Classical Music: Transformative, Not Tranquilizing

One of the problems that the classical music world faces is the different ways that people experience music. The truth is that classical music is not meant to be background music. It is often not meant to "soothe," should in fact shake you to your roots frequently. But if you look at some of the marketing that is done by the recording industry, even by some orchestras or presenters, you'd think that we were closer to Montovani than Monteverdi. 
How often I've heard, in my career, "after a hard day at work, I want to come to a concert, sit back, relax, and let the music just wash over me."  How often I've seen marketing that panders to this concept by inviting the ticket buyer to "let the lush sounds of Rachmaninoff relax you."  We hear of shopping malls that play classical music to either keep ruffians away--I'm not sure if it is supposed to annoy them or bore them out of the mall--or to mollify tensions by providing relaxing, soothing sounds.

Clearly, those of us in the business of presenting classical music cannot take any listeners for granted, and in fact should welcome any kind of listening. And I don't say that because it is economically good for us (though I'll admit that it is). I say it because any approach to listening means that the listener is at some level appreciative of the music, and most of us are in this business because we are proselytizers. We believe in this music. We believe in its transformative power, its ability to fundamentally reach human beings on a level way beyond words. And therefore any listener, however he or she approaches the music, is something we cherish.

However, it is also our job to make clear that there is much more to this music than lush, rich sounds. And yet much of our industry has encouraged the "just let it wash over us" approach--almost presenting it or talking about it as high-quality background music. Classical music radio in much of the United States is perhaps the prime casualty of this kind of thinking. Having visited more than 200 cities in the past ten years, and being an habitual searcher for classical music on the radio, I find myself deeply depressed at the proliferation of stations that identify themselves as "classical music" outlets but won't broadcast vocal music, modern music, or even full-length symphonies. I remember once driving with my wife and hearing the announcer intone "Next we'll hear the 2nd movement of Brahms's Symphony No. 2."  I turned to my wife and said "Wow! All of it?" I dare say that the U.S. now has more so-called classical stations of this kind than stations that are actually meant to be closely listened to. Even more depressing is hearing those stations promote themselves. "Spend relaxing hours with WXYZ," or "Let the soothing sounds of classical music accompany you through the day on WXYZ." Station promotions of this nature are horrifyingly common.

I'm trying to imagine Beethoven thinking this way about his late quartets or "Eroica" Symphony, not to mention Shostakovich about his Eighth Symphony (not that these are works one is even likely to encounter on a station like that). Would it be a wry smile or deep anger that such descriptions would engender in them?

Those of us in the business of presenting and promoting music need to do a better job of explaining and clarifying the transformational qualities, the deeply moving potential, of our music. We need to remember that while a part of what we do is related to "entertainment"--and I have no gripe with entertainment; Suppé's overtures have their place in our lives--what we do is also much, much more than entertainment. It is up to us to manage the expectations of our audiences and potential audiences, and to explain why it's a good thing that you shouldn't let the music wash over you.

September 4, 2009 1:11 PM | | Comments (9)



I agree with Katherine, I have many motivations for listening to classical music. In the lonely hours of the night, my home town station KDFC was great mental stimulus for studying for finals and midterms. Acting as background music, I do believe classical music helped me earn better grades in college. When I want to engage with the music I tune into special live concert programing for the SF Symphony. Unfortunately, not all cities are blessed with such options, and what's even worse, many classical stations share half their air time with news talk radio. Thank goodness for web streaming, but the selling of WCRB and others is somewhat concerning for classical fans nation wide.

Henry, first of all thank you for writing about this.

Second, it's worse than radio stations. I personally know at least one public school music teacher who only listens to the "pretty stuff" and makes references such as, "That pretty song by Stravinsky" (referring to the Princess' Round Dance) or "A song by Mozart" (Eine Kleine Nachtmusik). And her job is to teach "music appreciation" to students! Is it any wonder our kids today are growing up ignorant, yet unaware of just how undereducated they are?

