A guide to enjoy classical music (1/3): Why giving it a try?


Classical musicl

This is the first post in the series “Tapping new sources of happiness” which aims to help people to find access new rewarding activities and new sources of happiness. Please read the introduction to the series if have not done so already.

When listening to Dvorak’s Cello Concerto a little while ago (and highly enjoying it), once again I was thinking to myself what a pity it is that only few people have found access to the immense joy that classical music can bring to our lives. While “few” may be an understatement in absolute terms (there are probably more people listening to classical music today than there have ever before) relatively speaking classical music struggles to keep up against other forms of music, and its market share remains at a low 3%.

I deeply believe this does not have to be the case. Whatever the fundamental reasons why classical music can be enjoyable, they should apply to everybody as classical music speaks to our core needs as human beings (be it strive for peace, harmony, energy, optimism, hope etc.) where we don’t differ that much after all.

The question is: why have only few people found access to classical music yet? And, more importantly: how do we go about if we want to introduce ourselves (or somebody else) to the world of classical music, and thereby a new source of happiness?

After reflecting on the topic I’ve come to believe that simply going to a random classical music concert, or just grabbing a CD at the local media store picturing some guy with a fiddle, is not the best approach. The aim of this article is to provide some alternative ideas of how it may be done, structured into three categories:

A) Getting motivated to give classical music a try

B) Enabling an easy entry to classical music and finding joy quickly

C) Techniques for the advanced listener that may further enhance the joy from listening to classical music

There’s a lot to say on the topic, and that’s why it will be split up into several posts. This first post will deal with the question on how to make us …

A) Getting motivated

Sincere motivation is always something emotional and cannot be forced by “rational” arguments. Nevertheless, I would like to start with some rational reasons to give classical music a try (as they may also have some impact on our emotional motivation), and dive into more sneaky motivation tactics later.

  1. Classical music can be a strong, enduring source of happiness… for everybody
    Science is still trying to figure out the exact reasons why listening to classical music can be a highly joyful activity. Whatever the reasons are, it’s fact that classical music is enriching many people’s lives (and mine :-)), making them considerably more happy. If this is not true for you already, it’s more than a pity which needs to be changed.

    As mentioned above, classical music is not limited in bringing joy to a specific breed of people only. And: classical music spans a wide area; almost for every mood, mindset, feeling or lifecycle, classical music has something in its repertoire. The challenge is “only” to find the right access to it.

  2. … and it will get better and better
    The joy from listening to classical music seems to increase further as we get older. I don’t know why that is, but I doubt the “white carpet” in front of the orchestra can be explained only by “they had more time to discover it”. Maybe it’s the more moderate expectations that elderly people bring to the concert (expectations are crucial for happiness), or it’s classical music’s strong capability to convey peacefulness, which we increasingly seek for as we get older. Whatever the reason, knowing that the joy will further increase over time may provide another reason to plant the seed as early as possible.
  3. Classical music can make you more balanced
    Classical music seems to have the capability to make listeners more balanced and level-headed. Of course this depends on the piece (e.g. I doubt people are more balanced after listening to Beethoven’s fifth symphony) and also the instrumentation (Goethe once wittingly said the string quartet – the frequent combination of two violins, one viola and one cello – “resembles the discourse of four reasonable persons”).

    However, many classical pieces “tell stories” which require the listener to adopt a mindset that is not only waiting for the “highlights” but also to listen through the more moderate passages and “understand” the whole piece, resulting in a more realistic and balanced mindset, as well as enhancing the capability to “listen” itself, which is beneficial in everyday interactions or discussions.1

  4. Classical music can make you smarter
    Studies have shown listening to some pieces, e.g. Mozart’s Sonata for Two Pianos in D Major K. 448, actually adds a couple of IQ points to listeners (“The Mozart effect”). Unfortunately this only works for a short period of time, and after 15 minutes of not listening you’ve dropped back to where you started off.

    More importantly, however, is the gain in intelligence (“smartness” may be the better word) as a consequence of making listeners more balanced, as mentioned above, as the basis for making good decisions is a balanced mind, and everything that helps to achieve it will also help us make better decisions.

  5. “Getting away from it all” – Classical music allows you to dive into a different world
    Generally I don’t recommend leaving this world, as it can be very nice indeed, but sometimes we feel the need to leave the daily issues and stress behind completely, for which classical music may serve as a possible retreat. I cannot recall how many times I gained new energy during my stressful times as a consultant, by taking some time in the evenings to dive into Yehudi Menuhin’s 1938/1932 recordings of Mendelssohn’s and Bruch’s violin concertos, leaving the daily pressure, expectations and stress far, far behind.

    Incidentally, classical music’s capability to fully absorb the listener, making him or her “forget” everything else, is closely related to psychologist Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s (pronounced “chick-sent-me-high-ee”) concept of “flow”, which he convincingly explains can be one of the highest forms of happiness we can achieve. A future post will look at it in detail.

For me these are some key reasons for classical music. Despite not being comprehensive2, they should already provide enough “rational” reasons to give classical music a try!3

The next post will be dealing with possible approaches to classical music for newbies. The third and last post will provide ideas on how existing classical music lovers may get even more from it. If you don’t want to miss it, please subscribe to my RSS Feed or Email newsletter!

1) Of course, it’s a chicken/egg question whether more balanced people are more inclined to reach out for the classical music CD, than the other way round of classical music making people more balanced. As mostly is the case with this type of question, it is fair to assume it is a combination of both, and starting with one enhances the other. (go back up)

2) Beyond the stated points classical music may also help people to relax and unwind, be used for therapy (e.g. treating depression and anxiety), make us more productive (e.g. if used as background music), make people more peaceful (e.g. when playing it in public places, crime went down significantly) or even make our offspring smarter if used as pre-birth music

I’ve consciously left out another reason which may be relevant for some people going to classical music concerts: “showing off” by being member of a “higher” and “more intelligent” society. I left it out because it’s not very authentic and doesn’t have anything to do with the real pleasure classical music is capable to bring to our lives. The “elitist” character frequently associated with classical music is also dangerous: if the classical music industry were to position it that way, targeting a very small percentage of the population by definition, it should not complain that it does not get more listeners (however I don’t think it can be said it does that in general today).

3) Another point worth mentioning (in the context of “rational” motivation) is the importance of getting the expectations right. No matter what approach may be used, newbies will probably not become classical music lovers overnight (it requires an initial investment – keeping this in mind may prevent early disappointment).

Also, if we want to tap this new source of happiness, it is not a “passive” exercise, i.e. us laying back and waiting for the music to prove to us that it is beautiful. We have to “learn to listen” and this may take a bit of time and effort. How to reduce this effort as much as possible will be the subject of the next post.

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