Classical Music: Relaxing or Stimulating…or Both?

The most important classical music presentation at this year’s Public Radio Program Directors conference involved the results of a survey conducted by Coleman Insights, presented by Joe Eskola, Director of Research at Minnesota Public Radio and American Public Media.  It was a lengthy presentation, and I’ve delve into it in more detail in a later post, but I can distill some of the more pertinent findings here with a few bullet points:

  • The greatest potential for classical music audience growth is in a younger and ethnically diverse demographic.
  • Of those that DO listen, there is a strong general satisfaction with what stations are offering.
  • Relaxation, stress relief, and mood improvement were cited overwhelmingly by the respondents as being the top benefits of listening to classical music.
  • There is an subtle, yet very important difference, between listening to classical music for the purpose of relaxation and listening to relaxing classical music.

There were plenty of other findings as well, including how terrestrial FM/AM radio fares versus online streaming services and YouTube, and how stations can market themselves better, but for the purposes of this post, those last two bullet points are hugely important.  As a musician myself, I’ve been guilty of bristling at the idea of classical music being “relaxing” or “soothing.”  In the face of such overwhelming data, however, it’s impossible NOT to change my thinking – at least a little bit.

Being that Minnesota Public Radio sponsored this survey, it’s not surprising that in August, this guest post appeared on its website: Ten times when classical music can help you relax.  In this article, guest writer Sheila Regan sketches out ten scenarios (many of which evoke posts on this satirical blog) where classical music is a helpful accompaniment: La Boheme while cooking, Chopin during yoga or meditation, Gregorian chant while driving (SERENITY NOW!), “some nice piano sonatas or string quartets” to fall asleep, and even Beethoven to help you during tax season.

Inevitably, the purists were not happy with this post.  To date, there is only one comment on it, but it was very direct.  “eric2001” writes:

Yes, I listen to classical music when I’m driving in my car and cleaning my house. But it would be the antithesis of relaxing for me to try to listen to great music while having a serious conversation. I couldn’t do it because I’m actually LISTENING to the music. It’s not some blur of beautiful sounds in the background. I am listening; I am thinking; I am feeling; and those are actual activities. To try to read Tolstoy or even the newspaper, while listening to the Brandenburg Concertos sounds is multitasking for me and definitely not relaxing. Stravinsky does not relax me; Mahler does not relax me; Bach does not relax me; Sibelius does not relax me. But they feed my soul like nothing else can; they stimulate every cell in my body and mind and make me feel human and very alive. Maybe great music can help people relax but I doubt that many composers had that purpose in mind. Perhaps one of the reasons we are all so desperate to relax is because we are constantly multitasking. Try listening really listening; maybe it is only one movement of Beethoven’s 3rd; you will feel; I don’t know how you will feel but you will feel something and that is a rich experience. I don’t want great music to become background elevator music in my life.

And MPR, to its credit, offered another guest post just a few days ago offering a similar opinion.  Patrick Castillo, an artistic administrator and composer based in Brooklyn, offered us Beethoven didn’t write the Eroica Symphony for your yoga class.  To which I say, “of COURSE he didn’t!  He wrote it for Napoleon, then got pissed at him for going on a crazy conquering crusade, and only THEN did he decide to dedicate it to your yoga class!”  Kidding, of course.  But the point Mr. Castillo makes is valid.  I, too, doubt that composers wrote their greatest masterpieces with the goal of them becoming background music.  However, I think Mr. Castillo isn’t considering the fact that in Beethoven’s world, we didn’t have electricity, let alone radios, CD players, and the internet.  He sums up his argument by saying this:

…It’s all too frequently that we encounter our leading cultural institutions accepting the “classical music for relaxation” approach. And it’s disheartening to see — whether in concert or radio programming, recording companies’ decisions, educational strategies, what have you — faith in the power of the art form thus sacrificed, as if only promising better grades or sounder sleep will draw in new listeners.

Advocating for active and engaged arts participation is daunting enough of a challenge (and among the artistic disciplines, it’s been rightly noted that we in classical music are “perhaps the most prevalent Cassandras in the arts”). We need our advocates — composers, performers, educators, critics, orchestras and other institutions, and Lord yes, our radio stations — trumpeting what’s so vital in this music, inspiring the public to explore the repertoire and discover its power, so transformational that legions of us have dedicated our lives to creating it, sharing it, and supporting it. We need the advocates of our art form to grab us by the collar, excitedly, urgently, You’ve GOT to hear this-ly — not with the meek suggestion that perhaps one might enjoy some wallpaper Mozart while putting the dishes away.

I wholeheartedly agree with Mr. Castillo’s assessment about grabbing listeners by their collars (I assume he means figuratively) and being genuinely excited about the music we present.  It’s something I’ve striven for in my own hosting since I’ve been in the public radio business, and I like to think that I’ve been successful at it.  But I think that the notion that marketing classical music radio as a vehicle for relaxation is “sacrificing” the power of the art form is painting with too broad of a stroke.  And given the overwhelming evidence presented in the Coleman Insights survey, the suggestion that “perhaps one might enjoy some wallpaper Mozart while putting the dishes away” is not “meek” at all, it’s actually very accurate.

Mr. Castillo’s post attracted a great deal engagement in the comments section, and many of the comments supported his thesis, but the one that stood out to me most of all was written by “boottee,” and it was one of a few comments that disagreed:

As a professional musician, it is my opinion that whatever the music does after it leaves my mouth is up to the listener. I may have an intention when I am performing, but I’m not attached to the result. So listeners are free to listen intently, or daydream about popsicles. The music is the gift. The giver does not get to dictate its use. Nor does anyone else.

I couldn’t agree more.  Mr. Castillo’s post, while powerful, also alienates a huge part of the classical music radio audience, and I am sure that was not his intention.  Rather than dismissing the listening habits of our listeners, we need to embrace them and exploit them so that the music they have on in the background can migrate closer to the foreground of their consciousness.  While I’m certainly not completely content to say “well, at least they have it on in the background,” I acknowledge that it’s a stepping stone that can lead to more people having a deeper love for classical music, and arts administrators AND broadcasters should both agree that a deeper love of classical music is a great thing.


About Joe Goetz

Joe Goetz is Music Director for WFIU 103.7 FM in Bloomington, Indiana, and has eleven years of experience hosting and producing classical music programming for public radio. While completing his B.A. in Music at Colorado College in Colorado Springs, CO, Joe worked part time as a classical music host at KCME 88.7 FM. Following graduation, he worked as a classical music host and producer at Vermont Public Radio, developing new and engaging programming in addition to programming and hosting a daily afternoon air shift. He is an accomplished pianist with several chamber music performances to his credit, an occasional choir singer, and an avid golfer. He lives with his wife, Meghann, their son William, daughter Allison, and cats Ollie and Blanche.

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