That’s it. I’m done. I’m not reading one more book telling me how to listen to classical music. I’ve yet to see The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Listening to Lawrence Welk. But classical music has prestige. The ability to pretend to understand classical music carries great social status. I don’t care about social status; I gave up on that in kindergarten. Still, I feel inferior when others seem to know how to listen to classical music. I want to know how to listen to classical music, yet I’m not even sure you know how to listen to classical music. I am sure you can’t tell me how to listen to classical music. Why must you insist on telling me how to listen to classical music? Don’t you realize that telling me you can explain to me how to listen to classical music implies that I don’t know how to listen to classical music?

I’ve got enough inferiority complexes. I’m quite happy listening to Ludwig Wagner the way I do, which involves pushing “play” on my I-Pod. But that’s not good enough. No, I must understand how to listen to Ludwig Beethoven, Johann Verdi, Wolfgang Stravinsky, and all the rest. I even enjoy Giuseppe Stockhausen, thank you very much.

But that’s not enough. I have to memorize classical music’s family tree. Classical music reminds me of a high school reunion. About twenty-five people interest me, but I’m supposed to remember the names of two hundred more. I’m pressured to know the connections between them, who was friends with whom, their biographies and influences, and which ones were bipolar and/or alcoholics. It’s too much!

Still, I’m devoted to enjoying classical music in my own way. A few weeks ago, I listened to the entirety of Franz Ravel’s The Ring. Opera, okay? And about eighteen hours of it. Did it matter to me that the lyrics were sung in Portuguese? No! Did I understand the tonal variations on F round? I’m happy to say I did not. Nor did I grasp Ravel’s experiments with atonal H sharp notes on the Byzantine scale. All I know is that for once I didn’t hear the dog downstairs barking, though the music was surely driving him mad. That dog was likely banging his head against the glass doors. I don’t need to be told how to listen to classical music to understand its benefits.

Normally, I try to understand a subject, at least enough to misinterpret it. When it comes to classical music, my misinterpretations may very well be right, and who are you to tell me otherwise? That’s why I’m in the process of writing my own book on this subject: How to Accept You’ll Never Know How to Listen to Classical Music.

Meanwhile, I shall continue enjoying Ludwig Beethoven, Johann Verdi, Wolfgang Stravinsky, Giuseppe Stockhausen, and all the rest. Take all the guilt trips you like, but don’t bother inviting me. I’m not buying a ticket. I simply can’t stand another six-hour voyage by horse and buggy in which you won’t shut up about Mozart’s 163rd Symphony.

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PAUL A. TOTH's Airplane Novel, already a Midwest Book Review Reviewer's Choice and the 9/11 novel, is available now. His other novels include Finale, Fishnet and Fizz. Click here to visit his sites.

20 responses to “Stop Telling Me How to Listen to Classical Music”

  1. Andrew Nonadetti says:

    Ha. Nicely done, especially the “iPod shuffle”. 🙂

    I love listening to classical music but anything I “know” about it has come about purely by accident or in an effort to be able to ask for what I want specifically. It used to be a small part of my musical diet but has become almost my sole intake. Someone here at work once asked me why and I explained, “Lyrics engage my mind and I don’t like thinking getting in the way of my visceral enjoyment. Pure music – strings, especially – engage my soul, which energizes my body. I like to hear the passion and have it spark my own. Plus, it’s soothing, which is the only thing that keeps me from killing you all on a daily basis. Now get the fuck out of my office.”

    Misinterpret on, my friend.

  2. Irene Zion says:

    Music is like art, you know what you like and you don’t have to explain to anyone why you like it.
    It’s your business.
    They should butt out.

  3. Paul A. Toth says:


    I feel the same — that’s also why I like jazz. Summertime often regenerates my taste for what I call hormone music — pop, rock, rap, etc. — but normally, I’ve had enough of words. And even in opera, nothing I listen to is sung in English, so it’s just more sound for me.

    Thanks for both comments.


  4. Don Mitchell says:

    I like jazz, too, but I don’t understand it. Why don’t they play the same way every time? It’s gotta be written down somewhere, right? I don’t know why they can’t just play what’s on the page.

    I hear they call them “charts,” which is pretty strange. Charts are for boats or hospitals, you know? Or cathedrals, I guess, at least one time I heard of one with a name like that.

    And then all those weird sounds they get out of ordinary instruments, except for that guy, Crazy Legs Hirsch, I think his name was, who bent his trumpet in a car door but kept playing it. How come Km. Davis’ trumpet didn’t sound like, you know, some Army guy playing taps?

