I began writing This Week’s Music in May 2015 at the suggestion of my college roommate.
Now, over five years later, This Week’s Music has subscribers from all over the world. My roommate’s curiosity has become a weekly tradition for a global community.
We’ve covered a lot of ground since 2015. We’ve explored every nook and cranny of the musical repertoire, revisited timeless classics, and challenged ourselves with new ideas. We’ve learned about the different eras of music (Baroque, Classical, Romantic, Modern), the tendency of sonatas to recapitulate their original themes, and the fact that Handel’s Messiah isn’t actually a Christmas piece. We’ve worked through a wide variety of series: Bach’s Brandenburg Concerti, Chopin’s Ballades, and even a Top 25 Greatest Hits list.
So after all this, it may seem strange to finally ask the question we probably should have started with: why listen to this stuff?
It’s no secret that classical music isn’t exactly in vogue. Most members of modern culture view it as outdated, boring, and irrelevant. The project of This Week’s Music – to make classical accessible – is therefore an uphill climb, to say the least.
I would argue, however, that there are many excellent reasons to listen to classical music. I believe it holds value for the development of the mind, the cultivation of the tastes, and the expression of intellectual curiosity.
So without further ado, here are top five reasons you should listen to classical music.
First, classical music sharpens the mind. It is an intellectual endeavor. Try mastering Bach’s counterpoint. Or figuring out the harmonic roller coaster in a Shostakovich string quartet. Even the most devoted PhDs haven’t been able to fully grasp those things. The intellectual firepower – and sometimes pure genius – necessary to write a Franz Liszt piano sonata is simply beyond comprehension for most of us mere mortals. Listening to it therefore requires intellectual engagement and effort.
This intellectual aspect is notably absent from modern music, which is harmonically, melodically, and organizationally simple. It commonly revolves around a grand total of three or four chords, repeated in the same cycle with no variation. As in intellectual endeavor, modern music stands no chance next to a 100-musician Mahler symphony, a literal tour-de-force of human emotion and experience.
Second, classical music expands the tastes. The variety in classical music is unduplicated by any other genre of music. There is almost no similarity between Thomas Ades (currently alive) and Archangelo Corelli (A.D. 1660), yet both composers are within the realm of classical music. This incredible breadth challenges the listener to expand their mind and explore different aspects of musicality.
Modern music, on the other hand, has almost no variety. As mentioned above, most modern music involves only a few simple chords rotated over and over again in the same pattern. The voice of the singer changes, but not much else. Don’t get me wrong – modern music can be great. We love The Beatles for a reason. My point is simply that modern music cannot hope to offer us the level of intellectual and aesthetic engagement that classical music can.
Third, classical music makes us attuned to beauty. There is nothing like the heart-breaking opening of Tchaikovsky’s piano trio (https://thisweeksmusic.com/2019/04/27/tchaikovsky-piano-trio/) or the delicacy of a Chopin Nocturne (https://thisweeksmusic.com/2020/03/21/top-25-22-nocturne/). Classical music can transport you to other worlds, as in the case of the magical Moonlight Sonata (https://thisweeksmusic.com/2020/02/01/top-25-16-moonlight-sonata/) or the world-famous Nutcracker ballet. It can move us to tears, as is often the case with Brahms’ Requiem (https://thisweeksmusic.com/2018/12/01/brahms-requiem/). This is the kind of music that shows you what beauty is. And I’m not alone in saying so – luminaries from Galileo to Albert Einstein have said the same.
Certain types of modern music, on the other hand, often display vulgarity and baseness that are memorable primarily because of their lack of beauty. There are sadly a great many examples to choose from.
Fourth, classical music ties us back to the great minds and great traditions of the past, on whose shoulders we stand. In this way it provides us with timeless wisdom. Dvorak’s Slavonic Dances paint a picture of his beloved Czech countryside; Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake sweeps us into the legendary world of Russian folklore; and Smetana’s Ma Vlast helps us understand the pride that many earlier civilizations had in their national heritage. By listening to music from all of these great composers, we gain a deeper appreciation for the beauty that has come before us. And appreciating the beauty that has come before us gives us a solid foundation on which to create beauty in the present.
Fifth and finally, classical music is rare. Given the intellectual and musical brilliance needed to compose, for instance, a 60-instrument symphony, composers who can speak to us through classical music are relatively few and far between. For every Beethoven, there are a hundred or even a thousand Britney Spears.
Classical music is worth our time and investment. It sharpens our minds, expands our tastes, attunes our minds to beauty, and connects us with the great minds of the past. Beethoven was correct to say that it can change the world, but I think it’s more important work is within each one of us. Little by little, it can bring us closer to an understanding of beauty that can, in turn, help us create beauty in the world around us.
See you in three weeks (I’ll be on vacation for the next two weeks) for a new series on Chopin’s Nocturnes for solo piano!