Speculating on distaste for classical music

Photo by Sara Schmitt

Benjamin Zander, conductor, piano teacher and captivating orator, breaks society into three distinct groups.

The first group includes the people who absolutely adore classical music, who go to the symphony and have their children play a classical instrument. The second is those who don’t mind it— “a little Vivaldi in the background doesn’t do any harm”—as they kick back after a long work day, and finally the third group is people who never listen to classical music and are indifferent to the genre.

However, I think there’s a fourth category.

I don’t think I need to convince anyone that a good portion of adolescents in today’s society believe that classical music is stuffy and old-fashioned. Even in my own experience, when posed with the question, what is your favorite genre of music, my response, “classical music” is often met with either a scoff or a snicker at my seeming pretentiousness. Maybe I am a little pretentious and old-fashioned at times, and people can snicker and scoff all they want at that, but to depreciate classical music is ignorant.

The ignorance has turned into something of an automatic distaste, a conditioning effect inducing a general negative opinion about classical music.

In a Ted Talk on the transformative power of classical music, Zander described an interaction with a boy when he was working with students on conflict resolution—these students were your stereotypical inner city street kids, tough exterior and seemingly tough interior.

In his usual routine as he demonstrated in his Ted Talk, Zander asked the group of kids to imagine a person in each of their lives whom they loved and who was no longer with them. Zander then went on to play Chopin’s Prelude in E Minor on the piano.

The next morning one of the students approached Zander and explained that his brother had been shot the year prior. “I didn’t cry for him,” explained the boy according to Zander. “I’ve never listened to classical music in my life, but last night when you played that piece he was the one I was thinking about and I felt the tears streaming down my face, and it felt really good to cry for my brother.”

So what’s the deal? Why is there a portion of society that detests classical music? Is it because we’re afraid of being touched by raw emotion? That we might find it silly to be moved to tears by a few notes on a page? Or that we don’t want to put the effort to reach that raw emotion?

As a person coming from a background of classical music, it’s probably unfair for me to come to that conclusion, but it’s unfathomable to me that people can be so put off by a genre as rich and powerful as classical music.

Perhaps the lack of lyrics makes immersing oneself in music difficult. It’s analogous to falling into a good book. When you read a book and conjure visuals in your mind, you allow yourself to be more invested and more immersed in the subject, and therefore access a greater depth of personal emotion. It’s a depth of emotion that perhaps movies (or music with lyrics) can’t reach.

This isn’t to say that classical music is any better than another genre. Everyone is entitled to his or her own preferences, but to rule out a genre for its reputation for being snobbish and pretentious is not only ignorant but also hypocritical.

While it might take a bit more effort than listening to Ed Sheeran or Alt-J, sit down and allow yourself to be vulnerable to Beethoven’s pastoral symphony, Mozart Concerto No. 5, or Haydn’s Violin Concerto in C major—enjoy the complexity and nuances. No matter what your current tastes in music are, in the words of Zander, “classical music is for everybody.”