All-too-easy listening

The music industry sells classical as soothing background music — robbing a great art of its power.

All-too-easy listening

The music industry sells classical as soothing background music — robbing a great art of its power.
By Jennifer Gersten

If classical music really sounded the way it’s described in radio ads, composers would have fallen asleep while writing it. “You’ve found an oasis — a place where you can get away from all the craziness,” intones WCLV, a station in Lorain, Ohio, in a recent promotion. “Take some time to relax.” “Calming and refreshing,” KBAQ, a Phoenix station, declares. “Rise above it all,” the District’s own WETA proclaims. These stations regularly offer more raucous selections than these exhortations suggest, but they are advertising themselves as musical sanctuaries. The San Francisco-based station KDFC even offers a daily “island of sanity,” including slow pieces by Mozart, Debussy and Bach, in the interest of tempering rush hour woes.

Outlook • Perspective
Jennifer Gersten, a doctoral student in violin performance at Stony Brook University, is an editor at Guernica and the winner of the 2018 Rubin Prize for Music Criticism. Follow @jenwgersten
Illustration by Johanna Goodman for The Washington Post; Orchestra photos by Getty Images

Across streaming services like YouTube and Spotify, countless videos and playlists suggest a quest for soporific supremacy. On YouTube, user HALIDONMUSIC’s “8 HOURS Classical Music for Sleeping” is a favorite, with 3 million views. The pieces on this playlist — Debussy’s “Clair de lune” and Ravel’s “Pavane pour une infante défunte” among them — reward attention, but their presentation implies they have all the artistic heft of NyQuil. The album “The Most Relaxing Classical Music in the Universe” has inspired a legion of imitators, including “The Ultimate Most Relaxing Classical Music in the Universe”; the two at least agree about the inclusion of Beethoven’s “Für Elise.”

Classical music, considered broadly, represents an irreducible font of sounds. The bristling harmonies of Claudio Monteverdi, cutting yowls of Leos Janacek and multidimensional textures of Maryanne Amacher offer powerful rejoinders to anyone tempted to assume that all of this music is the same, or similarly placid. But popular discussions promote the notion that it was invented to address a yawn shortage. Works like Beethoven’s “Moonlight” Sonata and Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons” are not played to be heard and felt, but rather as precursors to a nap.

Let the works on this playlist, spanning centuries and styles, lead you to new conclusions about the classical genre.

This is a deeply unsatisfying way to describe one of our most storied art forms. Even music that is superficially calm and slow can contain depth, tension and difficult themes. The industry sells classical music as a mellow monolith when it is in fact capable of stirring any and all emotions, serving any and all ends — divine and hellish. The way we talk about culture, any culture, shapes how we think about it, so we should not be so narrow in our choice of language.

A privilege of art is that our experiences will vary. We are at liberty to think that a work is soothing, or that it is boring, or titillating, or a blight upon the senses, and then to change our minds, and then to change our minds again. Insisting that classical music is a proxy for a day at the spa prescribes a proper reaction to this music before we have even begun to listen. Art yields its best results when we engage all our critical faculties, rather than confining our responses.

Every genre (save perhaps thrash metal) features works that many would consider relaxing. Monet’s impressionist haystacks and the Home Shopping Network could be described the same way. Why is classical music in particular the poster child for this feeling? One reason might be advertisers’ desperation about classical’s inability to draw large crowds. The graying of the classical music audience is a perennial concern for arts organizations and radio stations: According to a 2015 National Endowment for the Arts report, 45-to-64-year-olds had the highest rate of attendance at classical music performances a decade ago; by 2012, it was the 65-to-74-year-old cohort. So marketers are understandably hunting for concepts that might get more people to pay attention, even if those concepts come at the music’s expense. Selling classical as a balm for anxiety thus might seem like a way to lower the bar of entry for music widely perceived as inaccessible.

Illustration by Johanna Goodman for The Washington Post; Orchestra photos by Getty Images

But the “relaxing” pitch is loaded. Instead of casting classical music as multifarious, this language presents it as a form of self-care, serving the same function as hundred-dollar candles and thousand-dollar skin serums. The drive to simplify this music as “relaxing,” then, is a cousin to the related practice of using classical music as a shorthand for class privilege. Our culture has long envisioned classical music as entertainment for the wealthy: People with money don their Sunday best to doze through renditions of the same 10 symphonies by the same 10 composers who all look the same.

This stereotype persists even as the landscape of classical and new-music offerings has become more varied and open-minded, thanks in part to enterprising chamber groups like Eighth Blackbird and the International Contemporary Ensemble, which are helping to bring new voices in classical music to a broader public. The idea that classical music is always relaxing shares a problem with the idea that it is merely entertainment for the upper crust: Both seek to put classical music into a padlocked box, when a more enlightened view of the music would come from encouraging us to to think about it for ourselves.

I am a musician, and I am currently trying, with mixed results, to render a listenable account of J.S. Bach’s second sonata for solo violin. One of the greatest composers of all time, Bach is nevertheless a consummate target of the anti-stress campaign. It’s true, his “Air on the G String” is the musical equivalent of cucumber circles and a massage, and the third movement of the sonata I am playing, the Andante, meets some expectations of how a relaxing work should sound. It is on the slower side and features a sweet melody, characteristics that might even seem divine on the occasions that I am deft enough to play it in tune. The fourth movement, however, comes from a vastly different sonic world, zipping through a number of dynamic shifts and surprising colors. No easy characterization of this work suffices, certainly not any offered by classical music’s misguided promoters.

We should also be wary of the idea that classical music is more spiritually elevated than any other genre (“Rise above it all”), as though angels had smooched every score. Listening to Bach is better for you than listening to Ariana Grande, this thinking goes, because Bach’s music is somehow more intellectual, stimulating and deserving of contemplation. This attitude, too, fuels the drive to oversimplify classical music — so it seems less daunting. But if the prevailing impression of classical is that it is hard to comprehend, then people are going to interact with it at a remove. Too much energy is wasted on futile attempts to convince people that classical music is uniquely worth our time, and not enough is spent on encouraging people to come to the music with few preconceptions and feel it on their own terms: as arousing, repulsive, lulling, everything in between.

Many people admire and appreciate classical music for its ability to provide a sense of peace, and that is nothing to snub. Yet we should think harder about how the language we choose shapes how people experience this art form — especially those encountering it for the first time. Music will forever be an object of worship for its ability to call forth and defy descriptive language; our fascination with it stems in part from how there is never enough to say. If we push too hard to circumscribe classical music’s power, we may put it to sleep forever.


Credits: By Jennifer Gersten.