Stereotypes & Misconceptions Part II: Classical Music is Relaxing

December 28, 2012, 9:58 AM · Below is a continuation of my previous post, Stereotypes & Misconceptions Part I: Classical Music is for Rich People.

Photo by o5com.

Is classical music actually really relaxing? (Photo by o5com)

6. Classical music is relaxing.
Sometimes, when I’m washing dishes, I’ll turn on one of three things: talk radio, classical music, pop, or Broadway music. Interestingly enough, while I do find most pieces on the classical music playlist to be calming, I believe that’s a result of the host arranging a playlist that appeals to what a general audience perceives as what classical music should sound like. In other words, the repertoire heard on the radio is vastly different than a professional orchestra’s repertoire for the season.

Beyond what’s played on the radio, there is a world of complex, intense, cacophonous, dramatic, edgy, avant-garde, and even violently animated orchestral music that is by far NOT RELAXING. Works that come to mind include Wagner’s Ring Cycle and Ride of the Valkyries, Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 5, Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra, and Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5.

In fact, rather than feeling relaxed when I listen to these pieces, I find myself distracted from the tasks at hand, absorbed by the excitement and motion in these rich compositions. I have trouble treating most of the greatest masterpieces as “background” music that might relax me. These are the pieces that keep me riveted and on the edge of my seat.

7.Only educated intellectuals can understand and enjoy classical music.
There is some truth to this point in the sense that those who have studied music theory, history, form, and performance have a deeper understanding of classical music as a result of increased knowledge about classical compositions. But knowing where a piece was composed, in which key it’s written, from which musical era it originated, which opus number it is, or even who composed it doesn’t necessarily influence how enjoyable a piece may be to an audience member--educated or not.

In fact, sometimes the intense study of music--the probing and picking at it--can take the magic out of it. Beating a beautiful piece of music to death in the practice room can sometimes lead a performer from loving it to hating it in no time. I know plenty of professional performers who loathe and mock pieces like Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker and Handel’s Messiah just because they’ve played them too many times and find them boring.

Sometimes it’s those who are not educated in the field of music who have the greatest appreciation for it. To them it is some kind of mysterious magic; how can someone take something as static as a wooden instrument and make it sing and speak in such a moving way?

On that note, educated and studied musical scholars can often be the most critical of listeners, hearing the mistakes in performance and poor composition of harmonically challenged pieces. While being a learned musician may give you a deeper understanding of music, often it is the innocent or even ignorant who understand the true and deeper purpose and meaning of the music.

Composers did not write music for intellectuals only, but for the masses, for all people. Cooks don’t just cook for cooks, but for people to eat who will enjoy it whether or not they know the methods and techniques employed.

8. Listening to classical music will help you fall asleep.
Something that fascinates me is that massage therapists typically don’t use classical music as background music during a massage. Instead, there’s an entire genre of ethereal “massage music”--it’s like there’s a whole industry revolving around this dreamy, synthesized stuff. Okay, this is going to sound snobby, but because I’ve found typical massage music to be almost irritating, I’ve actually brung CDs of my own favorite, calming classical pieces to play that will edify rather than annoy me.

This statement though, that classical music will help you fall asleep, refers back to point number four in my previous post: all classical music sounds the same. I actually think there are very soothing and beautiful compositions and lullabies to which listening to would be far more effective than counting sheep. But it’s inaccurate to assume that all classical music creates this effect.

However, you might have to argue this point with that guy who always snores through every symphony concert you attend.

9. Only people who play classical music actually listen to it.
People who play orchestral instruments and music definitely tend to listen to more classical music than those who do not. Many people who don’t play classical music don’t listen to it because perhaps they have never even been exposed to it.

Exposure to orchestral music, then, is usually all it takes for one to develop an appreciation and love for the music. In my previous point (number eight), I established that one does not need to be trained or educated in the field of music to understand or enjoy it. I have developed a greater respect for people who don’t play classical music who listen to it and attend concerts because I appreciate their devotion and interest.

As a performer, if only players of classical music attended my performance, I would have a very small audience. I am so grateful for those who attend and listen to performances who have no musical background; these are those who are often most edified, impressed, and moved by the truly awesome power of refined music.

10. All classical music originates in Europe.
Most of time time the mention of classical music conjures up images of pink-cheeked men in powdered wigs and coats with shiny buttons. Okay. So it is true that Western classical music originated (note: past tense) in Europe. Western music notation with lines on a staff and notes written with rhythmic symbols were established in Europe in the 16th century.

What is amazing since the industrial and digital revolutions is that Western classical music began to spread across the globe not only on record, but in theory and compositional textbooks. In other words, the use of the musical staff and Western music theory became worldwide standards.

BUT what we can’t overlook is the entire genre of Middle Eastern and Eastern classical music. This is rich stuff! Eastern classical music is notated differently and composed with unique instrumentation. I can’t even begin to list the names of Asian and Middle Eastern instruments.

Beyond Eastern music, there is classical music composed by international composers from every nation. I encourage you to seek out and listen to a wider variety of classical music; there is just too much culture to be absorbed and too little time!


So while I do believe that to enjoy classical music a basic understanding of it can improve both an appreciation and sense of fulfillment when listening or playing it, I also believe that an extensive knowledge is definitely not necessary. Classical music is for everyone.

So if you’re one who always opts for pop over classical, try giving the classics a chance! I GUARANTEE you’ll find something you’ll love.

It’s just that good.


December 28, 2012 at 08:34 PM · The term 'classical music' has two meanings- the technical meaning refers to music composed between 1750 and 1820 but a more colloquial meaning refers to 'concert music' or Western music composed from the medieval period to the present. I think the author is writing about the latter.

