Music appreciation


(This Dave Barry column was originally published March 6, 1994)

Why don't regular people like classical music? This is the question that was posed to me recently in a letter from Timothy W. Muffitt, the music director of the University of Texas Symphony Orchestra, which has gained international acclaim for its rendition of Achy Breaky Heart.

No, I'm sure it's a fine orchestra that plays a serious program of classical music featuring numerous notes, sharps, flats, clefs, bassoons, deceased audience members, etc.

Anyway, Mr. Muffitt states that he has been asked to conduct a series of concerts for the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra next fall; the goal is "to get people into the concert hall other than those who usually come." He asks: "What would get the average Joe into the concert hall? Do you go to classical music concerts? Why or why not?"

Mr. Muffitt, those are important questions, and before I answer them, let me state that I really like saying "Mr. Muffitt." I think "Mr. Muffitt" would be a great title for a Saturday-morning children's cartoon show, wherein Mr. Muffitt is a super hero who, accompanied by sidekicks representing every major minority group and gender, goes around kicking villain butt. I have not worked out the details of the plot, although it would definitely involve a Magic Tuffet.

But getting back to Mr. Muffitt's questions: Our first task is to define exactly what we mean by "classical music." When we look in volume "M" of our son's World Book Encyclopedia, we find, on pages 838-9, the following statement: "Mosses grow and reproduce in two phases -- 'sexual' and 'asexual.' " Not only that, but during the "sexual" phase, the moss develops "special organs, " and when the time is ripe, "they burst and release hundreds of sperm cells."

Do you believe it? MOSS! Growing organs! Having sex! Probably smoking little one-celled cigarettes afterward! Parents, this could be going on in your community. I think we should alert the Rev. Pat Robertson.

But we also need to define "classical music." A little farther on in the World Book, we come to the section on music, which states: "There are two chief kinds of Western music, classical and popular." Thus we see that "classical music" is defined, technically, as "music that is not popular." This could be one reason why the "average Joe" does not care for it.

I myself am not a big fan. I will go to a classical concert only under very special circumstances, such as that I have been told to make a ransom payment there. But until I got this letter from Mr. Muffitt, I never knew why I felt this way. I've been thinking about it, and I have come up with what I believe are the three main problems with classical music:

1. IT'S CONFUSING. With "popular" music, you understand what's happening. For example, in the song Long Tall Sally, when Little Richard sings, Long Tall Sally, she's built for speed, you can be certain that the next line is going to follow logically (She got everything that Uncle John need), and then there will be the chorus, or, as it is known technically, "the 'Ooh baby' part." Whereas in classical music, you never know WHAT will happen next. Sometimes the musicians stop completely in the middle of the song, thereby causing the average Joe, who is hoping that the song is over, to start clapping, whereupon the deceased audience members come back to life and give him dirty looks, and he feels like a big dope. It would help if there were an electronic basketball-style clock hanging from the conductor's back, indicating how much time is left in the song. Speaking of which:

2. IT TAKES TOO LONG. The Shangri-Las, performing Leader of the Pack, take only about four minutes to tell a dramatic and moving story -- including a motorcycle crash. A classical orchestra can take five times that long just to sit down. There needs to be more of an emphasis on speed. There could be Symphony Sprints, wherein two orchestras would compete head-to- head to see who could get through a given piece of music the fastest. There could even be defense, wherein for example the trombone players would void their spit valves at the opposing violin section. This would be good, because:

3. IT NEEDS MORE ACTION. When I was in college, I saw the great blues harmonica player James Cotton give a performance of Rockin' Robin wherein he stuck his harmonica into his mouth, held his arms out sideways like an airplane, and toppled headfirst off of an eight-foot stage into the crowd, where he landed safely on a cushion of college students and completed the song in the prone position.

That same year -- I did not see this personally, but I have friends who did -- the great blues guitarist Buddy Guy gave a club performance wherein, while taking a solo, he went into the men's room (he had a long guitar cord), closed the door, apparently relieved himself, flushed, reopened the door and came back out and never stopped playing.

You do not forget musical experiences such as those.

I am not saying that classical musicians should do these things. It would be difficult to get, say, a harp into a restroom stall. I am just saying, Mr. Muffitt, that until the average Joe can expect this level of entertainment from classical music, he is probably going to stay home watching TV, stuck to his sofa like moss on a rock. But with less of a sex life.

(c) Dave Barry
This column is protected by intellectual property laws, including U.S. copyright laws. Electronic or print reproduction, adaptation, or distribution without permission is prohibited. Ordinary links to this column at may be posted or distributed without written permission.

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