Or, how I learned to stop worrying and love classical music (part 1)

Ben Klemens
12 min readJul 25, 2016

I have a short stack of ‘how to listen’ books on my shelf over there, and over the years I’ve put decent effort into reading them and trying out their advice. Despite this, I eventually grew to better understand — and even like — these long-form, endless streams of music.

Here are some notes from the other side, in two parts. The first part will mostly be about structure of pop music and what makes it pop. I’m covering it in detail because many people don’t recognize its deep consistency behind the genres and subgenres, and because we can’t talk about getting into not-pop until we’re clear on the key point that’s being left behind.

In part two, I’ll talk about the implications for how somebody starting out to the wilds of non-pop music can explore the landscape. As per the title, the key point of part 2 is: stop worrying.

8 bars

But first: pop.

Here is how a song is structured in popular Western music: play something for eight bars (or measures, or downbeats). Then, play something else for eight bars. Continue stepping from one 8-bar phrase to the next until the song is over. Doesn’t matter if you’re listening to radio pop, (most) jazz, rap about bustin’ out of the system, metal, country, or western. 8 bars, then a different 8 bars. Like a magician asking you to draw a card, I can tell you to pick any song out of your playlist and count out the downbeats, and you’ll find the 8-bar pattern.

To give you a clear example, check out Cabin Essence, by the Beach Boys. Ignore the lyrics, but I recommend putting on headphones for this one. In case you have associations of silly throwaway songs when you think about the Beach Boys, please note that their lead songwriter Brian Wilson described his songs such as this one as “teenage symphonies to God”. There are segments of a soloist with backing instruments, and segments where a veritable orchestra is playing.

Even if you’re a klutz with counting out the 1–2–3–4, 2–2–3–4, 3–2–3–4s (I certainly am), the eight-bar breaks are striking — they’re where the entire song changes, almost to a different song entirely. Even if you’re not explicitly counting, your reptilian brain will know when to expect the downbeat at the head of the next 8-bar block. Once you do, it’ll help you understand the structure of every pop song you’ll ever hear. Or if you’re a more vocals-focused person, imagine how the lyrics of a song would fit onto the page, probably a poem in four line segments, each of which plays out in two bars of music.

A lot of people describe music like a literary essay, with phrases that build into sections. You have no problem finding a phrase in a song on a pop playlist, because the eight bar rule guarantees that phrases will come in evenly-spaced turns.

Your favorite catchy radio hit invariably has a chorus that sticks in your head. We can go back to the Beach Boys doing another teenage symphony, “Good vibrations”. The chorus (“she’s givin’ me good vibrations”) is such a catchy melody, the rest of the song pales. Maybe you can remember the musical phrasing from other parts of the song, maybe you can’t, but if you cut everything but the catchy part, you wouldn’t have a musical composition anymore, just an ad jingle. Going back to Cabin Essence, where some of the phrases had lyrics attached and some did not, Mr Wilson had a reason for putting all these disparate musical phrases into one song, and to me it feels clear that if some of the less engrossing phrases were missing it’d be less of a song.

Here’s one more track from a band who was in close competition with the Beach Boys, entitled “Happiness is a warm gun”. Cabin Essence and Good Vibrations follow the standard format of two musical phrases (verse/chorus) that alternate to make a song; in “Happiness”, every eight-bar block is distinct from every other. Pop is not about repetition: stitching together a sequence of entirely different blobs is still recognizable as pop, as long as the blocks start and end on the 8-bar schedule. [Vocab: a song where every phrase is different is sometimes referred to as “through sung”. He’s hard to link to, but for another example I personally always liked see Prince’s “Ballad of Dorothy Parker”. Or see any opera.]

There are other minor exceptions, barely worth discussing. Now and then there’s a four-bar fill. There’s 12-bar blues (but two 12-bar groups= three 8-bar groups, so we’re not drifting very far). Even ostensibly free-form jazz will break down into solos or other segments that are multiples of eight — how else would you keep the band together?

Phrasing in an odd-bar world

OK, now let’s drop the eight-bar rule.
This makes all the difference, for the composer and for us as listeners. The composer can write musical phrases that are five bars or twenty, and can blend them together in ways that you just can’t with a set 8-bar schedule. Segments that are eight bars will typically break down into even-split patterns (four two-bar blobs, or two four-bar blobs), but if a segment can be any length, subparts can be any length. Dropping the rule that everything has to stop or start at the eighth downbeat means that we can overlap phrases, and have one meander along while others come and go. Phrases from different instruments can interact and converse.

