Story by Jason Li

Short answer:

Open your heart, close your eyes and tap into your memories.

Long answer:

Classical music is not the go-to genre for most people. We come in contact with it like auditory secondhand smoke at airports and Panera Breads. We might put on some Beethoven to combat the stress of calculus homework, but few of us listen to classical music for the sole purpose of enjoying it. You might have tried to appreciate classical music but failed in the process. Why is classical music difficult to enjoy and how can we learn to appreciate it?

We cannot take pleasure in classical music if we listen to it the same way that we listen to pop music. Imagine reading Shakespeare the same way that you read John Green. That’s not to say that classical music is better than pop music, but rather  that we can’t approach vastly different genres with the same habits and expectations. Pop music has a literal message, whose straightforward nature makes it easy to understand. We’ve all experienced the powerful moment when a song describes exactly what is going on in our lives.

When it comes to classical music, a single movement can capture an entire range of emotions, and one symphony can encapsulate the nuances of everything that we have ever felt. Classical music is not limited by the restrictive definitions of literal messages — it just takes a little more work to interpret. Classical music reflects to us the value of our experiences, our hopes, our insecurities, and ourselves.

Then why didn’t you have a visceral experience listening to Mozart’s Piano Sonata No. 16 while eating mac and cheese out of a bread bowl at Panera?

Well, there are two possible explanations:

  1. Not all classical music is created equally. As an umbrella term, classical music accounts for centuries of western musical tradition. The truly heartfelt pieces of the genre were mostly written during and after the romantic period in the early nineteenth century.
  2. You probably weren’t in the right state of mind. Classical music benefits from a level of vulnerability that is hard to come by in today’s culture, as most of us choose to avoid those feelings.

Rather than hearing classical music in a Panera Bread, place yourself in a spacious concert hall or in the comfort of your room. First, you must open your heart. Try breathing or smiling at a stranger. While being at peace allows you to be more sensitive, whimsical displays of generosity call attention to your humanity and sense of self. Next, close your eyes once the music starts. Music is sound, so removing visual distractions creates intimacy and focus between you and the music.

Finally and most importantly, let the music revive memories, clarifying experiences and feelings. When connecting the music to a memory we simultaneously appreciate the richness of the music and the beauty of the past. For example, Brahms’ Symphony No. 1 in C Minor reminds me of swimming in the ocean at midnight, especially the uncertainty I felt towards going into the water. I see myself drawing in the living room of my childhood home when César Franck’s Sonata in A Minor for Piano & Violin plays. For Movement 4 of Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 in C sharp Minor, I am flying to the U.S. as I watch the sunrise over Alaska from the airplane window. If you find it difficult to connect to concrete memories, imagine a scene in your head: something you wish would have happened or could happen. Do not obsess with these moments, but use them to enhance your emotional connection to the music.

Now, the only thing left to do is go and listen to classical music.