Stereotypes & Misconceptions Part II: Classical Music is Relaxing

Below is a continuation of my previous post, Stereotypes & Misconceptions Part I: Classical Music is for Rich People.

Photo by o5com.

Is classical music actually relaxing? (Photo by o5com)

6. Classical music is relaxing.
Sometimes, when I’m washing dishes, I’ll turn on one of three things: talk radio, classical music, pop, or Broadway music. Interestingly enough, while I do find most pieces on the classical music playlist to be calming, I believe that’s a result of the host arranging a playlist that appeals to what a general audience perceives as what classical music should sound like. In other words, the repertoire heard on the radio is vastly different than a professional orchestra’s repertoire for the season.

Beyond what’s played on the radio, there is a world of complex, intense, cacophonous, dramatic, edgy, avant-garde, and even violently animated orchestral music that is by far NOT RELAXING. Works that come to mind include Wagner’s Ring Cycle and Ride of the Valkyries, Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 5, Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra, and Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5.

In fact, rather than feeling relaxed when I listen to these pieces, I find myself distracted from the tasks at hand, absorbed by the excitement and motion in these rich compositions. I have trouble treating most of the greatest masterpieces as “background” music that might relax me. These are the pieces that keep me riveted and on the edge of my seat.

7.Only educated intellectuals can understand and enjoy classical music.
There is some truth to this point in the sense that those who have studied music theory, history, form, and performance have a deeper understanding of classical music as a result of increased knowledge about classical compositions. But knowing where a piece was composed, in which key it’s written, from which musical era it originated, which opus number it is, or even who composed it doesn’t necessarily influence how enjoyable a piece may be to an audience member–educated or not.

In fact, sometimes the intense study of music–the probing and picking at it–can take the magic out of it. Beating a beautiful piece of music to death in the practice room can sometimes lead a performer from loving it to hating it in no time. I know plenty of professional performers who loathe and mock pieces like Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker and Handel’s Messiah just because they’ve played them too many times and find them boring.

Sometimes it’s those who are not educated in the field of music who have the greatest appreciation for it. To them it is some kind of mysterious magic; how can someone take something as static as a wooden instrument and make it sing and speak in such a moving way?

On that note, educated and studied musical scholars can often be the most critical of listeners, hearing the mistakes in performance and poor composition of harmonically challenged pieces. While being a learned musician may give you a deeper understanding of music, often it is the innocent or even ignorant who understand the true and deeper purpose and meaning of the music.

Composers did not write music for intellectuals only, but for the masses, for all people. Cooks don’t just cook for cooks, but for people to eat who will enjoy it whether or not they know the methods and techniques employed.

8. Listening to classical music will help you fall asleep.
Something that fascinates me is that massage therapists typically don’t use classical music as background music during a massage. Instead, there’s an entire genre of ethereal “massage music”–it’s like there’s a whole industry revolving around this dreamy, synthesized stuff. Okay, this is going to sound snobby, but because I’ve found typical massage music to be almost irritating, I’ve actually brung CDs of my own favorite, calming classical pieces to play that will edify rather than annoy me.

This statement though, that classical music will help you fall asleep, refers back to point number four in my previous post: all classical music sounds the same. I actually think there are very soothing and beautiful compositions and lullabies to which listening to would be far more effective than counting sheep. But it’s inaccurate to assume that all classical music creates this effect.

However, you might have to argue this point with that guy who always snores through every symphony concert you attend.

9. Only people who play classical music actually listen to it.
People who play orchestral instruments and music definitely tend to listen to more classical music than those who do not. Many people who don’t play classical music don’t listen to it because perhaps they have never even been exposed to it.

Exposure to orchestral music, then, is usually all it takes for one to develop an appreciation and love for the music. In my previous point (number eight), I established that one does not need to be trained or educated in the field of music to understand or enjoy it. I have developed a greater respect for people who don’t play classical music who listen to it and attend concerts because I appreciate their devotion and interest.

As a performer, if only players of classical music attended my performance, I would have a very small audience. I am so grateful for those who attend and listen to performances who have no musical background; these are those who are often most edified, impressed, and moved by the truly awesome power of refined music.

10. All classical music originates in Europe.
Most of time time the mention of classical music conjures up images of pink-cheeked men in powdered wigs and coats with shiny buttons. Okay. So it is true that Western classical music originated (note: past tense) in Europe. Western music notation with lines on a staff and notes written with rhythmic symbols were established in Europe in the 16th century.

What is amazing since the industrial and digital revolutions is that Western classical music began to spread across the globe not only on record, but in theory and compositional textbooks. In other words, the use of the musical staff and Western music theory became worldwide standards.

BUT what we can’t overlook is the entire genre of Middle Eastern and Eastern classical music. This is rich stuff! Eastern classical music is notated differently and composed with unique instrumentation. I can’t even begin to list the names of Asian and Middle Eastern instruments.

Beyond Eastern music, there is classical music composed by international composers from every nation. I encourage you to seek out and listen to a wider variety of classical music; there is just too much culture to be absorbed and too little time!

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So while I do believe that to enjoy classical music a basic understanding of it can improve both an appreciation and sense of fulfillment when listening or playing it, I also believe that an extensive knowledge is definitely not necessary. Classical music is for everyone.

So if you’re one who always opts for pop over classical, try giving the classics a chance! I GUARANTEE you’ll find something you’ll love.

It’s just that good.

2 thoughts on “Stereotypes & Misconceptions Part II: Classical Music is Relaxing”

  1. Liz, A very thorough and educated view about classical music. Relaxing to classical music is a point well understood by all ages. I have a twenty month old grandaughter that can only go to sleep with her classical music CD. I also have a seven year old grandaughter that loves classical music. I must say though that the seven year old liked Alan Jackson first. I think that was because Alan lives only a few miles from her. I Enjoy your articles. Happy New Year. Jerry

  2. Dear Liz,
    I come from a family of dedicated amateur players, my mother and I (violin). Only my grandfather and his father(violin) played professionally. People tend to gravitate to those who love classical music. I have a friend since Jr. High school who now plays bass guitar and is into blues who is interested in everything I do. Another friend has just had his daughter graduate from UNH with a major in music teaching. I remember going to her recitals playing the oboe with great excitement. People want to share their experience of classical music.
    When I was a boy our whole family(including Aunt Myrtle) would go to my mother’s concerts with our local philharmonic orchestra. It was a whole experience. Later when I played in a symphony orchestra all my family came to my concerts. I predict classical music will live forever!!!

    Ken S.

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