Classical Music Can Make You Dumb

On Saturdays we sometimes drive back from breakfast just as the NPR opera is starting up. Today’s was Strauss’s Arabella. The male and female commentators were discussing it, and the man mentioned something about the emotionalism of the music being especially appropriate because “this is an opera that really deals with issues of human emotion.” No kidding? As opposed to all of those operas that don’t deal with human emotion? What a curious departure from the norm. A moment later the woman pointed out that Strauss and von Hofmannsthal had written six operas together, “and the amazing thing about them is that they all have two soprano roles. And this one has three!” If I weren’t already heavily invested in classical music, this kind of fatuous twaddle would drive me to steer well clear of it. It reminds me of a hallowed old bit of dialogue from the British TV comedy Fawlty Towers:

Colonel: Fawlty, did you know that the female gibbon gestates for seven months?

Fawlty: Seven months! Well, well.

In sitcoms we know this is a joke, but in the classical music world it passes for cultural commentary. I don’t know whether listening to Mozart can make you smart, but it is frequently clear that listening to a lifetime of silly classical-music mythology can turn a person into a babbling moron.


  1. says

    At one time Milton Cross managed to provide the commentary by himself. As with major league baseball, it now seems to take a village – or at least a pair of village idiots.

  2. says

    I guess when you feel the need to fill time with words you might begin to sound like the average inane sports commentator rambling on. This would necessarily be worse if you had limited knowledge of the subject and perhaps little interest in acquiring any.

  3. says

    It’s not that classical music can make you dumb, it’s journalism school.

    J students are trained to think they can do a good story about anything based on knowing the “right” questions and reporting their own responses.

    This can work to some extent for introductory stories for general audiences, but the more you know about any field, the more inaccuracies and cliches you find in news stories about that field.

    NPR may be “better” journalism, but it has all of the same bad habits as any other news source.

    KG replies: That may well be true, Herb. I skipped journalism school on my way to the newspaper world, and have always wondered what bad habits I failed to learn. I also think, though, that we bring young musicians up in a classical-music world of fairy tales and children’s stories that accustom them to think non-analytically and outside any kind of social or psychological context. Mozart was an idiot savant, Beethoven was unhappy in love, La Traviata is sad, what else is there to talk about?

    • jk says

      I think that’s accurate. We’re trained to worship the music rather than enjoy it, and in response, non-musicians tend to either feel intimidated or react with ridicule. And its an attitude that I’ve seen ruin the “spark” of many musicians I know.

  4. mclaren says

    …the man mentioned something about the emotionalism of the music being especially appropriate because “this is an opera that really deals with issues of human emotion.” No kidding? As opposed to all of those operas that don’t deal with human emotion?

    At the risk of getting pilloried, I’m going to defend that journalist. What he said makes good solid sense. And too many composers and music critics today ignore the point he’s making.

    You yourself, Kyle, menioned just a few posts ago that John Cage was one of those composers, along with Milton Babbitt, who didn’t believe music had any connection with emotion.

    If that were true, the profession of movie composer wouldn’t exist. But a lot of composers and critics like to spout that twaddle today.

    The result of music composed by people who believe music has no connection with emotion is music that produces mainly negative emotions — hysteria, frenzy, boredom, annoyance, and, if continued long enough, anger. When music gets generated by numerology without regard to its emotional effect or a listener’s capacity to parse it into audibly organized components, this is what I’m pretty sure the journalist is talking about.

    And for quite a few years there were a lot of pieces of music getting churned out by numerological schemes without regard for its emotional effect or a listeners capacity to perceive audible organization in it.

    So when a journalist bemoans that kind of music, that makes sense to me. Ridiculing the average person in the audience who discerns these things and dislikes ’em doesn’t do contemporary composers or contemporary music any good. At the end of the day, composers who treat their audience with contempt get treated the same way in turn.

    Not a winning strategy.

    KG replies: Well, Brian, while I agree with much of what you say, the opera commentator wasn’t *bemoaning* anything. No mention of 20th-century music was made, and I doubt he’d ever heard any. Composers (like Nancarrow and Babbitt) who don’t believe music can express emotion tend not to write operas. The only non-emotive operas I can think of are Cage’s Europeras, Tom Johnson’s Four-Note Opera, Virgil Thomson’s operas, and my Cinderella’s Bad Magic, all of them quite cheerful.

