Though Halloween is past, if anyone still wants to dress up as a classical music composer, one must take note of their very distinct manner of sitting to pose for portraits. Heavy-browed and with shoulders pushed back, they have a way of gazing soulfully into some far-off distance, or perhaps looking straight ahead in a very frank manner. Their lofty features betray both artistic sensitivities and creative genius, and in their eyes we can see some all-knowing nature, devising melodies and masterpieces by the second. But perhaps the most prominent aspects of a musician or composer living a couple hundred years ago are their stance, flair and poise, the affluence of the clothes they wear.
Here is a bit of a dilemma: when we look at the world of classical music, we look at a world that could not be more different from ours. It is not just time that stands between us and the great names of Western Classical music, but vast differences in social class, political belief and lifestyle. In the very image that springs to mind when we think of classical music is an invariable association with aristocracy, opulence and the like, an image of stern-faced middle-aged men with now regressive and controversial ideas. It goes without saying, however, that classical music offers more than mere pretension to listeners.
Indeed, an appreciation of classical music poses quite a few problems pertaining to elitism and eurocentricity. For many today, liking classical music is largely related to being able to play it, and here is a visible divide. Playing an instrument is a costly pastime, with the prices of lessons and instruments considered. Many claim that classical music is inherently elitist; the most influential composers having written music exclusively for the courts and aristocracy of their time. Now, though classical music is widely available online, there still lingers a connection between those works of music and an idea of fundamental inaccessibility.
But the more we treat classical music as an art form detached from us, the more we distance ourselves from its moving, genuinely artistic piece s— concertos, for example, are composed of fifteen musical instruments playing at once, and classical music offers multitudes of complexity and skill, creating tension and beauty — but more musically complex doesn’t always mean better.
It is easy nowadays to find a plethora of reasons for why we ought to listen to the various nocturnes, symphonies and concertos of the Western world’s greatest composers. We have read that listening to classical music boosts productivity and brain function, that it makes us appear more cultured, sophisticated, and intellectual. Yet, at the heart of the matter, the question of liking music, whether it's from the Baroque Era of the 17th Century or Taylor Swift’s most recently released album, is all to do with preference. Truly experiencing music is an entirely subjective event, and every time we interact with it, we interact a little with ourselves, too.
Listening to Chopin recalls vivid memories of being ten and watching my older brother play his nocturnes on the piano during a quiet night at home and me being unable to put into words just quite what I felt about music that was both beautiful and understated. In the same way I feel a certain tightness in my chest when I listen to classical music which reminds me so much of my childhood, I listen to Taylor Swift and am reminded of the now trivial crises of growing up a girl.
Because the best art transcends itself and its makers to reach out to us, it is not the compositional complexities, the skill involved, the amount of time, money and effort that make classical music still hold value centuries later. If we can listen to it and feel moved by its richness, its multitudes of emotion and depth, then it has value; its place in the modern world is still intact and important. And so I would recommend that you listen to everything, with no concern as to what may appear elitist, pseudo-intellectual, sophisticated and the like. If any work of music, classical or not, resonates with us, it remains irrevocably important.
Illustration by Isabelle Holloway