How We Hear Music

Today, on my way to work today I heard this piece:

It took hold of me and would not let go. So, I Googled the radio station to find out what it was. It is “The Lark Ascending” by Ralph Vaughan Williams.   There was a most powerful, incomparable poem written by an English poet George Meredith, a hymn, by the sound and form if it. A long one, too. It inspired Ralph Vaughan Willliams, an English composer, to compose the mentioned concerto for violin. A beautiful concerto! Which, by the way, is more known than the original poem nowadays.

I knew nothing of the poem and have never heard the composer’s name, either. Turns out it’s one of favorite pieces of Classical music for the Brits and beyond! Researchers and musicians link this concerto to WW1. However, I – a tabula rasa – did not hear war in the music. I heard Japanese influence, masterfully weaved into classical European music, like those songs for chamber performance, singing of love, play, sadness and nature. And so I found still another evidence to an effect I have been observing for a while.

When we like a piece of music (or a painting, or a book, it does not really matter), we attribute certain feelings and experiences to it and we relate to it. These experience are our own, of course, and in most cases have nothing to do with the emotions the creator wanted to imply. Take myself and Williams’ “The Lark Ascending”. Moreover, how can we claim to know what a creator had meant by one or the other pieces of art, unless he/she explicitly told us, the people, about it?!

But back to my point. As soon as we learn more about the song (book or whatever), mostly it’s the circumstances it had been created under, we start hearing it differently. We understand it deeper, in a profoundly different way. And despite changing our perspective on that song, this new knowledge brings a certain intimacy, draws us and the music closer together, makes our relations more personal, I may say.

Here’s an example: Bruce Springsteen and his “Dancing in the Dark”. What do think of it? A love song, naturally. Do you know how and why the song came to be? It was forced on Springsteen! He was (violently?) forced into writing a hit for his album when he was drained and deprived of any inspiration. This song is the story of how he struggles for inspiration and how he is calling and pleading for his Muse to show up. Now go and listen to the song again – I bet you will hear it differently this time.

Mozart is another example. I have always enjoyed listening to his compositions, though I am far from an expert. Until couple weeks ago I knew nothing of his personality or private life, but the mere rumor of his rivalry with Sallieri and the latter poisoned the grand master. Then I watched “Amadeus” (1984), a 3-hour long movie about Mozart. Fictional, of course, but powerfully impressive nonetheless. Don’t you think my perception of Mozart’s music changed? It did dramatically! Now everything I hear has a flare of deep sadness and regret for the tragic life of one impossibly talented young man…

3 thoughts on “How We Hear Music

  1. Yes, we put our own influences on the way we hear and interpret music. It’s an interesting idea to listen to music, then read about it and see if your opinion changes about the music. It clearly does in your examples.

  2. Elena, thank you for this post – I wasn’t familiar with his music,l therefore I think that it is not widely known as M-R claims :D. I agree with your impressions – I also heard Japanese influence and could not associate the music with the war, but you got the point – it is relevant to know what the artist thought/felt when producing his/her art. (I love(d) Amadeus movie) Great weekend to you!

  3. Vaughan Williams is indeed known widely, Jouena; and “The Lark Ascending” is one of his most-loved compositions. My beloved second-eldest sister loved it deeply; and when she died, I was asked if I could contribute to the list of music to be played at the ceremony – this was my immediate response. Imagine if the world was full of music like this, available to everyone …
    Oh. It is.

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