Classical Music Myths

I've been a "Classical" or "Legit" musician for 15 years, and I've run into many myths about Classical music which are not just misconceptions of lay people, but also of the performers themselves. So, I've created this page to ennumerate and hopefully debunk some of them.

Misconceptions of lay people, perhaps. Most musicians that I know, know better than this...

Myth Number 1: The performance of Classical music is inextricably bound to the printed page. [See MusicNotationSystems.] Why it isn't: Musical notation is hopelessly inadequate to describe something like happiness, sadness, torturous agony, eternal bliss, hellfire and damnation, or any other shade of human emotion. Therefore, the written page merely hints at how a composition should be performed by laying out a series of pitches and durations, an approximate speed and general idea of the feeling behind it, and, if the music is recent enough, dynamics. Where does the extra information come from? From understanding the subtext of the music by listening to both really fine performances and determining what exactly those performers did, and really poor performances, and also determining what exactly those performers did.

Myth Number 2: Every performance should sound the same. Many classical musicians practice for hours to gain consistency. What do they lose? The spontaneity which makes a truly great performance truly great. The freshness of a new idea found buried deep within the cryptic notation. The ability to react immediately during a performance to another musician, whether in a two-piece chamber ensemble or a 140-piece symphony, who finds a new idea and must therefore immediately show everyone.

Myth Number 3: The conductor makes the performance. Nope. The musicians in an ensemble will make or break a performance. If a conductor absolutely sucks, the musicians in a so-called professional ensemble know how to play anyway. Or at least they should, if they spent some time doing chamber music, where there is no conductor. Of course, if they are "classically trained", there's no hope of that working, since classical musicians are trained from birth to follow the leader. In a truly professional ensemble, the skill of the musicians is not a variable -- they are all excellent. The skill of the conductor is what can elevate a good performance to a great performance. It is also naive to think that chamber music has no conductor. Who the conductor is can and does vary between the various performers at various times throughout the piece, but there will always be a dominant instrument/theme at various times and the other musicians must at that time respect the direction that conductor-of-the-moment wishes to go. -- AndyPierce

Is that how it's done? I've head about great pianists conducting piano concertos and always wondered how that was possible.

An averagely good professional ensemble (or even a mediocre one) will play better for a good conductor than for an average one. What makes a good conductor is highly debatable... -- JohnWebber

Only the conductor is in the position to hear how well the instruments mix to form the orchestra. The conductor is the audience--ever notice that all the players face the conductor and not the guests? In this case, the audience (conductor) works with the performers to shape the sound to a desired form. The guests in the cushy chairs are observers who have come along for the ride...

Myth Number 4: Classical music is boring. Only because most classical musicians never free up their interpretations enough to be doing more than an aural transcription of the written page. I can't count the number of professional musicians who only talk about how to execute music, rather than how to interpret or perform.

Myth Number 5: Instruments are inherently difficult to play. Not really. Speech is much more difficult, and if a person has a good feel for something like poetry, musical performance will be even easier. The reality of execution on musical instruments is that they were all designed, whether consciously or not, to be played by people with ten fingers spread across two hands. Or, in the case of wind instruments, ten fingers, two hands, a lung or two, and a mouth. The basic techniques are really elementary, and once you pick up the tricks of the trade, it's a simple matter to map what you see on the page with what you need to do with the equipment. You just do it, and don't think too much about it, because it's easy. The hard part is taking all of the movements you have to do and subordinating them to the actual content of the composition, and not just the physical representation of it.

Spoken as one of the sighted trying to explain sight to the blind. There is a great deal of skill involved in converting notation into the correct sounds, even for percussion (which has much less variation in the way the sounds are made). Just because a musician finds it easy to make music does not mean that anyone else will find it easy

Exploring the full range and capabilities of an instrument is a matter of considerable effort. The comparison to speech is inadequate--a better comparison would be to voice (few are highly skilled vocalists) or to oration (huh, few excel at this craft, either). A beginning trumpeter will have a range of perhaps half an octave (typ. between low C# and G) before sufficient strength is gained to start changing the harmonic from the 3rd(G) to the 4th("tuning" C). Sometimes a horn player will play for years and never get to high C (8th harm.), a two-and-a-half octave range. Even then, changes in pitch that skip a harmonic can be quite difficult. It is valid to say that years of practice with an instrument does not make one a musician. Many technically proficient players lack the emotional connection to the piece to give it life. However, don't trivialize the effort required to achieve the technical proficiency one must achieve to realize a truly musical performance.

Myth Number 6: Forte means {loud, strong, speaking voice, etc.}. Wrongo, buddy. Forte is a color. When a French Horn plays with an oboe in Beethoven, Forte is one volume level. When that same French Horn plays in a marching band, it's another. However, the color, or shading, of the sound, will probably be quite similar. If not, the performer has fallen into the trap that this myth has set. Forte means the composer would like to hear a bit of strength, passion, color, vibrance, or anything else related to these, in a passage, or note, or whatever. It doesn't mean he would like to hear more volume, although if other factors, such as richer scoring, a prior dramatic increase in intensity, tempo, etc. are also present, it may very well mean that it's time to injure some small children. It may also mean that it's just time to add a bit of shine or sparkle, since the colors are much darker in this passage.

