Classically Trained: How does one begin to enjoy that 'classical' music, anyway?

I love the world of so-called "classical" music.

To me, it's like this secret art form that so few in society truly comprehend.

And yet for those in the club, there it is, so clearly summiting the mountain of artistic endeavors. Year after year, it stands above the fray, impervious to the passing whims of what's in vogue.

But it can be a hard world in which to gain a passage of understanding.

More often than not, it is without recognizable melodies, hummable tunes and visual aids.

Indeed, sometimes there are dozens of minutes to listen to. Dozens!

They're an eternity in the ADD age of texting and 140-character limits.

But "classical" music is an art form that transcends age and locale, emanating from ensembles young and old, foreign and domestic, large and small.

It is music that is unforgiving. Auto-Tune doesn't correct anyone or anything.

Such things, though, are what make it great.

But just how do the uninitiated gain entry past the red velvet rope and into the world of oboes, conductors and sonatas?

There's no definitive answer to that question, but, for what it's worth, here's mine.

We'll call this two-step guide "How to Succeed in Enjoying 'Classical' Music by Really Trying."


Step 1: Mindset and Preparation

I take these two for granted.

I started playing an instrument in elementary school, but before that, I was simply curious about them. I can't tell you exactly why. I don't come from a musically inclined family.

But around second grade, I could be found on the floor, headphones in my ears and a horrendously untuned Fisher-Price infant piano in front of me. As I listened to music, be it the "Star Wars" soundtrack or Mozart's greatest hits, I tinkered with the keys, trying to match the piano's pitch to the pitches I was hearing.

It must've looked pretty silly.

But it fueled what's been a lifelong passion in me for the great traditions of Western music (aka "classical").

Such a mindset is key: This is a complex art form, one that spans hundreds of years and many styles.

Navigating it takes some concentration and, dare I say, preparation.

First, learn a basic: the instrument families.

This means knowing the difference between bassoon and a baritone, knowing that an oboe is in the woodwind family — things like that.

Once armed with such amazing knowledge, you should learn the basic subdivisions within Western music. Only then will you know why I've put quotation marks around "classical" throughout this whole column.

Within so-called "classical" music, there is an era that is officially dubbed the Classical. There are also the Baroque, Romantic and Modern eras, among a few others.

That's right! Tchaikovsky isn't "classical" music; it's Romantic. Consider your mind blown.

There are considerable differences between all the eras, enough to fill textbooks about. And people have.

But I won't. There are plenty of good Internet resources out there, complete with audio samples, to guide you through Step 1.

And here's the good news: Even if you skip Step 1 entirely, within Step 2 you still may gain some level of entry into the classical world.


Step 2: Find a Quiet Place to Listen

Guess what? That place isn't a concert hall. That will come later.

I do love my concert halls, but for the newbie listener trying to figure out what all that musical old-school fuss is about, I don't think it's the best first stop for most.

Rather, it should be in your very own home. It should be a place free of distractions, free of things that will sway you from the elegant beauties and rich nuances that await you.

Put on headphones, position your speakers and play a CD, use iTunes — whatever you have.

Then relax and listen. Maybe turn off the lights too. It's stupidly simple, but effective.

You must be an active listener of the orchestral world in a way that's no different from watching a movie for the first time in a darkened theater. Being active is key.

What should you listen to? Here are three suggestions among many: Mahler's Symphony No. 1, Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1 and Beethoven's Symphony No. 3.

They are beautiful for the heart, accessible to the ear and varied for the curious mind. Each one may take around 30 minutes to an hour of your time.

Enjoy and savor them. Then find other pieces to listen to, maybe from those "best of" "classical" CDs that are so abundant.

Then, after you feel you have a good footing, go to a concert, like the Pacific Symphony or a Philharmonic Society of Orange County offering.

And don't forget to dress appropriately — and turn off your cell phone.

Welcome to the club.

BRADLEY ZINT is a classically trained musician and a copy editor for the Daily Pilot. Email him story ideas at or follow him on Twitter @BradleyZint.

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