I confess: I like pop music. If you know me at all, you’ll know that’s not much of a confession. Turn on the Top 40 station and there’s a 99 percent chance I know most of the words to whatever song is playing, especially if it’s Katy Perry. If you ever let me ride shotgun in your car, you will regret it—I will unabashedly force you to listen to Britney Spears and I will, without exception, skip every Arcade Fire song on your iPod. If you’ve ever spent time in the Chronicle office on a Wednesday night, you’ve probably even heard me sing “Starships.”
But here’s another confession: I love classical music even more. Mine is a private kind of love, one that I have harbored for years that I rarely publicize, kind of like the intense longing of a 13-year-old for her summer camp counselor. I’m not sure why I feel more comfortable divulging my knowledge of the names and ages of the members of One Direction than the composers in the First Viennese School, or why I feel it’s more socially acceptable to blast Taylor Swift in my car than Stravinsky. But honestly, have you ever gone to a classical music concert on campus and seen more than five other students in the audience? Compare that to the Shaggy concert you went to last year. Clearly, there is something about pop music that students find attractive.
Personally, I listen to Top 40 because many pop singers have a limited vocal range that parallels my own. Which means that when I’m singing along to “Call Me Maybe,” my childhood fantasy of becoming an international superstar seems, for three minutes and thirteen seconds, entirely plausible. “I’m not a bad singer,” I start to think. “I could audition for American Idol, and when I win, I’ll be so famous that I can name my kids after fruits.” The only thing that can bring me back to reality is a Beyoncé song, a beautiful yet dream-crushing reminder that some pop stars are actually capable of hitting more than five notes.
Classical music is different. I’m a music minor and I’ve been playing piano since I was six, but I’ll be the first to admit I could never be a professional pianist. The sheer amount of willpower it takes to sit in the basement of Biddle practicing one measure of a Beethoven sonata over and over until your hands fall off is something that I’ve just never possessed. And performing classical music is even harder than practicing. My first concert at Duke had me so nervous that I played the first two measures of my piece and somehow managed to forget everything. I actually had to stop playing and walk offstage to get my sheet music. That was the first of many recitals that ended with a visit to Elmo’s, where I ate my incompetency in chocolate chip pancakes.
My deep respect for classical musicians is not, by any means, the only reason I love the music. It’s the complexity, the ability of so many wordless strands of thought and emotion to come together in a single instant, creating a work of art that is entirely ephemeral. Classical music is fleeting, a memory; it only exists when it stops existing. It’s a mental and emotional experience. You can’t just recite the lyrics or learn the basic chord structure of Verdi’s “Requiem” the way you can with a Ke$ha song. And it would be impossible to capture one of Bach’s cello concertos in words: the passionate crescendoes, the trembling timbre of string against string, the immense range of human emotion. Even the way classical music is notated doesn’t capture the essence of the piece; you can draw notes any way you want (ask Stockhausen), but you can never effectively hold a symphony in your hand. It is beyond visual and verbal expression.
Classical music is all the more amazing because it is universally comprehensible. You don’t have to be a musician to understand the elaborate language of an orchestra. A solo pianist can create a dialogue between the individual fingers of their hands, telling a story with a setting and plot and characters without actually saying anything. Take Debussy’s “La cathédrale engloutie.” The piano piece recounts the story of a sunken cathedral that rises out of the sea on clear mornings, only to return to the depths at sunset. When you listen to the piece, you can hear the church bells emerging from the ocean spray, can practically smell the salt in the air, can see the people crowded on the beach in awe. Or listen to Mahler’s first symphony. The third movement revisits a children’s song in a minor key, creating a world of nostalgia and regret, familiarity and disillusion. It’s high drama, and it’s all narrated by a double bass, not a pop singer dressed as a cupcake.
It’s confusing to me that so many students think classical music is boring. I’ll concede that too much Mozart might put you to sleep, but what about Strauss, Tchaikovsky or Beethoven? You can’t complain that classical music is too hard to sing along to, either: listen to Dvorák’s “New World” Symphony and you will be humming it for the next week. Just because classical music concerts don’t involve your typical Main Quad bacchanalia does not mean they aren’t worth going to. Duke is a truly amazing place for classical music; there’s a different performance almost every week. Go to one, close your eyes. Allow yourself to really listen. I think you’ll discover that there’s more to life than just four chords.