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Why Classical Music Matters More Now Than Ever Before
In 2012, the National Endowment for the Arts reported that only 8.8% of Americans had attended a classical music concert in the past year, a drop of around one-third from a decade earlier. The Metropolitan Opera itself has publicly admitted to declining ticket sales. Gone are the days when the 20th century NBC Symphony Orchestra pounded through homey radios. Classical music may not be dying, but it’s certainly lost some prestige in modern culture.
Today, classical music seems too fussy for the hustling-and-bustling world. Concerts demand that people dress in formal attire. The music is often slow, with symphonies that last for the better part of an hour. Even to those who stumble upon a piece that captures their fancy, classical music is utterly un-google-able—try searching “sad violin song” and see if you can find Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto. Even piano students often confess that they only listen to classical music for research purposes. “Classical” has become associated with old-fashioned, irrelevant, impractical, boring, overly intellectual, snobbish, and a tad bit elitist.
These are all legitimate reasons to dislike classical music—I am not one to tell you what to like and not like. Yes, the lengthy sonatas of Beethoven are a bit out of tune with the rhythm of modern society. And no, Baroque-era composers are not any better than iTunes-topping artists like Beyoncé and Ed Sheeran. I listen to pop and classical and just about anything in between; Franz Liszt is right next to Demi Lovato on my iPod. I believe in being open-minded towards art and that every genre has its own voice and beauty.
However, I didn’t always think this way. Two years ago, I didn’t listen to anything older than the 21st century. The classical music that did manage to reach me floated by my ears like second-hand smoke.
Growing up, the only person in my family that enjoyed classical music was my mother. She kept a CD player in the living room that blared out tracks from Bach and Debussy. Most of the time, she played it while I was at school or in my room, knowing that I harbored no fondness for 1700s composers.
The CD player was on when we were sitting in the dining room, eating spaghetti and meatballs. It had been a stressful day for my mother—she always played classical music when she was stressed. It was silent except for the music in the background, and for maybe the first time in my life, I really listened to the music. Something about the notes touched a nerve with me. Even after my mother turned off the CD player, I remembered the melody.
So, I asked her, “Do you have any more classical music?”
She was taken aback at first. To say the least, this was a very uncharacteristic request for me. However, she gave me two CDs: one Chopin and one Mozart. Soon, I found that I couldn’t stop listening. Every day, after school, my mother and I sat in the living room, listening to “Rondo Alla Turca” (commonly known as the doodly-doo song) and the tumultuous, somewhat demented “Winter Wind Etude”. After a few months, I found that something quite remarkable happened: My mother and I knew each other better. We understood each other better. There is something about sitting together, emotionally exposed to crashing chords and highflying harmonies, that allows you to peer into someone else’s mind. You see how the same music with the same notes, rhythms, and tempos touches their heart, and how it moves yours.
Classical music is deeply emotive. Mozart famously said, “I pay no attention whatever to anybody's praise or blame. I simply follow my own feelings.” Chopin’s “4 Ballades”, perhaps his most celebrated work, has been said to evoke images of “fire” and “blinding light”. Although “death by emotional composing” isn’t in anyone’s medical textbook, classical composers certainly have their fair share of early leavings to the grave. Bizet died at the age of 37. Schubert at 31. Beethoven went deaf and wrote “Ode to Joy” before liver cirrhosis felled him at 56.
We live in a society that increasingly shuns emotional vulnerability. When we feel like crying, we often tell ourselves to pull it together so others don’t see our tears. We are constantly told to not let our emotions get in the way of sound judgement because emotions are irrational and ought to be kept down. When there is business to be done, there is no room for heartbreak. Nobody has time it.
Teenagers often bear the brunt of this criticism, caricatured as melodramatic, short-sighted, and slightly mentally unsound. The chaotic, stressful, and uncertain nature of teenage years is ignored. The pained outcries of teens are often brushed off as “phases” and derided as “typical teenage behavior”. In reality, what teenagers really need is not to be told to “get over it”, but to be seen. When we cry out, we want someone to hear us. We want someone to be by our side. We, like everyone, don’t want to feel alone. Yet that is what we are getting more and more everyday in this world that grows more impersonal each day.
Classical music to me represents what the world needs the most right now: understanding, acceptance, and knowing that vulnerability and openness is not weakness. The world is getting smaller, faster, and busier every day, but that does not mean we have to sacrifice compassion and empathy. Kindness is something that we all deserve, and perhaps the people that need it the most right now is teenagers, who are facing hefty decisions about colleges, jobs, and futures. We need to find a way to connect all of us heart-to-heart, because in the end, we are all humans, and we are all trying to find our place this daunting world.