Appreciation and Understanding

Between 1928 and 1942, NBC offered a radio series called The Music Appreciation Hour. Its task was to present classical music in a way that would make a young audience enjoy the music through a better understanding of it.

Theodor Adorno, a philosopher at the time, was a skeptic of The Music Appreciation Hour. There was a difference between its expectations and reality:

“While apparently urging recognition in order to help people to ‘enjoy’ music, the Music Appreciation Hour actually encourages enjoyment, not of the music itself, but of the awareness that one knows music”.

Music, in this sense, is a set of cues for the listener to comprehend. If one can follow the music, it can be understood. That’s it.

Adorno, however, saw musical understanding as an intensive relationship. This involved digging deep within the music, finding the transcendent qualities of, say, a Beethoven quartet. It’s a messy understanding of music but rooted in individual freedom.

This is key for Adorno. It’s what The Music Appreciation Hour was missing. That type of understanding is cookie cutter, neutering any meaning the music had and leaving a shell of motifs and sections in its place. Adorno’s understanding retains the music’s soul.

What’s conflicting here is that analysis a la The Music Appreciation Hour is still an important part of understanding music. It’s what studying music theory is all about. Yet Adorno saw that leaving one’s understanding of music at this check list analytical level only nips the bud of music’s power: the freedom of individual nourishment.

Music can be analyzed but we have to realize that it wasn’t composed for that exclusively.


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