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My younger generation might not know symphonies and concertos by name, but we recognize many melodies. Relatively few of us have attended classical performances — and fewer still seek them out — but we have at least a passing knowledge of the great composers’ works, even if we never listen to the songs all the way through and know little about the composers themselves. 

How did we gain this basic familiarity with classical music? Through TV advertisements, film soundtracks, and (like Baby Boomers) through Looney Tunes. The latest generation is learning these songs through video games like Peggle.

I think most people would agree that this limited exposure to music of centuries past is better than none. But the downside is that the circumstances of one’s introduction to a song or another work of art can form unfortunate associations which are difficult to shake. When I hear Wagner’s brilliant “Flight of the Valkyries”, do I think of Norse warriors? Of course not. I think of Elmer Fudd and of vacuum cleaners. 

Associations can also affect the way we perceive paintings, sculptures, architecture, or literary fiction. And those associations are not always detrimental.

Had I first seen the film Cast a Giant Shadow at any other time, I doubt the story of impossible military challenges during the formation of Israel would have moved me as much. My memory of St Patrick’s Cathedral might have become jumbled with other cathedrals if not for the stark contrast of its Gothic architecture amid the giant square skyscrapers of New York City which were equally new to me at the time.

Are unpleasant associations more powerful or more enduring than pleasant ones? I know a woman who emphatically objected when her husband began to sing “You Are My Sunshine” to their young daughter because the woman’s own mom had woken her with that song every morning throughout those sleepy teenage years. 

What are some of your own mnemonic associations with songs and other art? Are they all bad? Or have any heightened your appreciation?

Have those associations affected how you expose your children favorite works? Do you only try to affect their positive associations or do you attempt to dissuade them from hated works as well?

Image credit: Flickr user KAALpurush.

There are 16 comments.

  1. Ball Diamond Ball Inactive

    Kill the Wa-a-abbit.

    • #1
    • August 11, 2014, at 10:49 PM PDT
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  2. Eustace C. Scrubb Member

    “Flight of the Valkyries” = surfing and Vietnam. Now the Barber of Seville will always be a Bunny in my book.

    • #2
    • August 12, 2014, at 1:00 AM PDT
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  3. Tom Meyer, Common Citizen Contributor

    My first encounter with Dune was through audiobook* on a drive down the Pacific Coast from Washington State to Los Angeles. The story and the scenery are indelibly — and completely incongruously — associated in my mind.

    * George Guidall is a fantastic voice actor.

    • #3
    • August 12, 2014, at 5:57 AM PDT
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  4. KC Mulville Inactive

    renoirWhen I was a kid, there was a painting hanging in the parlor of my grandmother’s old house on 50th Street in West Philly. Gram lived there until I was about 10, but until then, seeing that picture somehow triggered a sense of family and love. We were at Gram’s house.

    I didn’t realize until many years later that the picture was actually Renoir’s Two Sisters. I fell in love with it, and that was the gateway that gave me the bug about art.

    Associations come in all forms, I guess …

    • #4
    • August 12, 2014, at 6:33 AM PDT
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  5. Bryan G. Stephens Thatcher
    Bryan G. Stephens Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Eustace C. Scrubb:

    “Flight of the Valkyries” = surfing and Vietnam. Now the Barber of Seville will always be a Bunny in my book.

     You’re so Next!

    “Overture, Marriage of Figaro”
    By Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart 

    Is forever linked to the Opening of Trading Places. 

    Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21 means Bad Guy in James Bond thanks to “The Spy Who Loved Me”

    • #5
    • August 12, 2014, at 7:14 AM PDT
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  6. Jules PA Member

    I don’t have any specific associations that come to mind, but I’m sure I will come up with one.
    Nice Post Aaron, and straight to the Main Feed!
    I think our lives are filled with associations and cross-associations: good and bad. These types of connections make your life richer and present opportunities to exchange ideas with others. That is one of the special qualities of music as an art form.
    I am the one in the movie theater who watches all of the credits to see the source music. I enjoy seeing lists of ways in which any particular musical excerpt or work is used in other art forms, like media etc.

    • #6
    • August 12, 2014, at 7:29 AM PDT
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  7. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor

    Aaron Miller:

    My younger generation might not know symphonies and concertos by name, but we recognize many melodies…

    Possibly, something similar goes for people who do seek classical music out. Though they recognize more pieces by name, they’re perhaps familiar with many more that they couldn’t name offhand. And it ought to be the music itself that’s memorable. The title of the piece and composer’s name are just convenient labels, not the thing itself.

