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Hate classical music? Primephonic could change your mind

Commentary: The classical music streaming service wants you to learn to love Liszt in lockdown.

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Classical music doesn't have to be scary.

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I love the theater but I've always been intimidated by classical music. Until last month, I thought Handel and Chopin were like long division and naming the parts of cells: mercifully forgotten relics from my school days. It turns out, though, that I like them a lot more than I thought I did. And you might too.

What changed my mind? Primephonic, a subscription-based classical music streaming service with more than 3.5 million tracks. That may sound like a niche service, but in fact it's designed to welcome newcomers while providing more than enough to satisfy aficionados. Subscriptions start at $9.99 (£9.99) a month on both iTunes and Android. 

I'm not the only one who hesitates at the prospect of an hour with Bach, Beethoven or Brahms. Primephonic CEO Thomas Steffens points out that classical music is a vast and varied genre. But while many people may be curious about it -- in a 2018 study commissioned by the app, 65% of respondents said they wished they knew more about classical -- we're quick to assume that it's all one thing... and that that thing isn't for us.

Read more: Classical music streaming no longer plays second fiddle

"The problem that we see is that classical music is so diverse that nobody likes all classical music," Steffens said, speaking at a press briefing in June. "And then we see that there's lots of people who want to listen to classical music but don't know where to start. They find something, they don't like it, and then they conclude, 'Ah, classical music does nothing for me.'" 

Primephonic's solution is to break its catalog down into manageable categories, sorting music by era, highlighting new albums and curating dedicated playlists. Introductory playlists, podcasts and in-depth profiles of the classical world's best-known figures help welcome beginners. There are hundreds of recordings of the most popular works. So if you have no idea how to choose between 520 different takes on Bach's Goldberg Variations, you'll be glad to hear that Primephonic plans to add recommendations to the most-streamed pieces of music on the service. 

Where to start

At first Primephonic can feel daunting. What do you like, the app's elegant home screen seems to ask, fanning out its rows of playlists. Do you like the Baroque period? Do you like Stravinsky? Do you like music played on the bassoon? Primephonic has it all! As an absolute beginner, I had no idea if I liked any of those things. And even if I could think of a piece I might want to hear, the chances were slim that I knew its name, or even its composer. 

If you don't know your Schumann from your Schubert, Primephonic can give you the basics with Classical Encounters, a five-part podcast that acts as a whistle-stop tour from the Baroque era to the 20th century. Each episode gives a brief history of the era interspersed with excerpts from the music being discussed. Once an episode finishes, you can listen to a period-specific playlist. 

The podcast was an ideal entry point: a handy way to learn about the historical context of a specific piece, a composer's life and, most vitally for me, what the different kinds of music actually sound like. And it gave me a jumping-off point to discover more of the kind of things I like.

Primephonic's hand-curated playlists are also fantastic and accessible, with selections of music on a range of themes that might slot into your day-to-day life. There's a Relaxation playlist, a Mornings playlist and more-specific ones for Broken Hearts, Study Time and Commuting. 

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Ludwig Van Beethoven, composer of the Moonlight Sonata and other guilty pleasures.

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Some of those playlists have admittedly eyebrow-raising names. Pump Up the Gym seems optimistic -- you might enjoy getting sweaty with Shostakovich, but I'll stick to the best of the '80s. Most baffling is the Guilty Pleasures playlist, which includes recognizable movements from the Moonlight Sonata and Swan Lake. "Never be ashamed of what you love," reads the description, as though introducing a Britney Spears megamix. I can only assume Beethoven and Tchaikovsky are, like, so basic.

Once I had an idea of my taste, Primephonic's radio feature was a brilliant way to discover composers and pieces whose names you may not've learned in school -- shuffling through a random selection brings up pieces by Claude le Jeune, August Klughardt, Diego Ortiz and Leo Brouwer. You can filter the selection by era (from Medieval through to the 21st century), genre or choose an "ambience," which includes moods as varied as "bittersweet," "ecstatic" and "intense."

