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The Transformative Power of Great Classical Music

Lyndon Henry is a writer, editor, freelance investigative journalist and analyst, and transportation planning consultant.

Woodwinds, Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra, 2017 concert.

Woodwinds, Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra, 2017 concert.

Almost all music—popular, country, folk, ethnic, jazz, classical, whatever—has the potential to energize, relax, uplift, or soothe us ... to resonate with us in some way. But I've come to realize that great works of classical music have something beyond that. They have a very special kind of power, an entirely greater order of magnitude that connects not just with our immediate emotions, but with our innermost, core being.

Pop Music Is Short and Sweet

This is reflected in how classical music is structured and presented in contrast with other types of music. The various forms of "popular" types of music—pop, rock, heavy metal, hip-hop, country & western, Latin, etc.—consist of relatively short, simple songs of about 3-5 minutes with a typical verse-hook-chorus-bridge-form.

They typically express a strong feeling over a personal life event or situation, often involving a relationship with a love interest, or perhaps just feelings, familiar to all of us, of joy, sadness, wistfulness, happiness, etc. Pop-music audiences almost always feel like standing up, swaying, dancing, jumping to each song and, of course, singing along or screaming with delight.

Classical Music Is Dense and Savory

In contrast, classical works may take 20-30 minutes each to perform, or an hour or more, while the audience is expected to remain seated and to stay quiet and listen. A symphony orchestra concert may last about two hours, usually with an intermission about halfway through; likewise for other classical performances, such as ballets, operas, and recitals (performances of smaller ensembles or soloists).

And the audience may be listening to compositions that are hundreds of years old! What's happening?

An Extraordinary Experience

Whether it's a live concert or a recording, people listen to classical music for various reasons. For some, it might be the appeal of pleasant, relaxing background music. Others may find the combinations of melodies, motifs, rhythms, and other elements exciting, or enchanting, or uplifting, or engaging in other ways. For some, attending a concert may be little more than a social event!

But for many listeners, the experience of great music can be extraordinarily profound, sublime, wonderful. The preeminent, distinguishing capability of great classical music is its power to connect—to communicate—intimately, with one's psyche, or "spirit" – i.e., the rather amazing complexity of cognitive and emotional functioning, and motivating animus, that seems to define and constitute each of us as a sentient being.

Portal to a Magical Realm

The experience may happen especially for certain exceptionally beautiful musical pieces that particularly "resonate" with you. In any case, for the individual, this extraordinary connection may seem like you've pushed a secret button, or found an enchanted key to unlock a hidden portal into a magical realm. Even while you're sitting in the audience listening to a symphony orchestra, or an opera, or a string quartet!

It may come as a "lightning-bolt" kind of experience, perhaps like encountering soaring happiness (equivalent to falling in love) or another profound emotion. You may get goosebumps, or your eyes may fill with tears. Perhaps it'll "take your breath away", or your heart may "skip a beat" ... you may feel like the music is carrying you trillions of light-years away, to the far reaches of the universe ... or perhaps into another dimension entirely.

Enchanting Power of Beautiful Music

Those are all effects that particularly beautiful works of classical music might have on the listener. They have a power that seems to come from a mysterious source. I know this power. I've experienced it, and I’m sure others have, too. And without cannabis, narcotics, hallucinogens, shamans, or starships!

Sublime beauty is the essence of great music. Interviewed on U.S. National Public Radio in the fall of 2021, at the age of 107, the renowned French classical pianist Colette Maze explained her love for great music (specifically mentioning the composers Robert Schumann and Claude Debussy): "Music is an affective language, a poetic language. In music there is everything – nature, emotion, love, revolt, dreams; it's like a spiritual food."

Like a Spiritual Food

Many lovers of classical music associate their experiences with magic, enchantment, mystery. For example, here's a sampling of responses to the questions "Why do you listen to classical music? What do you love about it?" and "What makes classical music beautiful?" posted over the past several years on the Quora online forum:

  • A "mom" and "social worker": "I love that classical music most always brings me to a fantastic, magical natural place."
  • A respondent who "Listened to Classical Music since early childhood": "I do enjoy other genres but classical somehow touches me on a level that’s almost impossible to describe. It somehow transcends any mood I’m in and it expresses vast amounts of emotions without becoming too harsh to listen to. I also quite enjoy that many classical pieces are long. Due to their length, I feel like they're able to tell a story … in more detail than other genres."

A Lively and Abstract Conversation

  • A "pianist, composer": "I can remember ... a time in my very early childhood when I was exceedingly enthusiastic about all kinds of music. ... . But the peculiar magic of classical music has never been lost. ... There was nothing wrong with the music my folks and I listened to on the radio or television, but it wasn’t like this: such colors, such long, winding melodies, and such a lively and abstract conversation embedded within the sorcery."
  • A former Music Professor: "classical music ... goes beyond the surface of our experience to touch the emotions, intellect, and even physical responses deeply. Notably, classical pieces engage a person over a longer period of time. This fact makes it less accessible immediately, but makes a greater impact over time. I would also assert that it helps personal growth by increasing attention span and the capacity to follow musical ideas as they are presented, repeated, and evolve over the course of a piece."

The Power to Transform

I used to think of great works of music as "telling a story", but I believe now that a more accurate metaphor is that they "take us on a journey". If you succeed in fully connecting with it, the powerful beauty of great music will enable you to transcend your ordinary reality (at least a little) and, in the process, to undergo a personal transformation.

To do this, you must find that "magic key" that unlocks your connection to classical works that particularly appeal to you. To find that "key" requires, almost always, that you listen intently to the music, allowing it to transport you on its "journey".

Finding That Magic Key

When I was in my adolescence, classical music began to exert a powerful influence on me, an effect which many decades later I came to recognize as transformative. I don't know if everyone does, or can, experience this, but it's rather mysterious (somewhat like the curiously "magical" behavior of quantum particles) – mystifying and wonderful at the same time. For me, the outcome was to transform the core of my being, my life, where I was going, how I conducted my life.

I hope this perspective will guide you to approach classical music with a greater understanding of the beauty and power it potentially holds for you. Perhaps (by listening to an especially beautiful composition) you already possess that "enchanted key" and have unlocked that "portal" into that other-worldly realm. In any case, may you find your way to your own amazing musical journeys.

© 2022 Lyndon Henry