This week I learned something from a paper one of my students wrote. About how to present a case for classical music. Two words in that paper showed me something i hadn’t so strongly realized.
What we were working on
This was a paper about why classical music is valuable, what it can do that no other kind of music can. I ask my students to think very carefully about this, because it’s crucial for classical music’s future. We need new listeners. So how do we find them? What can we say to make them think classical music can do something for them?
As we work on this, I caution my students not to say that– as if it were demonstrable fact — that classical music is better than other music. Especially pop. That it goes deeper emotionally, expresses more.
Often this is what some of the students want to say, and of course they’re not alone. Many people in our field say this.
But there are two problems with it.
First, it isn’t verifiable. How can you prove that classical music goes deeper, expresses more?
Really, you can’t. You can set up a straw man, say that pop music is created only to make money, that it doesn’t have classical music’s complexity, that it’s empty and shallow.
But then you run into people like me who’ll say those things aren’t true. Or you can read rock critics who say profound things about pop music (in its many forms). And who have as fine an intellectual pedigree as anyone who writes about classical music. (Greil Marcus is the obvious example, but there are many more.)
That’s the first problem. No one really can prove that classical music is superior. Suppose you say classical music has more complex harmony and form. But examine your assumption. Why should complexity give music its value? And what’s going on in pop music? What are its internal processes? Maybe they’re different from what we find in classical music, but just as complex.
And, finally — do the people who make these comparisons really know much about pop?)
And now the second problem
Let’s say you preach to people, tell them that classical music is better than the music they listen to. How do you do that without patronizing them? Without implying that they themselves are inferior? Or at least uncultured, uneducated, deprived of musical opportunity.
And what do you do if they disagree? If they resent you saying that your music is better than theirs, if they discover that you don’t know their music, and so have no grounds for making comparison?
If these things happen, you’ve shot yourself. And shot classical music down, too. Because you’ve turned people off, instead of getting them to give classical music a chance.
Two magic words
“For me.” Those were the words that opened new doors for me. Fir me, my student wrote (and now I’m paraphrasing), classical music expresses deep things that no other music can bring us. Though others, he said, may find that other music expresses these deep things for them.
And with this honest and courteous way of stating his case, he taught me something:
If you say — claiming it’s factually true — that classical music is better, you’re giving a lecture. Starting a fight.
But if you just say that for you this is true, then you’re telling a story. Not arguing with anyone, not telling anyone what they should think. You’re telling a story about yourself. About your life, your experience.
Which can get people interested. Why, they can ask, with genuine interest, does classical music have so much power for you? What about it gives it that strength? Which pieces — which moments in pieces — show its great force?
Now you’re having a conversation. You’ve got someone listening to you. Someone you haven’t asked to devalue any music that’s dear to her. Someone who can say to herself, “Wow, if classical music has so much power for him, maybe I’ll find it powerful, too.”
And that’s a win.