Jack Butler, submissions editor for National Review Online, is a big fan of pop music but, is to use his own word, "embarrassingly" unacquainted with classical music. Deciding to fix that, he has taken an extremely odd measure:
I have set about remedying this deficiency in classic amateur fashion: i.e., haphazardly, guided by what little knowledge I do have. Which is why, not long into my [New Year's] resolution, I decided to jump into the deep end and listen to all of Richard Wagner’s opera cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen.
If you asked me how to approach classical music in the way most likely to result in disappointment and dislike, I might come up with this. Sure, listen to the entire Ring, in just a few days, on Spotify, with no libretto. That will surely work. Similarly, someone might introduce himself to the pleasures of bourbon by chugging a coffee mug full of 101 proof Wild Turkey.
At least it can be said of the Wagner cure that the subject would probably not require medical attention. But I can't imagine getting much out of it. Wagner's music is not exactly accessible--you can listen to him for a long time without encountering anything recognizable as a tune. The well-known popular bits, like the Ride of the Valkyries, are few and far between. And, most of all: these are operas which tell a long and complex story. So listening to them with the story unavailable bears some resemblance to listening to a novel read in a language you don't know. But Butler says he did enjoy it, though I think I detect a certain clenching of the jaw in his account.
After this, he has recourse to Jay Nordlinger, also of National Review, and a music critic. You can read Nordlinger's recommendations here, and they're fine, but this is the important part:
I suggest that people listen to some things — an assortment of music. Just dip in. If you like something, seek out more from that composer — listen to him, read about him, etc. Feel your way along. Embark on discovery.
If someone asked me for similar advice, I think it would be even simpler: just listen. (I certainly wouldn't decide that my tastes should guide him, and neither does Nordlinger.) That's really all it takes. Sometimes I hear people say, hesitatingly, "I don't know anything about classical music," and seeming hesitant even to approach it without some kind of instruction. That's a mistake, and a bad one if it keeps someone away from the music. When I was a college freshman I took an introductory music course for non-music majors, and it was my first step into the classical music world. So it may sound as if I'm contradicting myself in saying "just listen," but that was precisely the opportunity that the course gave me: to hear a wide range of music and get some sort of sense of what I would like. If I remember correctly, at the end of the course there were two pieces that I especially liked: Smetana's The Moldau and Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire. If you know those you can see that my taste was already eclectic to say the least: the former is a very straightforward, pretty and melodic piece, the latter a crazed-sounding quasi-recitation of mysterious German poems and atonal music. And I just kept going from there.
Not to say that there is not a very great deal to know usefully about music, both technically and historically. I know next to nothing technically, and would like to know more. And my ear is not that sensitive. I know that I miss a lot because I usually don't grasp the formal structure of a piece. I most likely miss it when, for instance, a composer uses the inversion of a theme from the first movement of his symphony in the fourth movement. That kind of thing may limit, but certainly doesn't prevent, my enjoyment and appreciation.
This made me want to revisit The Moldau. I haven't heard it for decades. It's still great. It's meant to paint a tonal picture of the course of a river from mountain brooks to the sea.
And here's just a taste of Pierrot. Don't be alarmed, it's less than two minutes long. I still love it, too.