I just watched the first two episodes of the Paul McCartney and Rick Rubin documentary, McCartney 3 2 1, on HULU. In them, Paul describes how classical music and orchestral instruments inspired and informed his (and the Beatles’) songwriting and production.
Classical music was also a big influence on his amazingly melodic and inventive bass playing.
If you want to learn a few clues as to why the Beatles (and Paul’s solo work) were so transcendental and amazing, watch Paul reveal some of his inspirations and process. Classical music was a huge influence.
(Spoiler Alert: Watch the series and learn the story behind the brilliant trumpet solo in "Penny Lane.")
I never liked classical music when I was a kid. My mom used to play it a lot; and I didn’t find it that appealing. It was boring. It was old. It was not hip. And the thought of listening to a whole symphony was unbearable. The songs (if you could call them that) were too long. A whole side of boring, meandering music with no words? Are you crazy?
I remember the first time I bought a classical album. I was 13-years-old. Luckily, I had been listening to a lot of progressive rock—Yes, Jethro Tull, Pink Floyd—bands with songs that took up an entire side of an album. 15, 20, 30-minute songs. Led Zeppelin had a side-long version of “Dazed and Confused” on their live album, The Song Remains the Same. It was long, meandering, full of different moods and colors and styles—like a mini-classic rock symphony.
I listened to that full side of music over and over and over again; following every twist and turn the band took, all being led by Jimmy Page and his wild symphonic guitar parts.
My mind was being primed for the glory of great classical music.
Anyway, the first classical album I bought myself (and didn’t borrow from my mom’s collection) was Stravinsky’s "The Firebird," conducted by Seiji Ozawa.
The whole thing looked and sounded magical. Stravinsky. The Firebird. Seiji Ozawa. The art deco, quasi-psychedelic cover…
I was ready—or so I thought…
Putting the album on the record player, placing the needle on the vinyl and wondering what was going to roll out of my speakers was like waiting to go on a new ride at the aural amusement park.
I fell asleep listening to the first 10 minutes of the first side.
What do you want? I was 13 and not yet ready for the magical world of the classical symphony.
And, let’s be honest, "The Firebird" was modern, complex and ahead of its time even in 1910.
I probably should've started with Beethoven's 5th Symphony.
Fast forward to today.
I’m 57 and have about 200 classical CDs stored in a drawer in my bed frame. Years of using all my music money buying classical music from Tower Records, Amoeba and Amazon. And now, due to the miracle of streaming, I have the entire world of classical music at my fingertips.
Over the years, I learned to love the shape, form, vibe and magic of great classical music.
Some of my favorite composers:
It’s helpful to find a great conductor working with a great orchestra to truly appreciate the glory of classical.
Start with Leonard Bernstein. You can’t go wrong with Bernstein. He had the Midas touch. His work with the New York Philharmonic and other orchestras is transcendental.
I’m throwing a lot of general qualifiers and adjectives around—and classical music connoisseurs will have their own strong opinions—but there’s not room to expound further. Just trust me. Bernstein. New York Philharmonic. Great place to start a lifetime of classical adventure.
Some of the old German conductors are amazing as well.
Wilhelm Furtwangler is king. His work rises above the mass of classical symphonic recordings like a phoenix from the ashes of mediocrity. Many of his recordings are live, and many decades old now, but they’re filled with power, magic and grace; he truly knew how to get inside a symphony and lead an orchestra to magical heights of sound.
Anyway, the whole point of this missive is to shout loud and clear: LISTEN TO CLASSICAL MUSIC.
I’ve touched on symphonies, but there’s a ton of other classical forms, styles and instrumental combinations from which to choose.
Concertos. Sonatas. Songs. Opera. Chamber music.
And there’s many different periods of classical music. Here’s a list from my Google search*:
- Early Music – Till 1400.
- Renaissance – 1400-1600.
- Baroque – 1600-1750.
- Classical – 1750-1830.
- Romantic – 1830-1900.
- 20th Century – 1900-2000.
- Modern – 2000-present.
Each period has its own style, vibe and flavor—not unlike art or popular music. Or fashion trends.
And each different pairing of conductor and orchestra creates even more interpretations, moods and flavors.
It’s like being in a giant musical candy store. Just pick a jar, stick your head in and enjoy the kaleidoscopic swirl of magical sound…
Go ahead. Jump in. Give yourself a musical vacation far from electronic beats, dumb words and highly-processed mass-produced artificial musical fast food. Take some downtime from trends and current hits and the so-called “hip” and “groundbreaking” new popular music.
Get some musical nutrition in your ears.
Discover what composer, period, conductor, orchestra lights up your body, mind, heart and soul. But if you’re new to classical, you might need to give it some time. Like a new exercise routine; a new yoga pose; a new weight program; you need to stretch your ear muscles the same way.
The auditory muscles need to be worked and trained to move in new ways. Don’t just listen to a little and then stop. You might need some time to acclimate your mind and your ears to the wonder of classical music; but it’s well worth the commitment.
It will shape your life in different, exciting ways.
It will open up doors of emotion you never thought you had.
It will create new, magical pathways in your auditory wanderings.
Just ask Sir Paul.