‘Listen to this’.

There’s something to be said for being told to ‘listen to this’, ‘look at this’ or ‘read this’. An important aspect of any educational programme is presenting learners with something new or re-presenting something familiar in a new context. And that means allowing someone else to choose what to offer us; to curate part of our experience following their plan or curriculum, if only to introduce us to the unknown which we can then explore ourselves.

The experience of listening, looking or reading is absorbing and valuable in itself. It’s personal to each of us and doesn’t have to have a wider purpose. It’s also part of our development as social beings with a stake in human culture. And ‘listen to, look at, or read this’ inevitably leads to ‘think about this and how it connects to other things’ and then also to ‘share what you think about this’.

Think about how many times others recommend something to us that they think we must listen to, see or read. They want us to be moved or changed, in the way they have been, and they want us to be able to share that experience. It matters to them because it could matter to us too.

Our cultural life is both intensely personal and highly social and while we make our own path through it, we can benefit from experienced guides and teachers to help us find ways in and make new connections. When we take their advice, we’re allowing them to curate a small part of what we experience, helping us find a common language to share what it means to us.

When it comes to ‘classical’ music, Clemency Burton-Hill is an experienced guide and ‘Year of Wonder’ is an accessible route map; inviting us to listen to a single different short piece every day of the year and to read a single page of context for each one; about the piece, about the author’s personal response to it, about the composer, or just a related anecdote. This is just one selection and it doesn’t claim to be a canon or to provide systematic coverage. It’s a playlist that can be of interest to any of us, and the ‘listen to one new thing every day’ approach could also contribute to all sorts of music education programmes.

But why the scare quotes around the word ‘classical’? I’ve enjoyed listening to this kind of music all my life and it’s important to me, but I think that calling it ‘classical’ implies a distinction between ‘high’ art and ‘low’ art and signals that it’s an elitist activity or some kind of luxury good. So I don’t like the c-word and I agree with Alex Ross, who starts his brilliant book ‘Listen to This’ by saying:

“I hate classical music: not the thing but the name. It traps a tenaciously living art in a theme park of the past. It cancels out the possibility that music in the spirit of Beethoven could still be created today… I wish there were another name.”

Clemency Burton-Hill does use the term, but acknowledges in the introduction to ‘Year of Wonder’ that the cause of classical music is not served by

“…those who assume it is ‘superior’ to other types of music” or by “those who, deep down, believe it must remain the preserve of people with certain backgrounds… which is opportunity-hoarding at its most lazy and repellent.”

Far from hoarding or mystifying, we need to tear down the barriers of elitism, spread musical opportunities around more equally and embrace the full range of our shared musical heritage in all its diversity. Like all cultural activity, making and appreciating music is social and it’s always taking place in a cultural-historical context. We are all music-makers, music-sharers and music-critics. 

We may know what we like, but ‘what we like’ doesn’t come from nowhere and it isn’t static. It’s the result of our experiences, the cultures we’ve engaged with, our choices and those of others around us – all of which are in constant movement. And there is always going to be something out there that we’ve never heard and might like, even if we don’t know it yet.

So, I started on the ‘Year of Wonder’ journey in January 2021 in a spirit of curiosity and openness; prepared to spend a few moments every day listening to the recommended pieces and possibly to share some discoveries along the way.

See also:

Lessons without words: 10 things music teaches us about life (Nov 2014)

The keyboard and the music (Dec 2014)

A level minority report: dance, music, philosophy ( Feb 2016)

About Eddie Playfair

I am a Senior Policy Manager at the Association of Colleges (AoC) having previously been a college principal for 16 years and a teacher before that. I live in East London and I blog in a personal capacity about education and culture. I also tweet at @eddieplayfair
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