Myth Number 7: Keep a steady beat. Wow! Why? Because it's easier to keep a large ensemble together that way. That's the only reason. And it isn't really any easier than if all the performers are actually listening to what the others are doing. What happens when an ensemble keeps a steady beat? Absolutely nothing. Is this a consequence of keeping time steady? No. Keeping steady time is a side effect of a deeper problem: the ensemble cannot listen, and the performers cannot interpret. If you want a steady beat, get a metronome. Classical music demands an amazing amount of freedom to really comprehend, and binding a phrase to a tempo destroys this freedom, much like taking a conductor's word for anything. Especially in larger ensembles. The works for the larger ensembles, paradoxically, require even more expression and more drama than some others. Not that small works don't. However, the larger works are written for larger orchestras exactly because such an ensemble presents a larger palette of color, and restricting tempo just because an ensemble is large and deaf does not make a performance better.

This is a very good point. As the man said: it don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing. A really good performance of Beethoven 9, for an easy instance, is damn near rock'n'roll in some segments. -- KeithBraithwaite

Yes, when I first read this page I found all these points very helpful. What you put up here Evan was TooGoodForFeedback. It's very helpful to break down prejudices and false divisions between musical traditions, and it should help software people not to limit our AnalogiesFromMusic. And surely everyone even on Wiki knows that music is more important than software. -- RichardDrake

Thanks. I thought that it was just completely irrelevant to Wiki that no one had read it. I actually forgot about this page, but now that you've reminded me about it, I've got some more. --EvanCofsky

Myth Number 8: Orchestra (or musician, or band, or whatever) such-and-such (or so-and-so) is really good, so anything they play is what I should be emulating. Seems a bit backwards to me. I would think that you could tell if a group or orchestra or musician is good by what they're playing, rather than telling if what they are playing is good because of their reputation. Reputation and production are two entirely different things.

[Houston, we have a disagreement. Well done Evan & Gareth.]

Not quite fair, I think. Suppose I know "Winterreise" really well and "Schwanengesang" not at all. [Note for those who don't know: these are two sets of late Schubert songs.] And suppose I listen to, and am tremendously impressed by, a recording of "Winterreise" by (say) Fischer-Dieskau and Moore. Then isn't it reasonable for me, when trying to get the hang of "Schwanengesang", to listen to what F-D&M make of it?

Or: Suppose I have some friends whose musical taste is very similar to mine, and suppose several of them listen to the performances of a particular orchestra I've never heard, and they all report that they play very excitingly and demonstrate deep insight into the music. Isn't it then reasonable, if I'm wondering how some symphony should sound, to see what that orchestra did with it? --GarethMcCaughan

Yes, but don't assume it is good just because you've heard the orchestra is good. A particular recording of a particular piece by a particular group of players who were all working for a particular orchestra directed by a particular conductor on a particular day may be good. Change any one, and it may be bad. Don't assume that because a subset of those variables produces a good result once it will for all other values of variables not in that subset. --EvanCofsky

A classical pianist likes the general idea, but could pick some bones about a few details:

At the end of #1, on the idea that you find out what a subtext is by listening to other performances: Not really. You can and do figure out the subtext of music without hearing other performances, based on your own instinct, experience, study, and even experimentation, always using the marks on the printed page as a set of clues to try to get inside the composer's mind. I still avoid listening to performances of any pieces I'm working on till after the fact. I like to find my own way, although I can be inspired by something I hear & feel in an excellent performance. (If it's an ensemble piece, you obviously have to study the full score, not just your own part.)

On the idea that spontaneity in performance comes from interactions with other musicians in the ensemble: Yes, but certainly not exclusively. If that were the only way, then there would never be any spontaneity in solo performance (i.e. piano only). Spontaneity comes from one musician's fresh and open listening & thinking & feeling each time s/he plays a piece. If it's a great piece, you will keep discovering more and more about it as you live with it. One of the challenges of a classical musician (or any musician) is to perform a piece as if it's a spontaneous new discovery happening in that moment, even though you may have performed it hundreds of times before. And this isn't an acting trick. You truly experience it afresh each time.

I wonder if the bones I have to pick are at all relevant to the software analogies.

It's pretty clear to me that this page turned into a huge pissing match. There's NPOV, and then there are topics of discussion, and then there are topics of discussion which cause pissing matches; attempting to dispell this "myth" is probably the third. --Tanya

My wife is always on my case about wearing and liking outdated clothing and fashions. One day I was enjoying some baroque music and my wife asked me if it was "classical music". I told her baroque is usually considered "early classical". She replied, "Early? Man, even your classical tastes are outdated". -t


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