My daily life may not involve much commuting or gym time nowadays, but the playlists and the radio feature are good company in a pandemic. I listened to them while working from my kitchen table and on socially distanced walks. I got sick in June with a fever and the COVID-19 test I requested never arrived, so I isolated myself in my bedroom to be safe. I spent those quarantined days drifting in and out of strange dreams while Primephonic's radio dutifully selected "melancholy" mood music. (Eventually I decided that lying around listening to tragic classical music in a pandemic was a bit of a cliche and switched to "dreamy," which was much nicer.)

And what was the most surprising thing I learned? I hate to sound like the perkiest school orchestra conductor ever, but classical music is actually secretly super exciting.

Music as medicine

Some of Primephonic's playlists are tailored for concentration or study -- I've used music to help focus my attention on my work for years  -- but Primephonic Head of Curation Guy Jones is dismissive of the so-called "Mozart effect," or the idea that playing classical music to children will make them better learners.

"It's been debunked so many times, it's utter rubbish," he says.

And there's something more insidious going on, I think. Using classical music in this way, as a kind of self-improvement tool, has only reinforced the idea that it isn't something to be enjoyed: It's medicine. It's vegetables. It's boring.

Classical music isn't boring.

I mean, it can be boring. Sometimes it's too slow for me. But sometimes it soars and dazzles. Sometimes those slow bits are building to a climax that knocks you down all the harder because you had to wait for it.

Just try working with the overture to Mozart's Marriage of Figaro in the background without stopping to appreciate its sheer beauty. Try ignoring the mounting intensity of Grieg's In the Hall of the Mountain King or listening to Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 without feeling like you just opened up the Nakatomi vault. This music isn't supposed to get you into a productive flow state. It's supposed to express tumultuous feelings about Napoleon Bonaparte. (Well, sort of.)

Oh, and don't worry if those names aren't familiar. You'd know those pieces if you heard them. That's the other surprising thing: It turned out I knew more than I expected. The highlights of the classical repertoire were embedded in my subconscious by a lifetime of watching movies, fireworks displays and Simpsons episodes. But now, instead of the most famous snippets, I found myself listening to whole movements and then entire symphonies. It's like the difference between reading the most famous excerpts from a novel and reading the whole book.

Primephonic can't turn you into an expert overnight. I may know that I love Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring, but I can't articulate why. I can't tell you the difference between a symphony and a concerto. And I can't help but feel self-conscious trying to use my imperfect vocabulary to write about an art form with a reputation for being exclusionary and elitist.

But while you may appreciate classical music better if you know more about it, Jones says that shouldn't be a barrier.

"Classical music is still just music," he says, "and people don't feel like they need training or expertise to listen to what's on the charts and the music that they love."

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Like other concert venues, London's Royal Albert Hall has seen its continued existence threatened by the coronavirus pandemic.

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I asked Jones if he had any advice for first-time listeners. Can you play it in the background while you're working? Should you run a hot bath and cue up a playlist?

"I hate the idea that you need to, like, get the score and sit there and really appreciate it," Jones said. "No, it's music like any other music. You can enjoy it in the background. But if you really want to get the best out of it -- there's so many details and so many layers -- then once in a while throw on some headphones and do nothing else but just sit and actively listen."

At the time the idea seemed ridiculous, almost pretentious. It seemed like something Frasier Crane might do. But the more I listened, the less far-fetched it seemed and the more I found myself putting other things aside to focus on nothing but the music. 

Focusing on the music is wise advice in the midst of an anxiety-provoking time when the future is uncertain. What's more, the coronavirus pandemic has thrown the arts sector in the UK into crisis as theaters close their doors for lockdown, with some shutting down permanently and even iconic venues such as the Royal Albert Hall anticipating bankruptcy. The government has promised a £1.57 billion support package, but it's a scary time for the industry. If an app like Primephonic can help classical music shed its intimidating, elitist image and open it up to more people, perhaps the audiences will be bigger than ever once it's safe to go back to the concert halls.

I might even join them.