Using Familiarity, or Getting Over a Need for Familiarity?

by matchequeda

Until this semester, I have never had to listen to music to which I couldn’t relate.

I have had a few different situations in which I “had” to listen to music. When preparing for performances for musicals and singing groups, I’ve had to listen to music to become familiar with pieces or memorize lyrics. But listening to the music wasn’t a big deal – it was pop music, or religious music or choral music I was pretty familiar with and enjoyed, or show tunes. The music was all very easy to relate to because it was in styles that I had known for my entire life. There weren’t many surprises.

In the first weeks of this course, I found myself looking for things I would find familiar in the music. I liked “Amarilli, Mia Bella” because it had a clear melody and reminded me of “Eli, Eli”, a song we sung at synagogue growing up (see:, a version by Israeli retro-pop icon Ofra Haza). In old religious music, I looked for Latin-sounding pieces that were like what I had sung in high school chorus. And when we got to Vivaldi, Haydn, Beethoven, Brahms, and the rest, I continued this strategy by looking for melodies I could anticipate or sing.

With atonal music, I have finally had to look at music from a different angle. Music can no longer be about what I like about it or recognize or find comfortable/familiar. There are no pneumonic devices or short cuts. Now, the music has to be about the music. But I’ve struggled tirelessly. What is this music about? It seems to me like it might be about some artists trying to be cutting edge or special. And it’s definitely not about casual enjoyment, because trying to find anything pleasant about this music is proven to be a lot of work for our brains (see:

I think I’m getting somewhere. When I listen to Webern, I hear more structure than I did at first. But it still isn’t pleasant and I begin to wonder if the quote that we were shown in class about Beethoven’s 3rd symphony* was a legitimate concern, given that this music was an artistic force.  It’s not a worthless exercise. It’s pushing me out of my comfort zone, testing my patience, and giving me a chance to try something educational that I certainly wouldn’t have sought on my own. But it’s been hard and truly unfamiliar. Sometimes my penchant for familiarity in music in a strength, but with this music it has seemed to hold me back – or at least prevented me from enjoying the music.

Here’s to open mindedness, and trying to move past it!

* – “Music could easily reach a state where everyone who has not been vouchsafed a thorough knowledge of the rules and difficulties of the art will derive absolutely no pleasure from it.”