One afternoon after school, I called a friend to work on our homework together. Through my phone, I could hear Debussy’s Clair de Lune playing faintly in the background.
The music helps him focus, but that wasn’t the case for me. Gradually, my pencil slowed as I grew absorbed in the music.
I’ve always enjoyed classical music; in fact, I really listened to only classical music before high school. I had a short-term fascination with pop genres shortly after the beginning of freshman year, but I still regard classical music as one of the most complex and fascinating genres of music.
Now, as I write possibly my final story in The Octagon, I feel the need to advocate for your trusty studying music.
Classical music is widely seen as a boring genre from a bygone era. It’s true that the genre is old, but it’s much more than pretty background noise.
Of course, there are pieces such as Pachelbel’s Canon in D, Beethoven’s Fur Elise and Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik that are commonplace and well-known — maybe not by name, but definitely by their melodies. However, to most of us in high school, classical music is no more than some sound that helps with focus.
As more genres of music are developed, classical music can’t compete with the flash and flair of the newer pop genres. Where classical music shines is its sole reliance on a harmony of natural sounds produced by instruments. Not only does the composer have to piece tens of different parts together, the players also need to understand how their respective parts need to be played. By listening carefully to every instrument in an orchestral performance, you can truly immerse yourself in the composition as you discover how each instrument contributes to the harmony.
Compared to contemporary music, most classical music has more focus on its melodies rather than lyrics. Despite the lack of words, classical music holds no less meaning in its composition compared to contemporary music. What meaning classical music lacks in lyrics is made up for in its melodies.
For example, Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring depicts a brutish and ancient ritual where a maiden dances herself to death as a sacrifice to the gods of spring. To convey the savagery of the ritual, Stravinsky switches between serene and mystical melodies and jarring and erratic chords, startling the audience with a piece unlike any other classical composition.
Other pieces can convey immense energy. The first movement of Mahler’s Symphony No. 8 is centered around a Gregorian chant, yet the piece sends a jolt of awe through my spine when I hear its opening. Also known as “The Symphony of a Thousand,” the symphony opens with an organ chord followed by the entire ensemble. The sound charges the audience with a sense of both harmony and power, especially when hundreds of performers sing at once — it quite literally sounds like the voice of God.
Sometimes, context helps greatly with interpreting classical music. Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5 is composed with many references to Russian nationalist music themes, but it has a strained undertone in almost every movement. This piece was Shostakovich’s way of silent protest against Stalin’s regime. His piece had to please Stalin while still expressing the anguish he felt about the regime, so he incorporated nationalist themes to please Stalin and weaved in negative emotions. At times, the piece feels cheerful and lively. Other times, it conveys a sense of distress, oppression and sadness.
Once you know the context of a piece, it starts to make much more sense and makes classical pieces much more appreciable.
In your English classes, you might hear that literature takes many forms. Classical music, like all music, is one of those forms. It may take some effort to interpret a piece, but the enjoyment of understanding is worth it.
So, as I finish up my final words in this paper, I urge you to give classical music another try. Set aside some time to dig deeper into your studying music, and you may find it as rewarding as I do.
— Ming Zhu
Originally published in the May 25 edition of the Octagon.