So, that’s different. And for us as listeners, it means knowing when one phrase ends and the next picks up will now take focus that wasn’t necessary when we were guaranteed that the transition was at the 8-count. When I listen to people who don’t like this oddbar stuff, such as myself a decade ago, they’d talk about how a composition just meanders in an endless stream of notes. Over on this side, I’m seeing that the me of before wasn’t picking up on where phrases begin and end, because the composer has no obligation to hit me over the head with regular start/stop points.

But the core of it is still a set of phrases. After all, it was written by a human. That human had to focus on one part at a time, just as an author has to write one sentence at a time. That person had a structure in mind and (apart from some mid-1960s composers) was not jotting down a random stream.

If you can recognize the phrases, despite their being of odd duration, you’ve won. You’re thinking at the level of language the author intended, and can consider how the composer fit the phrases together, what he or she is trying to say — in short, interact with the music.

Listening bottom-up

The core of why I’m writing this essay is to counteract the advice from the how to listen books about finding the overarching top-down structure of a piece, which requires quite some focus to hear the first or second time through. I think that advice led me astray, because it counteracts a very important point. I’ll put it in the largest typeface Medium allows:

It is OK to space out in the middle of a composition.

It’s not a failing on your part, and it’s not like you even give a 45-minute Shakira album full, undivided attention when you play it through. But the way the piece will still be enjoyable despite spacing out now and then is to not look for the top-level structure, but to focus on what’s here now. All music is broken down into phrases and segments, and all that matters is the one that’s playing right now.

Some of the phrases are ‘themes’, meaning phrases that repeat in variations throughout. The How To Listen books advise that you look for the themes, but that’s like saying you should twiddle your thumbs through Good Vibrations until the chorus kicks in. The theme in a symphony will pop up in surprising places and surprising ways — it’s not caged into an 8-bar segment — but if you marked out the time where the theme appears, you’d probably cover only about ten or twenty percent of the typical symphonic work. A lot of the action in any piece is in the space surrounding the punchy core of the work.

In part two, I’ll give you some tips on searching for what you’ll love, but right here and now you have some names in your head like Beethoven or Stravinsky, so maybe take a break from this essay and pull up the first thing your favorite music provider offers for the first composer name you can think of. Then, skip to halfway through the track. What’s the phrase right at that point like? What instruments are playing, and how are they interacting? You just landed in the middle of a segment, but can you catch the transition to the next phrase or section, and where is that phrase trying to go? And if you spaced out after two minutes of focused listening, that’s OK, because when you come back there will be something new for you.

Getting back to that overarching theme and structure that the How to Listen books want you to focus on: it will come. There’s a story (I don’t care if it’s true), that a critic told William Faulkner that he read Light in August twice and still didn’t get it, to which Mr Faulkner replied, ‘then read it a third time’. After playing any work enough, the links across phrases make themselves apparent without my explicitly looking for them. This sort of bottom-up understanding of the composition has worked well for me: if I’m straining to work out the overarching structure of a relatively new piece, I come out feeling crappy when I don’t get it; if I’m taking it one phrase at a time, there’s always something interesting going on. And when the big picture starts coming into clearer view, the sudden little understandings are an enjoyable surprise instead of a little pass/fail test.

[As an aside, a professional mathematician writes that “most mathematicians are lost most of the time during lectures. (If you do not believe me, ask around.)” I mention this not to compare not-8-bar music to higher-level math, but because both have the commonality that they fill outsiders with feelings of anxiety and impostor syndrome, and the core point of this essay is to convince you that you are not an impostor.]

Technology and dressing

I’m belaboring this thing about complex not-8-bar phrases because I couldn’t think of anything else that consistently distinguishes this music from pop. But there are of course other differences, some of which have actionable implications.

First, does the 8-bar thing really distinguish pop? Doesn’t Mozart have 8-bar tracks? Yes, he does, and it’s all dance music. That is, even in the 1700s, the 8-bar format marked popular composition for the dance hall. If you say it can’t be pop because it’s by Mozart, I won’t argue the point with you.

Every composition regardless of genre has a beat, though we’re obviously not here for bouncy dance music. Some of the more modern composers do deliberately obtuse things with rhythm. Not only are there no 8-bar segments, but even finding the bars is difficult. The actionable step here is to tap out the rhythm or get a metronome to tap out the regular beat they omitted. If you’re a musician you learned to do this perhaps without even thinking, but it can help the rest of us to stop and explicitly think about where the downbeat would be. But I don’t listen to those composers very often.

