Classical music for [insert present participle]

In today’s Times, the columnist Melanie Philips wrote about the supposed calming effects of a police initiative to pump classical music into a troubled housing estate. It’s behind a paywall, but nearly everything you need to know is contained is this one dreary sentence:

Many studies have found that listening to classical music has beneficial effects on the brain and behaviour.

We are then told that Baroque music is particularly calming due to its ‘characteristic pattern of 60 beats per minute’. Huh? Maybe a largo or adagio movement would be, but most Baroque music is much faster than that. And how is a tempo a ‘pattern’? You just know that a paragraph beginning with ‘many studies have found’ will invariably end with such nonsense.

(She displays greater musical ignorance still when describing Philip Glass, Messiaen and Stockhausen as ‘rarefied composers’ whose ‘signature motifs’ are ‘dissonance, alienation and rebellion’. Messiaen — alienation and rebellion? Philip Glass — dissonance?!)

I have no doubt she is trying to help promote classical music, but this kind of scientism, besides being misleading, makes classical music seem incredibly boring. Anyone who loves classical does not find it calming or relaxing. We don’t generally, as YouTube ceaselessly suggests, listen to it for help ‘studying’. I am made ecstatic listening to Monteverdi’s Vespers. And there’s no way I can listen to Bach’s Chaconne in D Minor without single-minded intensity. 

Classical music isn’t some kind of self-help toolbox or a real-life soma. Yet one of the few times classical music makes the headlines (apart from those articles by its wearisome obituarists) is when a ‘study’ has shown how ‘useful’ it is. It will make your baby smarter (see the ‘Mozart effect’) or pacify a drunken customer — what a mundane technocracy we live in.

Oftentimes, classical music’s utility is an ironic symptom of its own near-death. Novelist Philip Hensher in an Independent article:

A couple of years ago, I arranged to meet a friend at Vauxhall Tube station. I was there a few minutes early. In the ticket hall, there was a pleasant and familiar sound. Surprisingly, London Underground seemed to have decided to play Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony over the tannoys.

There’s probably no noise which gives me more pleasure than the first two bars of Beethoven 7, and I listened in the grimy surroundings with enjoyment and a little surprise. What had caused this outbreak of civilisation?

I was being naïve. At the time, criminological theorists had discovered that there was no noise which would disperse people more quickly than classical music. Beethoven 7 was being played, not because it would give innocent pleasure to passers-by, but because people, on the whole, could be relied upon to loathe it.

Any would-be ne’er-do-wells are running away from a putrid corpse. Hardly an advertisement for classical music.

It would be wonderful to read an opinion piece in a national newspaper about the inherent worth of classical music, and how it’s a great shame that so many people are numb to its beauty. Instead, we get a piece promoting this numbness as a virtue — a useful social pacifier.


2 thoughts on “Classical music for [insert present participle]

  1. Some bright managers at the city transit system here in Eugene were inspired to shout ‘classical music’ over the loudspeakers at the central bus station several years ago, in order to dissuade the children from lounging about, and the homeless, the hippie travellers. They didn’t change the piece, ever, it was always the same for as long as they played it– an instrumental version of excerpts from Carmen, including the ‘Habanera’– but I think one day someone in an office shut it off or perhaps the speakers finally gave out: they had been obviously failing for months. I think nobody paid any attention at all after the first week.


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