Classical music and the feel good factor

Classical music has allowed its image to slip. Once it was viewed as a basic need for a civilised society. But now it is seen as an expendable upmarket entertainment. This change in perception lies at the heart of the current funding crisis; it also presents a barrier to attracting new audiences and undermines the case for music education. It is a puzzle as to why, instead of reinforcing the expendable entertainment perception with marketing stunts such as TV reality shows and classical charts, classical music has not repositioned itself as a basic need.

The new sciece of epigenetics has identified that the cells that make up our body and determine our wellbeing are not controlled primarily by our genes, but rather by the physical and energetic environment in which we live. It is early days and some of the advocates of epigenetics hover uncomfortably between science and shamanism, while similar approaches such as Alfred Tomatis' Mozart Effect continue to be treated with scepticism. But epigenetics is science rather than quackery, and if a medically proven causal relationship could be established between classical music and wellbeing, the case for live music, music education, music therapy and many other threatened activities would become much stronger. To date there has been little attempt to connect epigenetics and classical music. Surely it is it time to explore new ways of arguing the case for classical music?

For more on this subject see The Biology of Belief by Bruce Lipton. Header photo is detail of mosque in Agadir and is (C) On An Overgrown Path 2011. Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk Also on Facebook and Twitter.


Mr Beakman said…
I think what "lies at the heart of the current funding crisis" is the unfortunate fact that classical music doesn't appeal to enough of the public to support itself. More popular forms of music don't need to worry about funding crises; they pay for themselves.

Arguing that classical music contributes to wellbeing is like telling people to eat their vegetables. It may be true, but if they don't like it, they won't listen even if it is good for them.

I think the problem with classical music is that it isn't as accessible as other genres. It takes more thought and attention to appreciate. Too much effort for the average person. I think this also explains why television is more popular than art museums.

Since I play violin in a local chamber orchestra, I think this is all very unfortunate, but I doubt that it has ever been any different.
Pliable said…
Mr Beakman, my comments were primarily aimed at helping funding rather than concert attendances.

But, that notwithstanding, a remarkable number of people seem to like eating vegetables. Just look at the huge numbers who participate in Pilates, yoga, gymns and other wellbeing enhancing activities.

I make no claim to found the magical solution. But what is the alternative? Do we just sit back and watch classical music die?

And before anyone accuses me of being alarmist, how many times before has EMI been taken over by its creditors and how many times has the Philadelphia Orchestra been in Chapter 11 discussions?
Here's a BBC story along these lines:

Here's a quote from it: "Like a jukebox, the individual has the potential to play a number of different developmental tunes. The particular developmental tune it does play is selected by [the environment] in which the individual is growing up."

Along with all the amazing neuroscience to go with these new thoughts on gene expression, I think it's just a matter of time before "a medically proven causal relationship" between some kinds of music and well being is fully established.

I used the BBC story in a post about "talent" and how the new genetics gets us away from the notion of your either having or not having it.

Really appreciate your covering this whole aspect of the value of music and music making, which most people seem to either take for granted in sort of an obscure way, or don't really think about at all.

You might find the topic of mirror neurons an interesting one to think about as part of "transmission".
mrG said…
sigh -- it is, I find, remarkable and noteworthy how, when I tell people about the not at all new notion of epigenetics (pythagoras and ptolemy would've been perfectly comfortable with it) they immediately jump to the assumption that it is their music which will have this magic medicinal and spiritual effect.

That it was Classical music was quite resoundingly dis-proven by Charles Burney in 1750 and by his son who traveled with James Cook; it was to their utter astonishment that peoples of other cultures responded negatively to the assumed heir to Orpheus they saw in their Classical Music, and they were equally aghast to find world cultures far more receptive and joyously befriended by scottish fiddle tunes! By the end of the 1700's in fact, ships sailing the far seas were required to have a fiddler on board, not for the entertainment of the crew, but to act as a musical emmissary, as a means to ease the impact of the worlds in collision.

Ok, that much said, all is not lost: there are qualities of music whereby music earns its Chinese label as Yao, meaing The Sonic Herb, but Classical has no monopoly on this, nor is it defacto void of it, and it is there where we need this earnest research. We know that music, some forms of music, can induce what the buddhists call Right Mind; what we don't know is if this Right Mind also induces Right Action but one can always hope ;)
I doubt classical music will ever "die". I agree the so-called popular music genre today is a lot more accessible and appeals to the gen X & Y because of its wider market and commercial potential. However, newer performers such as Lang Lang whose foundation is inspiring 40 million young Chinese children to play the piano is certainly encouraging and I suspect his is not the only such organisation that is doing good work to promote classical music among the young.
"The new sciece of epigenetics has identified that the cells that make up our body and determine our wellbeing are not controlled primarily by our genes, but rather by the physical and energetic environment in which we live..."

Well this certainly does not apply to intelligence.

