5 Reasons You Should Listen to Old Music

Encountering art from many eras enhances our lives.

In grade school, my music teacher required us to listen to twenty minutes of classical music a week. We dutifully turned on the classical radio station every day in the car, but I remember it felt like taking a dose of medicine.

Many people use “classical” as a synonym for “nerdy,” “difficult,” or at best, “relaxing.” These are unfortunate and narrow associations, considering that the term “classical” encompasses an unbelievable range of styles, from the Gregorian chant of the ancient church to twentieth-century crowd-pleasers like Copland’s Hoe-Down.

Since “classical music” can be confused with “music from the classical period (1730-1820),” I’ll refer to it here as “old music” or “art music.” Here are some reasons you should give it a second try — and maybe a third and a fourth.

Myth #1: Old music is “relaxing” (read “boring”).

Truth: Much of the music that has survived the decades and centuries is exciting, if you can give it your full attention. More than anyone else, the Baroque and Romantic composers knew that music can be a vehicle for conveying heights and depths of emotion. Try Edward Elgar’s cello concerto for haunting, sorrowful music; for joyful music, the final movement of Beethoven’s 5th symphony.

Myth #2: Old music is outdated. Maybe it spoke to those old folks, but we’re modern and different.

Truth: Art is more likely than anything else to draw together people of different genders, personalities, and generations. Many an artist has believed that our ability to apprehend beauty is something we have in common with each other and with our ancestors. If you’re human, the language of music is one you can understand, if you’re willing to give it a chance.

Myth #3: Old music is too difficult for people who weren’t trained in “high art.”

Truth: You don’t have to be brainy to appreciate beauty; you just have to be human. I ask my young violin students to tell me “mood words” for the phrases in their music, and they often astonish me with apt (and elaborate) moods and stories. But I shouldn’t be surprised that some of them feel their music better than I do. It’s not through our brains that art moves us, but through a different route: the imagination. Art is demanding, in the sense that it exercises your imagination. You may not be immediately feeling the emotions expressed in music, but you can learn what such feelings might be like–just as, when you watch MacBeth sink under the guilt of his murders, you might imagine feelings of despair that aren’t your own. By allowing us to rehearse a range of human emotions, art schools our feelings. But you have to be willing to step outside your current, real-life mood, to enter imaginatively into the art you encounter.

Myth #4: You have your music preferences; let me stick with mine.

Truth: Old music isn’t better than new music; but if you want to get an emotional education — to feel in a more deeply human way — you have to be willing to expand your tastes and explore the greats from other eras too.

Myth #5: I don’t have time to try new (old) kinds of music.

Truth: It doesn’t have to take much time. Set aside twenty minutes a day for exploring art music you’ve never heard before. But there is one rule: don’t multi-task. Listen without distractions, or go to concerts where you just listen, as you would watch a movie or read a novel. Start with the links above, and then expand. A little Wikipedia research on the music and composer can go a long way. Try it for a few weeks, or months, and report back in the comments. I’d love to know the results of your experiment!

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