So Classical Music… Part 1

From time to time in life, I’ve been asked what is the appeal of classical music for devotees like me, and whether there’s any point in someone the questioner’s own age giving it a try. I’ve usually stumbled answering such questions, and lately I’m hearing them a little more often.

Here’s a one-evening stab at answering them. Be forewarned: the question is not entirely simple and the answer is not entirely brief.

What is classical music, anyway?

In the usual sense of the term, classical music is three things: a musical language; the body of accumulated music written in that language; and the culture surrounding both. As used in the West, the term usually refers to the classical music of Western civilization, though certainly other cultures possess highly evolved, formalized, and revered musical traditions as well—to name only a few offhand, Japan, India, and China.

Classical music is . . . art music usually intended not merely to entertain but to uplift . . . to reveal and state truths of a sort, much as a painting or sculpture or a mathematical drawing might do.

Even in other genres of Western music, some forms have evolved to have a subtlety and complexity that constitute a de facto “classical” tradition of their own. Jazz and Cuban salsa spring readily to mind.

But in this discussion, we’re talking about the Western canon of art music.

No single quality sets classical music (in any culture) apart from the rest. Many of the individual things that can be said about classical music are true of other genres. And yet a large part of what sets classical music apart is that it is treated as apart by its devotees and by the educated classes of the civilizations in which it exists.

If there is an exception to the no-single-quality observation, it is this:

Classical music in any culture is “high” music, art music usually intended not merely to entertain but to uplift, sometimes to edify, or even to reveal and state abstract truths of a sort, much as a painting or sculpture or a mathematical drawing might do. It’s also intended to endure. At times in the past, commercial appeal has been a factor, particular in the 1800’s, but it has seldom been the most important factor shaping a piece of music. Rather the ethic has been “write the truest, most beautiful piece of music and listeners will come.” This is diametrically opposite the ethos of the popular music industry.

Western classical music, henceforth merely “classical music,” has dozens of subgenres and periods, and it’s safe to say that no devotee is fond of them all—most devotees couldn’t even name more than a handful. Attraction to classical music usually begins with one piece or one composer and gradually spreads to include other composers, other periods, and other types. In large part this is true even in the development of classically trained performers. But few devotees came to classical music through education. Rather they heard something they liked and wanted to hear more of. A fuller appreciation develops spontaneously over time.

What is the essence?

Much of what makes up classical music overlaps with other forms of music. But to take a stab at this difficult question…

It’s a language of moods, emotions, and forms. It’s an abstract language that normally has no semantic content, no meaning in words—with the obvious and large exception of vocal and choral music.

Example in verse:

At last, at last, the sleeping infant wakens.

It has a semantic meaning, but it also has an appealing form.
For one thing it’s echoic, and for another it’s metrical.

Without using any esoteric musical notation, the meter can be summarized thus, with four beats between each vertical bar | . (The last two beats are silent and shown as the period character.)

– | ——  ,  – | ——  ,  – | – – – – | – –  .   .

The same line could be composed into music without its semantic content, reflecting only the echo of the first rhythmic figure and the meter of the whole sentence, and embellishing those with musical tones and harmonies.

This is a very simple example that could just as well be taken from popular music. The patterns and echoes and allusions and variations and subtleties in classical music are typically much more complex than those in popular music and often take many listenings to fully recognize. If you imagine picking up an intricate wire sculpture, examining and admiring it from a variety of angles, both the external and the internal intricacies, that’s akin to one appeal of classical music. Of course there are also much more direct and hedonistic aspects of enjoyment as well.

Unlike popular music, classical music is not created specifically to be accessible to as many listeners as possible. Rather it is designed to have multiple levels of beauty and novelty that will delight even sophisticated and discerning ears and reveal themselves gradually over repeated listening. Many pieces are nonetheless immediately, sometimes even hauntingly beautiful to the receptive ear, but there’s always more than a first hearing reveals.

What appeals to devotees?

Classical music is unabashedly emotionally earnest. It tends to be emotionally direct and is in a sense the antithesis of the cool detachment seen in some other musical genres or their subgenres.

It is often intense.

It’s usually complex.

