How to listen to a classical concert

The nice thing about most “classical” music is that it was written long before any kind of recording technology was available. Unlike today, when you can listen to almost any piece of music whenever, and as often as you like, composers knew that you might only get one chance to hear their music. So most good classical music is written to be understood and enjoyed the first time you hear it.

That’s not to say that it doesn’t benefit from careful listening, from repeated listening, and maybe even doing the odd bit of homework in advance. Lots of traditions have grown up around classical concerts, and they’re all there to help you enjoy a piece of music the first time you hear it. A century ago, that might have been the only chance you ever got to hear it the way the composer intended! So concert programmes include programme notes, giving the background on a piece; concerts are listened to in silence (so everyone has the chance to hear the music); and sometimes there are pre-concert talks explaining the music (check the venue’s website to find out). These are all, still, great ways to help you get the most out of a live performance.

But really, you just need to listen. That’s something different from the way you hear music during everyday life. We’re always hearing music from the TV and in shops, and many of us use it as a background while working or relaxing. A live concert is different. You can’t just switch it on or off – what you hear is completely unique, and it’ll only happen once. It’s not available on any recording, and it’s being performed by living, highly-skilled people, right in front of you. They’ve dedicated years of their lives to preparing what you hear tonight. What they do is difficult, nerve-racking and unrepeatable – and they want you to enjoy and respond to it.

So prepare yourself for a concert. Get there a little beforehand, give yourself time to relax and get into the mood for a very special experience. And once the music starts, give it a chance to work on you. If it’s exciting, go with that, and don’t worry if you find yourself tapping your feet or nodding your head a bit. If it seems boring, or you can’t make out the tune – well, odds are that’s what the composer intended. Trust them - they know what they’re doing. They may be preparing the ground for a surprise, or deliberately trying to lull you into a dreamy state. Enjoy it for what it is. Adjust yourself to the music’s pace, and keep listening. Music is all about taking you to a different world, and giving you the chance to experience emotions you never knew you had.

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Richard Bratby is a music critic for Metro and The Birmingham Post, writes programme notes for various UK orchestras and music festivals, and works as Events Officer for the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra.

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