Are You Intimidated by Classical Music and Art?


Jonathan Calugi

What is your opinion on classical music, modern art, theater or opera? Why do you feel the way you do?

In “A Note to the Classically Insecure,” Miles Hoffman writes:

I was talking about music recently with a friend who makes his living cloning genes, manipulating molecules and investigating the pathways of the human immune system. This is a person whose intellectual molecules are clearly very well arranged. But he proceeded to tell me that although he loved classical music, when he listened to it he wasn’t able to perceive anything other than his own emotional reactions.

Could it be true? Well, he thought it was. But he was wrong.

What my friend was expressing was merely a symptom of a common affliction, one that crosses all intellectual, social and economic classes: the Classical Music Insecurity Complex. Immediate therapy was indicated.

There’s no question, I pointed out, that he perceives more than just his own reactions. Lots more. In every piece he listens to he perceives changes, both great and small, in tempo, volume, pitch and instrumentation. He perceives melodies, harmonies and rhythms, and their patterns. He perceives, in short, virtually all the musical ingredients that composers manipulate to stimulate emotional effects, which is precisely why he’s emotionally affected. His “problem” isn’t perception — it’s description. And what he doesn’t know is the jargon, the technical terms for the ingredients and manipulations.

And why should he? He’s a scientist, not a musician. And frankly, it’s not even essential that he be aware of the specific musical and technical means by which his reactions are being stimulated.

Students: Read the entire article, then tell us:

— Do you suffer from what Mr. Hoffman calls “Classical Music Insecurity Complex”? In other words, are you intimidated by highbrow art forms like classical music, art and theater? Why do you think this is?

— Did reading this article change your mind about classical music at all? Would you be any more willing to attend a performance or listen to a piece than you were before? Why or why not?

— Mr. Hoffman writes that “there’s no denying that the more we know about music, as with cooking or gardening or football, the more levels of enjoyment are available to us.” Do you agree with this statement? Are there times when knowing too much about something might actually hinder your appreciation and emotional experience of it? Can you give an example?

— The Times has reported that orchestras are one of America’s least racially diverse institutions and, until recently, were mostly made up of men. Do you think it’s important for more people to feel like they can participate in classical music and other art forms? If so, why and how might they be encouraged to do so? If not, why not?

Students 13 and older are invited to comment. All comments are moderated by the Learning Network staff, but please keep in mind that once your comment is accepted, it will be made public.

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