art form is a huge debate in itself!)

      • Brenna Layne says:

        Very true! There’s a lot of talk in the writing community lately about romance novels. A lot of people turn up their noses at romance, but what is it exactly that makes focusing on romantic relationships “less literary” than focusing on anything else? Lots of food for thought.

        • Definitely! I’ll admit I’ve not been as gracious as I should be about romance novels, which means I need to actively find some great ones to read. If you have any suggestions on books in that genre, I’m all ears!