    I dimly recall the use of several classical pieces in cartoons, but by now most of those pieces exist to me in their own right. I do have one favorite in my repertoire that British Airways uses as their boarding tune, so when I ask other people whether they know it, too, I add, “It’s the British Airways song”:

    Nice, eh? Though why British Airways also decided to do a lame techno remix of it is beyond me:

    • #7
    • August 12, 2014, at 8:10 AM PDT
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  8. Aaron Miller Member
    Aaron Miller Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Midget Faded Rattlesnake: I do have one favorite in my repertoire that British Airways uses as their boarding tune, so when I ask other people whether they know it, too, I add, “It’s the British Airways song”:

    I first encountered that song as a techno remix in a video game called Boom Boom Rocket. So I remember the game when I hear the song. 

    “Rhapsody in Blue” I will always associate with another airline because of its commercials. But I wasn’t sure if it was United or American until I looked it up. It was United.

    • #8
    • August 12, 2014, at 11:16 AM PDT
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  9. tabula rasa Member
    tabula rasa Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    The William Tell Overture will always conjure up the image of the Lone Ranger for me.

    • #9
    • August 12, 2014, at 11:19 AM PDT
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  10. James Lileks Contributor

    Using “Rhapsody” in those commercials made me turn the channel, every time; they didn’t earn the right to use the heartfelt swelling ending over and over, as if the piece could be reduced to that. 

    Can’t watch the end of “Die Hard” for the same reason.

    • #10
    • August 12, 2014, at 11:42 AM PDT
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  11. Spherical Cow Member
    Spherical Cow Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    “Rhapsody in Blue” has many associations but my personal favorite is from the Fantasia 2000 animation.

    “Stuck in Middle with You” (Stealers Wheel) association with theatrical tension and terror in Reservoir Dogs.

    • #11
    • August 12, 2014, at 11:50 AM PDT
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  12. Spherical Cow Member
    Spherical Cow Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Just one more. Cooooooool is always “So What” (Miles Davis)

    • #12
    • August 12, 2014, at 11:53 AM PDT
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  13. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor

    Aaron Miller:

    What are some of your own mnemonic associations with songs and other art? Are they all bad? Or have any heightened your appreciation?

    Have those associations affected how you expose your children favorite works?

    At the risk of being extremely obvious, I love Fantasia and Fantasia 2000, and look forward to sharing both with my kids.

    It’s natural and healthy for classical musicians to perform as if a piece tells a story, even if it’s only the abstract story of the music itself. Likewise, it’s easier to appreciate classical music as a listener if you’re invested in the music’s story, whatever you imagine that story to be.

    Some of the animation in the Fantasia moves is a bit cheesy, but in general, the animated interpretation of the music is quite clever, often highlighting elements of musical structure that casual listeners could otherwise miss. Consider, for example, this illustration of the interplay between theme (introduced by the conformist flamingos) and counter-thematic material (introduced by the oddball with the yo-yo). It’s brilliant. If I were Saint-Saens (the composer), I’d be immensely flattered:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BtlfZrPDGNs

    • #13
    • August 12, 2014, at 12:11 PM PDT
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  14. Stad Thatcher

    “The Rabbit of Seville” and “What’s Opera Doc” are on my iPod . . .

    • #14
    • August 12, 2014, at 1:18 PM PDT
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  15. cirby Member

    People listen to classical music all of the time – but it’s not Bach or Beethoven or Stravinsky.

    It’s Giacchino and Zimmer and O’Donnell/Silvestri and Uematsu. 

    You might know those first two.

    Most people don’t recognize the other names – but millions would recognize their music.

    • #15
    • August 12, 2014, at 8:40 PM PDT
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  16. Arahant Member

    What is Classical Music? That’s sort of like Rock ‘n’ Roll, a broad category that not everyone agrees whether certain things fit or whether the category is narrower. Likewise, there is Christianity: some would say, sure LDS is Christian, just ask them. Others would say, they don’t fit the definition because of this and this and this. Are modern film score composers classical? Or are they orchestral? Some would call Bach “Classical,” while others would say, “Baroque.”

    • #16
    • August 12, 2014, at 11:06 PM PDT
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