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Still, sad as that is, it isn't a uniquely philosophical use of the term. We are still trying to get people to appreciate each other, too. And the lack thereof, of being able to understand and at least tolerate other cultures, other viewpoints, and other needs, expresses itself in war and antagonism, power struggles, culture wars, and general mayhem. So in a way this apparently pabulum concept, when applied to music, isn't as bad as it could be--there are more pronounced symptoms in other areas of life. Getting you to appreciate something is also about more than just making some nice professor somewhere feel pleasantly useful. The stakes are higher than that.

I have a friend who teaches a course in film appreciation at the university, and always has to explain, on the first day, the difference between liking something and appreciating something. Liking something being what you do automatically, without thinking about it. You are instantly attracted to it, because it has properties in it that speak to you at this moment, where you are, and gratifies your senses, or your mind, or some temporary need, or jogs a memory, or sounds like other songs you already like, or gives you pleasure when you sing along, or your friends all like it too, or whatever. It may also confirm whatever musical prejudices you may have, and it gives you a taste of the familiar without asking you to encounter something you don't know very well and try to deal with that.

The problem with only liking or disliking something is that it has, in itself, no growth mechanism. You'll never explore any more than is immediately obvious to you, easily available (and even hard to avoid), part of your own generation, your own subculture, the groups you belong to, and so on. You may eventually grow to like many pieces of music, but they will all more or less resemble each other. The only way out of that vicious cycle is to either encounter other people and their tastes with something resembling an open mind, or to start with the music itself and try to figure out why so many other people like it, even if you don't. The trick with musical appreciations is that as your musical vocabulary grows, so does your ability to connect with a broad range of music, and to even like it in some way, strange as it might be. At first this ability will not be prominent, but, like compound interest, it eventually makes you rich. (note: intellectual interest rates don't go in the crapper like the ones at the bank!)

Last year one of our choral groups sang some fairly demanding (and fairly modern) literature, and the director was met with some expressions of disapproval for the choice of material. Of course, a large part of that was due to the fact that the music was difficult, and whenever people find something difficult, that first, frustrated reaction is to blame the music. This stems from the idea that most people have that the music should come to them, rather than that they might need to exert themselves, and in the process become something other than they were, in order to meet the music, and be changed by what the composer had to say. It requires us to stop behaving like little absolute monarchs and pack our bags and journey up the mountain, trusting that whatever we find when we get there will have been worth the traveling. Or if not that at least the travelling will have been worth the travelling.

I have to admit that at first the music did not make a great impression on me, either. I liked parts of it, which is to say that parts of it were immediately attractive, but having heard a performance of the entire work at a concert the semester before I was under the impression that it was rather long, and too monotonous, that is, inclined to too many slow tempos in a row. The performance itself may have had something to do with that impression, of course.

Over the semester the piece grew on me. This is usually the case with better pieces of music. Conversely, the ones that are not so great usually burst on the scene all at once, like gum that announces itself via sensory overload and then loses its flavor in five minutes. I usually find that a piece of music that makes an attractive first impression on me will wear out within a few days. But a piece that makes just enough of an impression that I'll want to hear it again, but no more, might turn out to really have something to offer for years to come.

I may have gotten a bit of a head start here.  Back in childhood I listened to Handel's Messiah and did not find the three hours of operatic singing with large string orchestras and slow tempi much to my liking (this was before historical performance research had kicked in so nobody was paying much attention to whether or not Handel himself would have performed the piece that way). But I decided the fault was mine since I had heard that it was a great work and I was therefore supposed to like it. So I stayed in my room and forced myself to keep listening to it. And over time, I started to like it (this is in contrast to creamed peas, which my mother made me eat every week for years and I still don't like!). Better still, I figured out what it was about it that I couldn't come to grips with my initial childish mindset, and grew from the experience. My attention span grew too, which helped, but I was able to concentrate better because I had something to concentrate on, rather than just how strange it all was. The amazing thing is that I not only love the piece, I am able to enjoy new pieces that I've never heard before from the same era because I can understand the musical rhetoric behind it--just like you are reading this article which you have never read before and understanding it because you know how to read in English.

I suppose that little exercise in musical humility served me well as I went off to music school and listened over and over to works I didn't know but which had so much to say once I figured out what it was. I listened for the way the musical argument unfolded, for the way the tunes were transformed, for the fascinating details that shed light on the whole, for the unique obsessions and techniques each composer brought to the table. That in turn may have helped me to learn about other cultures and ideas, and open up to different people. It is interesting how appreciation, when actively pursued, does lead to liking. It isn't the upset mother telling her ungrateful child "you'll appreciate me when I'm dead!" but appreciating proceeded by stronger adjectives like truly, or wonderfully. Eventually it can go from merely tolerating all the way up to experiencing the transcendent in the ordinary.

In the end it leads us back to that little equation about liking what we know and knowing what we like, only now there is more to know (better) and thus more to like, which means we spend more time liking things and less fighting them off, which I think makes us happier in the long run.

 

 


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