by Jason Roberts
I have a confession to make. Last week I played Gordon Young’s “Prelude in Classic Style” as my postlude. A colleague had told me that this piece elicits more comments from his congregants than anything else he’s ever played. “They love it,” he told me. Admittedly, I didn’t practice it very much. But it’s easy and you can play it without pushing any pistons or anything. Sure enough, people at church who hardly ever speak to me came up and asked “What was that song you played after the service?” I would venture to say that it got more compliments than anything else I’ve ever played (with the possible exception of the David German “Trumpet Tune.”) What is it about this little piece that makes it immediately appealing to so many people? It’s not poorly written, but then I don’t think it’s really very interesting either.
My guess is that it reminds people of other music that they know. I can think of lots of similar pieces – one organ piece that comes to mind is the first of the “little” Preludes and Fugues of Bach (or not Bach – I haven’t kept up with the latest on who is the true composer of these). Some of the figures in Gor- don Young’s piece are borrowed directly from the Bach – and it’s probable that Bach got them from somewhere else. It also reminds me of “Spring” from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. Everybody knows that piece – the familiar I-IV-V progres- sion and the jaunty repeated-note accompaniment. There are lots of pieces like this, so when we hear Gordon Young it’s like we already know the piece. Only the details are different. If it’s true that people like what they know – and I think it is – then they like “Prelude in the Classic Style” because they already know it. People eat foods they know and shop at familiar stores, so of course they want to hear music that sounds like music they already know.
What might account for musical taste is the degree of the unfamiliar that you want to experience. Many devoted classical music lovers don’t want to hear “modern” music because there is less to be familiar with in music that isn’t traditionally tonal or rhythmically regular. They want to hear new melodies, perhaps some novel harmonies and a rhythmic surprise or two, but in order to recognize something as “music” there needs to be a lot of familiar harmonic progressions and a regular meter. Others, less adventurous, want to hear no rhythmic or harmonic surprises at all – in fact for many the most unfamiliar element they are willing to tolerate is the clothing of the “artist.” These people listen to commercial music – it is intentionally as familiar as possible so as to be immediately appealing. Now, I’m not sure that Gordon Young fits into this category (I have no idea what he looks like or his style of dress), but he knows how to write a piece that is immediately appealing in its familiarity. I haven’t grown fonder of “Prelude in the Classic Style” as I’ve gotten to know it better, but it makes an awfully good postlude for a rainy day.