December 28, 2012 at 08:35 PM · The sonic appearance of classical music is way more gentle than modern music forms like Rock, Dance, Electronic, etc. The signal of the music itself is more smooth, at least in most cases. Even by looking at the soundwaves, it is clear that the sheer sonic output is not as saturated, the frequencies have less of a crazy dynamic change. Classical music, at least usually, is less driven by prominent drum instruments, drums are rather used to accent things. Your general statement of "classical music is not relaxing" seems to me as ambiguous as its challenged counter-statement. Saying "In fact, rather than feeling relaxed when I listen to these pieces, I find myself distracted from the tasks at hand, absorbed by the excitement and motion in these rich compositions. I have trouble treating most of the greatest masterpieces as “background” music that might relax me." proves nothing, but expresses your personal and individual opinion. While I agree that there is so much exciting classical music, and that I don't really relax during many of those pieces, the general statement I think still counts. To the common person, classical music is way more relaxing than the typical modern music production. Using a personal opinion and experience as the foundation of your argument to counter a general misconception doesn't seem too valid to me.

December 28, 2012 at 11:08 PM · Hi Michael,

The term "classical music" is used in modern times (ie. the times in which we live) as a genre classification for radio stations, i-Tunes, music stations on airplanes, satellite radio, etc etc. This is a widely accepted use of this term, by the general population and by "classical" musicians, who most of the time play a lot more music than music of just the "Classic" period.

Calling someone out for using the term "classical music" to refer to music that stretches from Renaissance to modern instead of to music that refers particularly to the Classic Period -- well, I find it to be a bit petty! People who use this term are not "ignorant people"! Get over it!


December 29, 2012 at 03:46 PM · I appreciated #7 on the list. Most of my family and friends are not the most knowledgeable regarding classical music but do enjoy and evening at a classical performance with me. My brother is a rock/metal guitarist and will tell you that of all the concerts he and I attended together it was the classical performances he loved the most! :)

December 29, 2012 at 06:50 PM · Language is always contextual. Many words have more than one "correct" meaning, depending on the context. The author is using "classical" completely correctly--and precisely--within the context her article establishes.

A "classicist" would object to the term being used of music at all, since, within that context, the word applies exclusively to a relatively brief period of Graeco-Roman history/culture--but within THAT context, it has an even more precise meaning, applying to a yet shorter period of Greek art.

December 29, 2012 at 08:16 PM · OK, I take it back. I'm not too stubborn to admit when I'm wrong. The only reason it grinds my gears a little is when people say "oh I don't like classical music" when they have no idea all that's out there. I wasn't meaning to accuse you all of being ignorant, but there are a lot of people out there who heard some Haydn one time, decided they didn't care for it and therefore dismiss the entire world of western art music because of that.

I'm sorry for being so grumpy about it.

December 29, 2012 at 07:59 PM · I think the main point here, as in many areas of art, science, humanities, whatever area of study you can think of, there is a tendency to make sweeping generalisations. Once these are established in the public domain it is very hard for people to operate outside them. There is a percieved expectation that one's peer group, whoever they may be, would frown upon anything that doesn't agree with the particular generalisation that this group has assimilated into its culture.

This is 'thinking inside the box' being subject to the restrictions of the percieved attitudes and opinions of others, whether real or imagined, which for some is comforting, as it negates the need for too much self criticism or deep thought.

Thank heavens for those who can think 'outside the box' and decide for them selves which forms of music they can appreciate, without worrying about what others think. In fact many people would be a lot less worried about what people think of them if they realised how seldom they did!

Such people as Tolga Kashif who arranged the music of Queen into a symphonic work, and the writers of countless popular records that have classical, baroque, or romantic themes at their origin show that there is plenty of room for common ground across the whole musical spectrum.

The harder nut to crack for me is the need to understand and promote those musical forms that originate outside the western theatre, so that we can begin to work to broaden our geographical appreciation, (maybe sometimes even enjoyment, which isn't the same thing) in the way we have woven the historical threads of musical evolution.

Meanwhile how about a list of cross overs?

How about "The Beatles Seasons" (4 Concerti Grossi) Released by Capella Istropolitana & Soloists Of The Baroque Chamber Orchestra in 1987?

All by myself.. obviously taken from Rachmaninov...

What else can you think of??

December 30, 2012 at 03:08 AM · People often ask me how I, a teenager, can appreciate classical music when it's so relaxing. Just that makes me want to play Hindemith really loudly in their face. Actually, a girl about my age once asked me, "How can you like classical music? I don't even fall asleep listening to it because I die of boredom first." I happened to conveniently have my laptop on me, so I opened iTunes and played the opening of Shostakovich's fourth with the volume all the way up. It was very satisfying.

This article has been archived and is no longer accepting comments.

Facebook Twitter YouTube Instagram Email is made possible by...

Shar Music
Shar Music: Protect your instrument this winter

Pirastro Strings
Pirastro Strings

JR Judd Violins
JR Judd Violins

Starling-DeLay Symposium
Starling-DeLay Symposium

Los Angeles Philharmonic
LA Phil

Dimitri Musafia, Master Maker of Violin and Viola Cases
Dimitri Musafia, Master Maker of Violin and Viola Cases Shopping Guide Shopping Guide

ARIA International Summer Academy

Study with the Elizabeth Faidley Studio

Metzler Violin Shop

Southwest Strings

Bobelock Cases

Johnson String Instrument/Carriage House Violins

Jargar Strings

Bay Fine Strings Violin Shop


Los Angeles Violin Shop


String Masters

Nazareth Gevorkian Violins

Laurie's Books

Discover the best of in these collections of editor Laurie Niles' exclusive interviews. Interviews Volume 1 Interviews Volume 1, with introduction by Hilary Hahn Interviews Volume 2 Interviews Volume 2, with introduction by Rachel Barton Pine