Are there technological differences? A few. Some earlier instruments like harpsichords could only play at one volume, so if a passage was going to ramp up in excitement the only way to do it was a flourish of notes, which brings us to the tired joke about compositions of the time having too many notes. That’s not a problem in the present day, and a symphony may go from super-quiet to super-loud in a second. This brings us to another major piece of audio technology: the automobile. Radio pop has to have a consistent volume all the way through to comfortably come through over engine noise. There are bands that have the dynamic range of Verdi, but they’re a rarity and people always comment on how interesting it is that they have quiet parts. So, if you listen in your car, you are almost certain to miss out on a lot. The actionable step is to get better headphones. You don’t need the $10,000 setup your snob friends insists is the minimum, but the free headphones that shipped with your telephone are designed for a limited dynamic range. A few weeks after buying a pair of headphones one step up— they were $45 and cover the ears — I noticed that music I’d brushed off before was getting increasingly heavy rotation on my playlists.

Is it the packaging and fashion statement? Maybe; more on that in part 2. Once you leave pop, the cover art is always a landscape in gradual decay, or maybe people dressed for a cocktail party. The track names are very clear about what the music will be like, but that brings with it a lot of lingo I had to get used to, like how movements are named after their pacing: Legato (French/Spanish: like the cat), Andante (Italian: literally for the teeth, a mid-range walking pace), Lento (the pace one would have during Lent), and so on. It lacks color.

The actionable step: I dunno. I honestly get lost with the naming and can’t tell you which is Shostakovich’s 6th string quartet and Shostakovich’s 7th. When I recall a fun hook, all I can do is swim through and at best try to use those pace markers. The first buoy to cling to here is cover art, which is dull but at least mostly different from album to album and depending on how your brain works may provide a hook. The second is that some pieces have pet names: Beethoven’s 3rd: Eroica; 6th: pastoral; 9th: choral; 5th: the da-da-da-dumm symphony. As an aside, a piece with a name is probably more popular than one without, so given a choice between a named piece and seemingly equivalent other number, maybe start with the named piece.

Is it track duration? Most compositions on my playlist are about 6 to 15 minutes long. The ones that are longer are split into movements of about that length, meaning that they may add up to forty minutes or more. I know it can’t play on the radio if it’s more than 4 minutes long, but your favorite pop album probably has a track or two in that time range. The actionable step is to put together a playlist that incorporates those shorter movements and not necessarily 40 minutes of one composition. Yes, there are purists who insist that you’ll only understand a song if you hear it in the context of the album, and yes, it’s more fun to listen to a full symphony as a symphony, but I’m not going to deprive myself of good music because I can’t block out an hour. And this ties in to the bottom-up approach I’d advocated above, as the familiarity one gains from listening to shorter segments will add to my experience when the time and inclination to put on the full work comes around. On days when I shuffle symphonic movements and pop, I feel like the alternation causes me to pay more attention and better appreciate both. And on days when I want to hear the multi-movements as a unit, I wrote a Python script, Ludwig van Shuffle, to help me do this.

Is it the wash of the massive orchestra? Sometimes yes, but there are also soli pieces, where one instrument (or singer) is front and center, perhaps with backing musicians, which is of course the structure of every pop song. [The singular of soli is solo, just as the singluar of spaghetti is spaghetto.] To preview part two, I’ll suggest that these sorts of pieces are generally a better bet for those of us with a shorter attention span.

Orchestras have something like 80 people on the stage, but pop music is catching up on having so many parts, by layering more recorded tracks. I sometimes like to spend a listen to a song counting how many parts I can hear. ‘OK, there’s the vocals, which are double-sung to sound fuller, the drum, that has to be two guitars, every few bars there’s a synth playing a little swell, the bass…’ That’s a pretty typical song and we’re at seven tracks (taking the drum kit as a single track, which a sound engineer would laugh at). Don’t be surprised if what seems like a simple song passes a dozen tracks once you’ve got headphones on. Identifying each element is the first step to listening to just that element to see how it is navigating between all the other parts, what it is contributing to the whole. Then when you go back to the whole, you have that many more hints to how the structure got put together.

The actionable step to all this polyphony is to pick pieces that have distinct parts you can hook on to, which segues nicely to part 2, where I’ll talk more about how I went about finding good pieces and good composers.



Ben Klemens

BK served as director of the FSF’s End Software Patents campaign, and is the lead author of Apophenia (http://apophenia.info), a statistics library.