Appreciating chamber music

An ear for music is very different from a taste for music. I have no ear whatever; I could not sing an air to save my life; but I have the intensest delight in music, and can detect good from bad. (Samuel Taylor Coleridge)

One of the reasons I think people without much exposure to classical music think they don’t like it or can’t relate to it is because they have artificially reduced the genre to orchestral music.

The most immediate sonic linkage for the non-initiated is film music: since the early days of the ‘talkies,’ we’ve been acclimated to a certain late romantic, big orchestral sound to underscore key moments in the cinema. The sound of 1940s, 50s and 60s cinema is best explained by the War in Europe and its associated wave of emigration to North America: a disproportionate number of film composers were European musicians who studied under Mahler and his disciples and fled their home continent in the 30s and 40s. They wrote what they knew: late romantic music. By unconscious association (or maybe downright transference), we have internalized this sound as the sonic imprint of ‘classical music,’ and now when we hear orchestral Beethoven, Schubert or Brahms, we recognize it and react to it.

Unfortunately, this misdirected connection taints much of (orchestral) classical music with arbitrary (moving) pictures which we may or may not have liked; called up out of context when we encounter the music outside of the film, we cannot help but remember the ‘music video’: the emotions it meant to conjure in that moment, the specific juncture in the plot line, our own preoccupations and memories attached to the movie-going experience.

Classical music, of course, is so infinitely much more than merely its ‘big,’ well-known orchestral or operatic works. There’s a whole world beyond conductors, symphony orchestras and divas.

Chamber music – through-composed music played by small ensembles without a conductor – opens up a whole world of listening pleasure. Regardless of its period of origin (the Baroque, High Classicism, the Romantic era or the 20th and 21st centuries), chamber music offers a number of key features that I believe would be very attractive to modern listeners for a variety of reasons.

Intimate scale – music for friends

Composers wrote chamber music for many purposes, but the two primary ones are key to understanding and appreciating it: to perform for and with friends in intimate settings (the home, the salon); and for pedagogical purposes.

In this way, chamber music is designed to speak to us immediately. Ideally, it should be experienced right in front of us and not in a concert hall 100 feet away from the stage. As recording and audio reproduction technology has become better, it’s now quite possible to ‘experience’ a chamber music performance closely – in one’s living room or headphones – close-miked, dynamic, impactful and present. Your ears, at least, can be sitting amongst the musicians anytime.

I like to imagine that many composers reserved their most important artistic work for chamber music because they knew that the intimate setting of the performance would promote a positive reception by an audience of initiates (their friends, peers and rivals).

Imagining an intimate scale – and picturing yourself close to the musicians so that you can not only hear them but see them and experience all the other sensations generated by their playing – certainly sets the stage for thinking about the connection between the human body and music-making.

Making music with the body, playing on a human scale

In chamber music – especially if it’s experienced live or well-recorded – we can hear how the human body is ‘instrumental’ in making music. No electronically generated sounds can be heard; nothing that is stored and triggered by means of a device that’s between the body and the instrument; nothing dissociated or technologically enhanced.

We can hear the human breath inhaling and exhaling; the rustle of clothing a tiny split-second before the beginning of a movement revealing the ‘synching up’ of the ensemble; the occasional thump of feet hitting the ground during a downbeat in a particularly intense or difficult passage. Some musicians (often pianists) can be heard humming along with the music they are playing (Alfred Brendel did this, for instance; notably, so does Keith Jarrett – but only when he plays jazz or improvisations, not in classical music).

Good modern chamber music recordings also showcase the grain of the instruments (particularly strings and winds): there’s a certain fragility, an impermanence, but also a distinct power and authority in running a bow over a violin’s strings (whether steel or gut). A piano in chamber music is so much more than 88 keys, strings and hammers: recordings frequently reveal the slight whoosh of the pedals being released, or the click of the pianist’s fingernails hitting the key a fraction of a second before the note sounds.

The interplay between this texture of the different instruments, which is quite separate from their pitch/register, is a very attractive feature of chamber music and reminds us of the human-constructed nature of the instruments being played, and the body parts involved in making music on them.