It’s organic. Gimmicks like Auto-Tune and electronic sweetening and synthetic reverb are repulsive to classical listeners—at least in the context of classical music. In large venues and recordings, amplification and equalization and attention to microphone placement are common, but always to make the music sound as natural and seemingly un-mediated and unadulterated as possible.

It’s timeless, at least in theory. Much of the classical music that is popular today has survived hundreds of years because it has continued to appeal to tens of generations of listeners around the world for that long, even making significant inroads in Eastern cultures to which it is not native.

At its best it evokes the most soaring, most exalted, most elated, most despairing, most wistful, most tender, and most tranquil of human emotions.

Audiences expect very high performance standards in every detail. Excellence is the norm. This applies to articulation, intonation, rhythm, suppleness, tonal color and richness, and subtlety of expression. Most professional classical musicians spent 20 years studying and practicing to achieve a professional standard of performance.

Personally, I long ago learned that both programming and writing go much better for me when I listen to well-selected classical music, usually without words. It seems to soak up stray tendrils of attention that might otherwise latch onto distractions. There’s a marked fall-off in productivity when I forget that my brain needs high-quality music to function at its best.

I’ve heard more than once from listeners or fellow musicians that certain classical music inspires them to think better thoughts and to be better people, that it lifts their thoughts and mood above the petty and pedestrian to things that matter.

Can one learn as an adult to enjoy it?


People who have an innate ear for language sometimes have an innate ear for music. Of course nobody is born knowing either thing, but some pick them up more easily and more completely than others. It’s a learning process, and it’s easier with the more plastic brain of childhood, but for many it’s possible much later.

If you have basic aptitude, it’s certainly much easier to begin responding emotionally to the beauty in classical music than it is to become conversational in a second spoken language.

You can’t learn the emotional response through teaching. You can be instructed in what’s going on beneath the surface, and that may delight the mind, but that won’t make the performance feel beautiful to you.

You only learn to respond emotionally to classical music through exposure and immersion. They’re no guarantee, but they’re the only route.

Will it make my unborn baby smarter?


Some years ago there was a fad to play Mozart transplacentally to developing fetuses in the belief that it would create more intelligent, higher-achieving(!!) newborns and later adults. Later research of better quality did not bear out a beneficial effect. The fetal brain is nowhere near developed enough to process musical input in any aesthetically or conceptually meaningful way. The sound of the mother’s own heartbeat is a more developmental influence. And the reduction in stress and the hormonal expression of a mother’s feelings of closeness when listening to beautiful music or singing softly to her unborn may also have a beneficial effect for both.

Research is less clear and is contradictory about exposure later in life. But one thing that childhood exposure to high-quality music does provide is the gift of musical appreciation. Listening to classical music cultivates at least musical intelligence if no other kind. And attachment to such a timeless and universal body of culture and the brother- and sisterhood around it can have a profoundly enriching and sustaining effect later in life. It has carried many a person through life’s most difficult periods.

Yet there is some evidence that exposure cultivates something at some point. Research has often focused on general intelligence as measured by IQ, and a correlation and even a transformative effect is sometimes found. And for instance, a highly disproportionate number of the teens and 20- and 30-somethings who drove the microcomputing and information revolution were devotees of classical music and in many cases amateur performers themselves.

There hasn’t been much research on the effect of listening to classical music on Emotional Intelligence, but that would seem a more obvious and possibly more significant place to look. If you’re responding to classical music, you’re exercising a gamut of your emotions that might otherwise remain untapped.

In any case, certain things are intuitively obvious to those who listen regularly. Listening does increase one’s empathy and one’s attunement to nuance and to co-existing layers of truth or perception. Such an attunement is beneficial in other contexts when dealing with complex ideas, discussions, and perception of people and situations. Perhaps listening makes you a better thinker and a better collaborator without necessarily making you more clinically intelligent. Many listeners would probably say that it does. Of course it’s always possible that it’s the other way around, that people who already possess and value those qualities tend to be drawn to classical music.

So it’s hard to say anything for certain—except that listening to classical music probably doesn’t make you any less intelligent.

Where to begin

That’s another post. Stay tuned for So Classical Music… Part 2.