  5. says

    Probably dangerous to weigh in at this point, but I read the exchange as entirely superficial, grabbing words to fill up space. Nothing to do with any kind of thinking, analytical or otherwise, though I do also agree with the point about contempt for audience and the likely response. Certainly, as one of those quintessential “lay listeners,” that’s been mine. But from what you quote, Kyle, it doesn’t appear that anything like that–or perhaps anything at all–was going on in the commentators’ minds. Now, on the flip side of contempt for audience, thought of you last night at the first night of the Carnegie Hall Lang Fest, which invited us all to join a feast of a storytelling with harp of several sections of Beowulf (in Anglo-Saxon!) AND my first chance to see/hear some Harry Partch and those fabulous instruments of his live–the latter 70 years to the day from The Wayward’s Carnegie Hall premiere. All this, and including a free glass of wine for any ticket-holder afterward as we mingled with Lang and the performers near the bar. So much fun (I know, that’s not much of an analytical comment either)! How I wish I could get to the whole series.

    KG replies: Well, I agree. But I am puzzled that someone would bother to learn enough about Strauss to know that he had *six* collaborations with von Hofmannsthal, and yet be so silly as to think their central achievement together had been a tendency toward double soprano roles. It seems to indicate both a serious interest in the subject matter and a mental deficiency in being unable to single out colorful or intriguing information. Either that or a total miseducation about what’s important in classical music.

  6. Lyle Sanford says

    I don’t understand how some composers can feel there’s no connection between emotions and music. How else is the audience engaged? Mclaren’s point, “The result of music composed by people who believe music has no connection with emotion is music that produces mainly negative emotions” – seems irrefutable. What is the point of writing such music – other than the épater les bourgeoisie thing and the validation of one’s “in crowd” credentials.

    If the listener has an emotional response to music meant to be non-emotive – is that the fault of the listener or the composer? Is such music meant only for those who have no emotive response? If their response can’t be called emotive – what can it be called? Am I wrong to see a parallel between non-emotive music and people somewhere on the autistic spectrum?

    I also don’t understand how “non-emotive operas” can be “quite cheerful”. Is feeling cheerful not an emotional state? Does “emotive” signify only what the Tibetan lamas call “afflictive emotions”? I must be missing something!

    KG replies: I’m referring to operas that do not attempt to reflect the presumed emotive state of the characters – in some cases, because there is a certain dadaist or nonsequitur quality to the libretto. An opera whose characters were uniformly cheerful would be kind of an oddity, but the music can be pleasant regardless.

  7. Ed says

    While seven months is the average for the white-cheeked gibbon (Nomascus leucogenys), it is only six months for the white-handed gibbon (Hylobates lar).

    KG replies: It is humbling to be so disabused after all these years. What other scientific information I garnered from Fawlty Towers might be in error, I wonder?

  8. Andrew says

    From the beginning I’ve thought the really funny thing about the colonel’s line is that he’s not specific about the species of gibbon that he’s talking about.

    KG replies: Well… you’ve got a more scientifically informed sense of humor than I have.

  9. says

    That’s certainly some vapid radio commentary. However, I don’t think the commentary on other music is any better. We live in a time of vapid commentary.

    As for the question of emotion and music, I have a more complex and satisfying emotional response to music that isn’t trying to yank my strings. I don’t like being told what to do. Movie music usually pisses me off; Bach often moves me in unexpected ways.

    My favorite bit of pointless chatter is from Vivian Stanshall’s sublime “Sir Henry at Rawlinson’s End,” in which one garrulous bore asks, “Did you know there is no proper name for the back of the knee?”

    • Lyle Sanford says

      That second paragraph says something I’d like to think I already knew, but didn’t realize until seeing it so clearly stated – thanks.

  10. says

    Hi Kyle. Here in Canada, our national FM radio station plays classical music in the mid-morning/afternoon, and the commentary is entirely the repetition of stale, tired anecdotes (“Brahms was in love with Clara!”) delivered in this breathlessly enthusiastic voice that makes the blandness stand out that much more. I think this kind of thing is so emblematic of the failure to intelligently market classical music.