I was on the subway this morning when I heard two men talking about a “Richard Wagner.” They were trying to remember where they had heard the name, eventually concluding that he sounded familiar from their days of collecting baseball cards. “He was on the Pittsburgh Pirates,” one of them shouted emphatically, as if having finally gotten to the bottom of a complex mystery. No doubt they were thinking of Honus — not Richard — Wagner, the notoriously speedy baseball player, but it was a bit of a shame that they had mistaken the great 19th-century German composer with a shortstop. I didn’t say anything, contented to finish up a bit of last minute homework rather than interject in a conversation I wasn’t a part of, but a portion of me was saddened by the fate classical music faces now that even the all-stars are forgotten.
No doubt there’s much wrong with classical music. Namely, it can be stuffy, pretentious, unnecessarily formal, and the act of actually going to a concert is both expensive and a dress-up extravaganza that leaves little room for, well, enjoyment. That’s compounded by the fact that few people under thirty (who am I kidding? more like fifty) listen to classical music, and when the local orchestra puts on some sort of concert series to revitalize interest — usually named “Bringing the Classics Back to the Youth” or something equally cheesy — it invariably comes off as pathetic and out of touch.
And yet, there is still so much that can be taken from classical music. Emotions can be magnified and beautified, you can literally become smarter while listening, and transcendental, memory-inducing experiences can be had without even the slightest effort. You may never go to the sad, pandering modern-classical concerts your orchestra puts on (“The Spokane Symphony Plays All the Music from Shrek 2!”), but taking the time to listen to classical music by yourself or with your family and friends can be immensely engaging. Although you know you could instead just re-listen to “Call Me Maybe” if you wanted to, the classics always prove to be more worthwhile. Here’s why:
1. Smarten Up
Known as the “Mozart effect,” a set of research published by the Oxford University Press contends that listening to Mozart’s music can make you momentarily smarter, raising your IQ by a few points while you’re listening. You’ll still have to hit the books once in a while, but next time you’re trying to crack a crossword or Sudoku puzzle, it can’t hurt to put on “Symphony #40 in G Minor.” So I guess it’s settled: Mozart trumps Beethoven.
2. Tap Into Those Emotions
When one hears Chopin’s “Nocturne in E Flat Major, Op. 9, No. 2” most people don’t think of its rounded binary form with a C or the fact that he wrote it when he was twenty-one. Nor do you think about the fact that it’s a nocturne and therefore meant to be played at the end of the evening, beginning with sonorous melodies and ending with subdued passion. Classical music is super technical, and there’s much that can be learned, but what’s really interesting – what brings people back again and again to their favorite songs – are the emotions that most classical music conjures.
When listening to classical compositions, especially from the Impressionists or Romantics, the imagination bounces in every which way. As a song plays, I might imagine walking down the Seine on the first day of summer. Or perhaps I’ll vividly remember a competitive tennis match I had played years ago. Sometimes, bits of literature will come to life in my mind: Anthony Patch yelling in his apartment, thinking he’s pushed away Gloria forever in The Beautiful and Damned. Or books from childhood, like Lyra Belacqua finding God at the end of The Amber Spyglass. The ability to tap in to a variety of visceral feelings — transporting the listener to different time periods, evoking memories, inspiring imagination of the future, and washing the world in sun and rosiness — is something few things besides classical music can do.
3. Learn a New Language
I don’t mean learn a new language as in learn “the language of the classics” or “the language of fine music,” no, I mean a new language as in an actual language like Spanish or French or Italian. Researchers at Northwestern University found that the neural connections made while listening to or playing classical music prime the brain for new languages and sounds. The study, which used Vivaldi’s compositions, showed that after listening to classical music people scored higher on verbal fluency tests both in their own language as well as in foreign languages they had been learning. Grazie Vivaldi.
4. De-stresses like a Valium
Thirty minutes of Mendelssohn or one dose of Valium? It’s your pick because, according to a study at the University of Baltimore, both the music and the drug have the same anti-anxiety benefits for heart patients. You don’t have to undergo a triple-bypass to be de-stressed by classical music though. Listening to any type of non-frenetic classical music — be it in the background at home or at an actual concert — helps you do some serious relaxing.
5. The Experience of Joy, of Sorrow, and of Love
Benjamin Zander, a composer, teacher, and TED talk presenter, is pretty much the coolest person in classical music (sorry Lindsey Stirling). For Zander, classical music is a means to finding new meaning, new possibilities, and new connections. But he also extols the virtues of listening to a song from start to finish, paying attention not to each note but to the song as a whole, following the piece in its entirety, as if it were a living being.
He prompts the audience to, “Think of somebody who you adore, who’s no longer there – a beloved grandmother, a lover, somebody in your life who you love with all your heart, but that person is no longer with you. Bring that person into your mind and at the same time follow [Chopin’s Prelude] all the way from B to E, and you’ll hear everything Chopin had to say.” What Chopin had to say – and what all good classical music has to say — is a ranging set of reflections on love and happiness and melancholy, which meditates on the human condition, before culminating in catharsis, Truth, and Beauty.