    And weird names, too. You know? Like this one guy, Dizzy Mingus, he goes and puts out an album called Pithecanthropus erectus, which is like a serious fossil man from the paleo-whatever. Those dudes lived before music, even. So this is modern jazz? I don’t think so.

    I don’t know. This shit’s all too hard to understand.

    Give me Tuvan throat singers, what’s what I say.

  5. Jordan Ancel says:

    I am completely ignorant when it comes to understanding classical music, although I have a huge collection and love to listen often.

    I live in LA, so one of favorite ways I listen to classical music is blasting Bach on my phat car stereo while I slowly cruise Sunset on a Saturday night (but early-ish, cuz I like to go to bed by 10).

    Is that wrong?

    Maybe I should befriend more Juilliard grads to advise.

  6. Paul A. Toth says:

    There’s no right or wrong here, only right! I used to think I would get more out of the music if I “understood” it. But there’s no understanding it. Maybe if I were a trained musician, I could say why this is great and that’s great. The best I can do is, “This, I like.” And that’s good enough for me! Besides, every book that purports to explain classical music without using musical notation, etc., uses musical notation, etc. I’ve tried to learn how to read music. I’d have an easier time trying to unlearn how to read.

    So get back on Sunset and listen. By the way, I used to live in L.A., and I’d like to do the same right now!


    • Jordan Ancel says:

      Yeah, I agree with you and Irene. We like what we like, so there is no right or wrong.

      I’ll do a Debussy shout-out to you in front of the Chateau Marmont, Paul.

  7. Paul A. Toth says:

    I appreciate that…but do it with a Debussy touch!

  8. Simon Smithson says:

    “Nor did I grasp Ravel’s experiments with atonal H sharp notes on the Byzantine scale.”



    You just shouldn’t be listening then, should you, Paul?

  9. Paul A. Toth says:

    Well, that’s easy for you to say. I thought I had the Machiavellian scale down flat, but then it tricked me.

  10. Paul A. Toth says:

    My notes are flat, I admit.

  11. Zara Potts says:

    I like this piece, a lot.
    I understand nothing about classical music, but I still love it.
    Some of my loveliest memories of my Grandfather are of him and I just sitting quietly and listening to classical music on his little cassette player, when he was very sick. It soothed him and soothed me to know that the music was speaking to us both in a way that made words redundant.

  12. Joe Daly says:

    Love the piece, Paul. Sometimes we need to remind ourselves that what we love and how we enjoy it requires no explanation to the outside world.

  13. New Orleans Lady says:

    Music is pure energy and power. It envokes feelings in us. Who can describe those?

  14. Paul A. Toth says:

    Thanks! That’s true, music is to be experienced, and it’s got to be one of the most difficult experiences to describe. That’s probably why the explanation authors resort to music theory even when they promise they won’t — but then end up making a point only with people who probably already know the technical reasons why a particular piece is great. I’m starting to think it’s like reading a book. You can read a book like an author, like a writer, or like a literary critic. I read novels as a reader and writer (always with an eye on things I can improve, start using, etc.). But I don’t want to read as a literary critic. And I don’t want to listen to music like a music critic. It’s like being a gynecologist having sex! I wonder if gynecologists can “leave the job behind”?!

  15. Greg Olear says:

    I would tell you that this was very funny, Paul, but I can’t hear myself think over the infernally loud strains of Claude Mahler’s “Afternoon of a Faux.”

    I shall, however, leave you with this quote from Nabokov, which I don’t agree with, although it is also funny: “My loathings are simple: stupidity, oppression, crime, cruelty, soft music.”

  16. Paul A. Toth says:

    Thank you for the comment. As to Nabokov, I guess it depends on how person defines “soft music.” I like Debussy’s and others’ “soft music,” but I simply cannot tolerate pop ballads and the like!

    Glad you joyed the piece. Thanks for letting me know!


  17. You should do what I did and buy a copy of “The Rest Is Noise” and aggressively never read it, but leave it out conspicuously at parties. Then buy the accompanying 20-CD set and use them as beer coasters. I find owning at least one Edgard Varese T-shirt with the sleeves cut off helps enormously as well.

  18. Paul A. Toth says:

    It’s funny you should mention that book. That’s the one book I read I’d recommend — but then, it doesn’t tell you how to listen to music; it just tells you about the development of music. THAT I can handle!

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