Is Classical Music Relaxing?

Those of you in the early stages of discovering classical music may become frustrated when much of what you hear is so unfamiliar. You may be tempted to retreat back into familiar territory and decide you don’t “really like” these kinds of pieces. Or, depending on the music you encounter, you may find yourself puzzled, saying: “Isn’t classical music supposed to be relaxing?”

Well, no, it really isn’t necessarily relaxing. And becoming acquainted with the classical canon is quite a different process (initially at least) from “liking” or “disliking.”

Unlike so much of the pop music we encounter and automatically like or dislike, many compositions from the classical repertoire are meant to be challenging and to evoke a full spectrum of emotions (“relaxing” being just one of them). Properly undertaken, exploring Western European compositions written from the late Renaissance until today should take you on the wildest artistic ride of your life. People who pigeonhole the experience as “relaxing” either aren’t paying attention or have not cast their nets very far into the ocean.

To appreciate serious music, you have to become familiar with a sufficient amount of it (which means taking the time to do so). You must be willing to be stretched in new, sometimes uncomfortable directions. There are good strategies for doing this, as well as bad ones. Our Discovering Music course provides much context for understanding music in this manner, as well as a detailed listening plan.

The listening plan consists of a framework that can help to inspire the listener to create new patterns for hearing music. The exploration of context involves considering many non-musical topics: politics, science, fashion, philosophy, geography, religion, you name it. Neither conscientious listening nor a nuanced study of context necessarily will play into our instant response to pop music. Yet both are essential to a full appreciation of classical music.

To turn the equation around, you can also state that cultivating a stronger understanding of music from the Western canon holds the key to unlocking the study of history, literature, religion, philosophy, and even the sciences. This kind interdisciplinary study is the proper focus of the field formally called “historical musicology” (and more popularly called music appreciation). Woven through any such purposeful study of music will be the threads that compose what we can call “music aesthetics”: a systematic cultivation of our musical tastes and deepening of our perception of beauty in music.

All of this sounds serious, doesn’t it? It is . . . and it isn’t, because such study is quite natural. Anything valuable requires some level of seriousness. Mastery of anything first requires us to acknowledge that the area of endeavor is serious. Maybe we cannot imagine ourselves standing in full mastery of concerto form or tragic opera, but we can open our ears and the doors to our heart to unite with their dramatic power and message.

I doubt I’ll ever learn how to design or build modern highway overpasses, but I nonetheless stand in awe at the process. I fully enjoy watching as the almost imperceptible process of constructing these towering webs of concrete filigree moves forward daily. I suspect that if I stood daily on the same spot at a road-construction site and watched what the giant machines and individual workers were doing, I’d be able in time to grasp something of how a complex system of overpasses moves from a two-dimensional design on a piece of paper to a glittering weave of concrete ribbons high in the air that easily support thousands of tons of metal. But to reach that understanding, it would take patience, diligence, analysis, and a spirit of inquiry.

Concrete mixers and concerto form? Could they have something in common? Well, you know I like to draw my analogies far afield. Furthermore, I espouse a belief that everything is connected to music and the arts (and music and the arts are connected to everything).

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