I think classical radio bears most of the blame for this phenomenon. It's hard for me to relate to or understand because I find classical music utterly unsuited for background music. I seldom listen to it in the car or or radio and I rarely find myself drawn to the compositions that might be considered "soothing."

However, a friend of mine who managed a classical radio station put it this way: "I'm not in the classical music business, I'm in the radio business." Unfortunately, commercial radio is about listenership and must be sold to advertisers on the basis that people will keep their radios tuned to the station, whether at work or at home, all day long. That won't happen if the station plays "Rite of Spring." The radio business is what it is, and I don't see that changing any time soon.

However, I think in the long run this devolvement of classical radio may help those of us who are in the live classical music business. How? Because we can draw such a clear contrast between the radio experience of classical music and the live concert experience. What we have to offer at the concert hall is far richer and more varied than can be experienced in any medium, be it radio, TV, DVD or CD. Yes, it can be soothing, and certainly it's ok to let a Debussy tone poem wash over you. But it can also be more like exercising your ears, brain and heart. People pay to go and exercise their bodies, or pay extra to eat good, nutritious food. We can get them to do the same with music -- if we talk about it and market it correctly.

I understand the comment of Andy's friend from the radio station, but don't find myself reacting with much sympathy for his plight. WFMT in Chicago has managed to retain its integrity and an extraordinary artistic level, and be profitable at the same time, through a combination of advertising and contributions.

We certainly do have a disconnect between what potential audiences think classical music is like and the reality. I read some surveys by the Houston Symphony marketing department, and in answer to the question about perception of classical music, the words "relaxing" and "mellow" came up over and over again. It does not help either when educational concerts give the message that classical music is nice, but if you want real excitement, here is the John Williams or Pirates of the Caribbean music for the grand finale. What about the last movement of Tschaikovsky 4? It is time for us to stop apologizing for what we do when we do outreach.

And do we have to keep using the word challenging all the time? Interesting and fascinating is more like it.

I sometimes sit down and just listen to classical music, but sometimes I like to have it playing in the background. When I am driving, I like rock music when I am feeling the need for a wake-up call or I am facing a long stretch of open road, or when I am feeling the need to release some energy by singing loudly (and off key) rather than ramming into the vehicles in my way. When I want to encourage the precision and clarity needed for a challenging drive, I listen to classical music. And yet, I so sometimes "use" a classical music radio station to help me fall asleep. What I think I am getting at is that classical music is a label like "rock" or "alternative" that encompasses a large variety of music. Selling it as relaxing is selling it short.

Ditto, excellent post. Articulating what many quietly lament every day. It is unfortunate for this to be so rampant across the U.S. However, the issue is not uniquely American, and like most things, has gone global. As someone now working in the music industry outside the U.S., I can say the same saccharine-coated relax/soothe/mollify-the-masses spin has seeped into classical radio in certain parts of Europe as well.


Henry, I agree with you - mostly. I think classical music can be both entertaining and challenging. It's the challenging part that is constantly being debased and left out of the listening equation.

Excellent post.

I find nothing wrong with background music (or the modern term ambient music or the older term "furniture music"). Music can serve this atmospheric function nobly. To the extent that the post denigrates the notion of a background music being of value, I cannot agree.

Yet often pieces written to be anything but background music get recorded performances and radio airplay as if they are merely window dressing to an experience. This pre-packaging of a Brahms symphony or a Mozart string quartet as inoffensive music to assist a morning drive or to accompany a commercial for wine and cheese does the classical music listener a disservice.

The result is a series of false dichotomies--
"lovely" tonal music vs. "difficult" atonal work; "ancient" early music vs. "traditional" baroque and classical music; and a presumption that "older is better" among composers.

The result is a calcification-not at all the "death" of classical music, but its entombment in amber. I prefer to see the insect fly than be encased in golden fluid.

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