Chamber music, therefore, paints a sonic picture that should be easy to connect to because of its lack of artifice, its directness and naturalness, its relative smallness, its human scale.

I think those more accustomed to rock music can easily experience these pleasures by turning to other acoustic music, like bluegrass or folk, for many of the same reasons. There’s something important, primal and connecting about hearing highly skilled humans making music by operating instruments without any (undue, electronic) mediation – and hearing them make music together.

The difference with chamber music is that it’s written down and therefore ‘reproduced’ and not improvised or learned through folklore and oral tradition, as folk and bluegrass are.


The key to appreciating chamber music (all classical performance, really) is to recognize that every performance is an interpretation, and that what differentiates truly skilled artists is their ability to say something new and unique about the piece, even within the (apparently) strict confines of the written notes which – with the exception of a few optional repeats – may not be changed at all.

As a result, the scope for interpretation is subtle. But it’s by no means too subtle to hear or understand even when you’re unfamiliar with the written notes, particularly when you have the opportunity to hear different performances of the same piece next to each other (something our magnificent digital age increasingly makes possible).

Whether you like an interpretation or not is ultimately your choice; despite all the websites, books and classical music magazines I read, I find that I am still frequently unable to articulate clearly what I like about a performance. I do find that I have strong reactions, though; I know – often on first listen – whether the performance captured by a recording is a ‘keeper’ or not.

The parameters defining an interpretation that I think I can successfully detect most often are:

  • Tempo
  • Rhythmic coherence and drive
  • Clarity of ‘articulation’ between notes, melody lines/themes, instruments
  • Whether the performance communicates the overall architecture of the piece – does it congeal into something coherent and meaningful when I listen?
  • How well rehearsed the chamber group appears to be and whether there is a certain sympathy between them – are they listening to each other and reacting to what they’re hearing? Are they adjusting to each other’s cues?

Listening and collaboration

For me, the key artistic achievement underscored by every good chamber music performance or recording I’ve heard is our human ability to collaborate by closely listening to others and adjusting what we are doing in response to what they are doing.

This is amplified by the narrow confines of the interpretive play in classical music: since both the overall shape of the work and the specific notes are ‘locked up’ in a manner of speaking, the group’s achievement lies in adjusting interpretive parameters that are very subtle and – to the casual listener – possibly quite hard to detect.

Often, of course, there is a ‘leader’ in the ensemble who may set the musical direction of a performance. But in the heat of the performance – and given the everything-laid-bare nature of a small group of musicians playing together at equal volume – even the leader has to trust in the group’s ability to listen, adjust and collaborate.

I particularly love the intense listening and collaboration required for accurately playing quiet ending chords together, often heard in slow movements: when the ensemble nails the pianissimo chord after a short pause in the music, it’s a breathtaking effect and a gorgeous reminder of how we humans are capable of genuinely paying attention to one another in a specific moment and not letting anything else interfere.

Together, chamber musicians regularly achieve something truly remarkable and enjoyable. I suspect we can learn much from this that applies equally in the worlds of business, politics and relationships.

Three recommended recordings:

Beethoven Faust Melnikov
Buy from
Mozart Chamber Music
Buy from
Mozart Piano Quartets
Buy from

Or get the last one digitally, online at Hyperion Records.


3 thoughts on “Appreciating chamber music”

  1. A pleasure to read.

    I think you’re bang on about the mis-identification of ‘classical’ with orchestral.

    Wtih regard to the legacy of late romanticism in mid-century Hollywood, the story goes that Korngold, when he was accepting an Oscar for a film score, acknowledged what you point out by saying something to the effect of “. . . and I’d like to thank Dvorak and Brahms and Mahler . . . ”


  2. Thanks for these recommendations Carsten. For the first time in my life I am now actually appreciating classical music. I bought the Faust/Melnikov one of Beethoven, and it keeps me going at work. Any other similar recommendations?

  3. Thanks, Tielman. Well, start with the two other recommendations above – those are also awesome. I can send more once you run out :)

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