When I was a kid, we had “Music Appreciation” classes. I recall the idea was that music, especially classical music, could be made vivid and thus appreciated by sniffling first-graders through hearing the story the music told. The voices of the instruments became animals. “Hear the footsteps of the cat?” Ships on the ocean “Hear the stormy sea?” Fairies and goblins “See the dance of the merry mushrooms?” From Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Scheherazade” to Prokofiev’s “Peter And The Wolf” and, of course, the nightmarish “Night on Bald Mountain” by Mussorgsky, music teachers were hell-bent on getting us to visualize all sorts of fantastical images. Then Disney came along with “Fantasia” to hammer the druggy dreams of a thousand middle-aged animators into our little noggins, our heads fresh from out under our desks practicing duck-and-cover drills for nuclear war.
Speaking for myself, I found value in this visualization method; however, it made it all the harder for me in later life to appreciate less structured or non-linear music. With the brain trained to attach images to sound, what does one do with a sound for which there exists no image?
I have realized this method was a primer for more adult themes of love, betrayal, joy, and death found in all forms of music. Those elementary music teachers knew what lay ahead for us, but they also knew we weren’t ready for “Can you hear the composer express a love beyond words?”