Why No One Listens to Beethoven

It’s not because the music is difficult

Image credit: ImpressionStarts

I’m not an expert in serious music but ever since my friend Sven, who was the Organ Scholar at my Oxford college, introduced me to real music I’ve enjoyed exploring and listening and understanding. I know enough theory of music to follow along and I really enjoy what I’m hearing.

For example, once you know that Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony should really have been his Fourth (he got stuck in the middle and came back to it later, hence the canon is out of sequence) then his game of fours becomes even more amusing.

But no one listens to Beethoven any more. Just as they don’t listen to Brahms or Hayden or Mozart or Rameau or Shostakovich or Prokofiev.

So the question is: why not?

I mean, seriously: we’re the fortunate inheritors of a wealth of music that is so incredibly beautiful and so stirring that it is incomprehensible so few people are aware of it.

For a really easy piece just try this one:


(Push the timebar to around 3.30, which is where the piece properly begins)

That was lovely, right? Not complex, it didn’t require four years of music theory in school, it didn’t require studying the development of Western music since medieval times. All it took was to click on a link and thereby access a heartrendingly beautiful composition that will enrich your life forever.

Or so someone like me would like to think.

In reality of course we can listen to that piece of music and react by shouting, “What rubbish!” or “Utter tosh!” And why would we say this? Because what passes for music in our modern age is so very, very different.

Today we worship illiterate talentless young men with advanced Tourette’s syndrome. No composition is complete without a litany of mother*ckers, b*tches, sh*t, f*ck, n*gger, and various other pleasantly charming interjections that provide rhythmic diversity to what is otherwise a very tedious beat.

How can Beethoven & Co compete? If we take the time to listen to the entire repertoire of serious music from Purcell onward what do we find? Not a single mother*cker anywhere! A canon utterly devoid of the word n*gger.

It’s hardly surprising therefore that serious music is anathema to the modern ear. Without our family-friendly cues of b*tch and ho and sh*t to guide us, we drift lost and helpless on a sea of incomprehensible sounds. If only Beethoven & Co had possessed the foresight to throw in a few of the essential Tourette-derived exclamations perhaps even today young people would be clamoring to hear Beethoven’s F*cking Fourth Motherf*cker Symphony, Bitch.

Alas, we do not live in such a well-ordered world.

Instead we live in a world of meretricious pap foisted on people who don’t know they’re being conned. The gulf between the mass market and compositions of value is nearly unbridgeable. If someone grows up on MegaDefBlackMetal they probably can’t even hear the high C in Allegri’s sublime Miserere and they’ll spend the entire time waiting for a cliché guitar solo. If someone listens to rap they’ll be puzzled by the lack of references to Aston Martin cars, Krug champagne, and Jimmy Choo shoes.

If a person grows up on McSlop and Kentucky Fried Cancer, their palate won’t know what to make of fresh lobster tail gently sauted in Chateau Carbonnieux with a hint of lemongrass and ginger. They’ll imagine a Twinkie is infinitely superior to a cheese souffle with truffle sauce.

Many will argue that some empty swear-ridden rap song is “just as good as” Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and that a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup is “just as good as” a rich chocolate souffle garnished with a pistach mille feuille. After all, “it’s a matter of personal taste.”

But what if actually it’s not?

We know that eating McSlop makes our bodies ill; it’s not surprising that listening to the aural equivalent makes our minds unwell. How many rap songs about hos and motherf*ckers and b*tches can a person listen to before their mental universe shrinks down to miniscule proportions and they see the whole world through the eyes of a faux-angry over-entitled know-nothing adolescent?

For as far back as written history exists, and surely much further back than that, we humans have used music to form social bonds, to elevate our spirits, and to convey emotions. Today far too many people regard music as merely “product” to be pushed on the ignorant masses with the sole aim of making as much money as possible for the least amount of effort. I doubt anyone on Earth has ever felt uplifted after being exposed to the mindless babble of a rap performer.

And that’s a great shame. In a world of increasing folly and self-harm, we could all use a little lifting of our spirits from time to time, and something healthy to put into our ears instead of the abrasive and mind-numbingly stupid mouthings of know-nothing young men.

Just in case anyone would like to hear what real music is like, the following are a few introductory suggestions for music that is beautiful, moving, and highly accessible:

John Taverner, Missa Corona Spinea, performed by Harry Christophers & The Sixteen, Hyperion records

Christoph Gluck, Dance of the Blessed Spirits (from the opera Orpheo ed Euridice), Berliner Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Herbert von Karajan, Universal Music

Wolfgang Gottlieb Mozart, Symphony 40, Berliner Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Herbert von Karajan, Deutsche Grammophon

Johann Sebastian Bach, Cello Suite #1 in G major, Prelude, YoYo Ma, Sony Masterworks

For something more recent: Erik Satie’s Trois Gymnopedies, Yuji Takahashi, Columbia records

As no one really sponsors music composition these days, movies have become a refuge for composers. None better than Ennio Morricone, and his best work is the sound track to the movie The Mission: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oag1Dfa1e_E

Anyone who enjoys my articles here on Medium may be interested in my books Why Democracy Failed and The Praying Ape, both available from Amazon.

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