Friday, October 24, 2014

Why listening to classical music doesn't make you a better person

So this idiotic post has been going the rounds lately. The headline reads "Smart people listen to Radiohead and dumb people listen to Beyonce, according to study."

They charted students' SAT scores and found that "smart" students listen to Sufjan Stevens (j'adore!) and Radiohead while "dumb" students who don't perform as well on the SAT scores listen to Lil Wayne. There's absolutely no mention of race, class, and education in this study, no attempts to examine geography and its role in determining who gets into a place like Cal Tech vs. who gets in to Cleveland State University. This study doesn't "prove" anything; it just illuminates social stratification at work.

It did lead me to thinking how much we believe, though, that classical music makes us "smarter" and "better." Not musical education itself, which has shown to have all kinds of benefits on learning and the human mind. But classical music in particular. Why else has "Baby Einstein" been so popular, even though scientific study after scientific study debunks the myth that it makes your child a brilliant human being?

I think for the uninformed, putting on Baby Mozart or what have you is a form of exhibiting class aspiration, or that you want your child to succeed in life. Fine. But I also fear that it reinforces a social hierarchy of music and dismisses some forms of music as base.

I love western art music, I unashamedly love the Austro-German musical canon, I lose my mind over Mahler again and again and again. On my 30th birthday, I made the mistake of listening to Tchaikovsky's Serenade for Strings in C Major first thing in the morning when I was feeling especially emotionally vulnerable. I couldn't handle it. I promptly burst into tears. I was home visiting my parents in Atlanta at the time, and my mother came rushing down to my bedroom freaking out and asking what was wrong. In true, 13-year-old emo fashion, I croaked out "It's so beautiful" in between hiccup-sobs.
I still have to work myself up to hear Brahms's "Im Herbst" for the same reason. I'll probably be a hot mess by the time it's over.
Mozart's famous Serenade for 13 Winds (3rd movement) also gets me worked up (that oboe coming in softly at the beginning like that? Are you kidding me?):
But do you know who else loved this piece? Nazi intellectual and propagandist Joseph Goebbels. In fact, for a lot of people who learn about music in the Third Reich for the first time, discovering that many members of the Nazi party valued classical music challenges and threatens our belief in the intellectually and morally edifying nature of this music. Thomas Mann, I'm convinced, loved to explore this relationship between music, creativity, and humanity's descent into moral poverty for exactly these reasons: beware of music's power, Mann warns. Its listeners might not all be angels, after all. And why else were books such as Doktor Faustus and Buddenbrooks so popular during the 1930s and 40s if his ideas hadn't somehow struck a nerve?

I think this remains ever the challenge for us supporters and dedicated listeners and performers of art music in 2014. How can we get people to love this music and listen to it as much as we do without falling into the usual rhetorical traps and cliches when we talk about it? Cliches that Theodor Adorno, Thomas Mann, and the lives of Goebbels and other Nazi officials have exposed to be a falsehood? Because I suspect that a lot of people no longer believe in the civilizing mission of western art music anymore.

I don't think we can talk about art music in moralistic and edifying tones anymore, or not nearly as much as we used to before. I fear that describing art music as superior quickly leads others to judge us as snobby elitists, even (or perhaps especially) when we claim to be bringing this music to the masses for uplifting reasons (see: Anton Webern and his worker's symphony orchestra in Vienna).

So if classical music doesn't make us better people, why listen to it? Is it enough to say, "because it makes my heart soar"? When asked why we should read books, author Anne Lamott explained,
"Because for some of us, books are as important as almost anything on earth. What a miracle it is that out of these small, flat, rigid squares of paper unfolds world after world after world, worlds that sing to you, comfort and quiet or excite you. Books help us understand who we are and how we are to behave. They show us what community and friendship mean; they show us how to live and die. They are full of all the things that you don't get in real life - wonderful, lyrical language, for instance, right off the bat. And quality of attention: we may not notice amazing details during the course of a day but we rarely let ourselves stop and really pay attention. An author makes you notice, makes you pay attention, and this is a great gift. My gratitude for good writing is unbounded; I'm grateful for it the way I'm grateful for the ocean."

My gratitude for beautiful musical compositions is also unbounded. I want others to love these pieces, too. I think the challenge remains for me to champion art music in ways that don't alienate new listeners (even the Beyonce-loving kind! Gasp!), especially those who, like me, are wary of its advocates.

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