Why is Classical Music Difficult to Listen to?

Why is classical music said to be out of touch with today’s society? Perhaps recent research into reading styles can shed light on the subject. A recent article in the Washington Post investigates how browsing the internet may be altering our general reading skills. The article can essentially be summarized by Andrew J. Dillon, the dean of the University of Texas’ School of Information.

“We’re spending so much time touching, pushing, linking, scrolling, and jumping through text that when we sit down with a novel, your daily habits of jumping, clicking, linking is just ingrained in you.”

It makes sense, right? If you spend the majority of your time reading one way, of course it’s going to spill over into the the other things that you read, unless you make a conscious effort to the contrary. Well, what if the same is true of our listening styles? I recently wrote about a concert review by a classical concert neophyte who had a bad first viewing of the Cleveland Orchestra, despite his best efforts. What if he had such a difficult time with the music because his brain was hardwired to listen in a way that wasn’t conducive to the music? If the majority of his music listening is broken up into little hook-filled, five-minute sound-bytes, than listening to the 15-20 minute movements of Mahler and Brahms would definitely be a shock to his listening skills.

Music in the modern world is almost more a matter of function than anything else, and both producer and consumer are guilty. Audiences have their driving music, and their shower music, and their homework music. The most pandering individuals in the popular music industry make their music revolve around a heavy beat so it will be good for parties, or make the melodies as plain as possible, so it will be easy to sing along with. Now I’m not calling popular music the next great evil in our society; I listen to it as much as the next person (OK, probably a lot less, but I do still listen to it!). However given the above perspective, perhaps the best things that orchestras could do to pump up their attendance numbers would be to install shower stalls, and work cubicles in their concert halls. Then, perhaps our young concert-goer from the linked article would have had a listening environment that his mind would have been accustomed to.

The idea is ludicrous, of course, because we know that music cannot have functionality as its core purpose. Music is at its best when it touches us emotionally, or experientially. That’s the beauty of music – the best of it serves as a sort of time-life capsule, and enables us to experience things that we otherwise would have no access to. Listening to music in a functional way, or only when multi-tasking, robs it of its best qualities.

The next time you’ve got a spare minute, sit down with a good record and just listen. Your brain will thank you for it!


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