The music industry robs a great art of its power by selling classical as just soothing backdrop sounds, writes Jennifer Gersten.
If classical music really sounded as it's described in radio ads, its composers would have fallen asleep while writing it.
"You've found an oasis - a place where you can get away from all the craziness," one intones. "Take some time to relax."
"Calming and refreshing," another declares.
On streaming services such as 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 favourite, with three million views. The pieces on this playlist, Debussy's Clair de lune among them, reward attention, but their presentation implies they have all the artistic heft of cough syrup. The album The Most Relaxing Classical Music in the Universe has inspired a legion of imitators to be found on Amazon, including The Ultimate Most Relaxing Classical Music in the Universe.
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 stand as 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 such as Vivaldi's The Four Seasons are not played to be heard and felt, but rather as a precursor to a nap.
This is an 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 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, boring, or titillating, or a blight on the senses, and then change our minds, and change them again. Insisting classical music is a proxy for a day at the spa attempts to prescribe 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 greying of the classical music audience is a concern for arts organisations and radio stations. 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 music as a balm for anxiety thus might seem like a way to lower the bar of entry for music widely perceived as inaccessible.
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 thousand-dollar skin serums. The drive to simplify this music as "relaxing", then, is a cousin to the related practice of using it 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.
This stereotype persists even as the landscape of classical and new music offerings has become increasingly varied and open-minded, in part thanks to enterprising chamber groups such as Eighth Blackbird or the International Contemporary Ensemble, which are helping to bring new voices in classical music to a broader public.
We should also be wary of the idea that classical music is more spiritually elevated than other genres. Listening to Bach is better for you than listening to Ariana Grande, this thinking goes, because Bach is more intellectual, stimulating and deserving of contemplation. This attitude ultimately fuels the drive to simplify classical music as "relaxing". But if the impression of classical is that it is hard to comprehend, then people are going to interact with it at a remove. Not enough energy is spent on encouraging people to come to the music with few preconceptions and feel it on their own terms: as arousing, repulsive, lulling, and everything in between.