Read here:

Re: Classical music

It was always a minority taste and only became remotely popular when the alternatives were few and far between. This is not because most people are thick or philistines; but simply because classical music requires a level of commitment that most people are not prepared to give (or, more likely, interested in giving)
Nereffid said…
If a health benefit of classical music is to be shown, I doubt it will be through epigenetics. It is, as you say, "science rather than quackery", but its implications are rather overhyped (as exmplified by the Horizon piece you linked to, with its breathless talk of paradigm shifts and ghost worlds). If epigenetics is to demonstrate that classical music makes you healthier or smarter, it will have to show that you are healthier or smarter than your peers because you carry a change in gene expression resulting from the fact that one or more of your parents or one or more of your grandparents listened to more classical music than their peers. There are so many potential confounders here (education, socioeconomic status, etc) that it's hard to see how a specific effect of music could be isolated.
This is also the problem with the wilder claims of the Mozart Effect. Is your child smarter because you played her Mozart every night, or because she was raised by the sort of parents who want her to be smarter and so will do things like play her Mozart every night?
The more basic (or honest, if you will) form of the Mozart effect offers a better chance of some well-being/music link, but it's not quite so impressive - a temporary improvement in spatial reasoning immediately after hearing Mozart. And there is also evidence that it doesn't have to be Mozart, but anything that enhances one's mood. Perhaps if the original researchers had been a little more left-field in their choice of music to study we would now be talking about the Salieri Effect!
Pliable said…
Epigenetics may, or may not, be relevant to the future of classical music. But the surprising level of interest in this post does confirm that “Surely it is it time to explore new ways of arguing the case for classical music?”

Yes, some of the advocacy of epigenetics is evangelical. But no more so that a Decca press release for the signing of their latest pianist wunderkind. We must be careful of closing our minds to developments such as epigenetics simply because such solutions lie outside our intellectual comfort zone. And we must also guard against allowing such developments to be swept under the carpet because they are outside the earnings zone of the artists agents, media companies and marketing consultants who currently control classical music.

I am now away from my computer for a day or so in search of some wellbeing; so there will be a delay in comment moderation. But please keep the comments coming; personally I find them a hundred times more rewarding than the currently fashionable Twitter games that are the staple fare elsewhere.
mrG said…
LOL -- As a graduate of that program, I would hesitate to put too much faith in U of T Psych papers ;), and ditto the newly pay-walled SciAm, but that's another issue. Let's just say all the results are by no means in, and that we have, documented, some 5 thousand years to the contrary, although the contrarians will insist that this is both insufficient and not 'rigourous" (read: "Contradicts our pet assumptions)

But I would add that it is not necessarily the exposure to an atTUNEment that has the most effect, but the giving of oneself over to the process, through playing, through dance, not through sitting in an armchair imagining doing both. Or jogging. Thus I have stopped calling what I aim for 'music' and prefer now the term bio-resonance research, a sub-discipline of communications ;)

Here is a case in point: GBSS orchestras maintain Kiwanis festival gold streak ( is a news story about an small local high school who have achieved an astounding 33% instrumental-program enrollment, and with a student body of just 500 have consistently produced gold-winning orchestras for 8 years straight. Note especially the comments from the kids themselves testifying to the power being inside the music has over them (both Classical and big-band jazz) but of particular note I see there is a strong mention of the personality of their teacher.

and this, I believe, is the really important medicinal component. The music per-se is not doing it, so it won't come from an iPod ear-bud or a stack of Bose sub-woofers; it has to be channeled directly from one living human to another and the medium of that channel is the Music.

So what we need to 'mass produce' this effect is a list of things: we need the 'right' kind of music, whatever that is it has to both catch (be 'catchy') and be of that shamanic 'Yao' quality, a healing quality of right-resonance; we need to teach the making of this music to the population so they become integrated into it, involved and swathed in it such that our performances are less "looky me" and more an inspiration to the audience to do their own music making to a higher order of being; ie we are a guidance to them, not a 'product', we are a pathway, not the end result.

Lastly, to do all this, we need to find, nurture and develop strong music leadership personalities to carry out this great work in the field, to express and inspire and inform and especially to lead the cultivation of the culture.

All of these elements already exist, we already know that all of this is true, because, as that news story relates, this process goes on in every major city in the entire world every day. It is only at the upper stardom echelons where we appear to have lost our way, become dazzled by footlights and applause, become like Hercules, believing ourselves greater than the gods by virtue of a great rank which should be instead a summons to a great responsibility.
Unknown said…
Like many, I have concerned myself with the question of building new audience for classical music throughout my 30 year career. And recently, I carefully examined the motives behind those efforts. It occurred to me that it might be a selfish or perhaps evangelical pursuit for we enthusiasts to persuade others to love our passion. But I've come to realize that something more purposeful is driving me in this pursuit. I have repeatedly witnessed the opening that occurs when someone never exposed to classical music gets an honest glimpse - not in an elevator, not when it's used in public spaces to prevent loitering, but in an intimate live music setting where it can truly move them. In our mach ten, tweeting, jam-packed lives, I think people are actually craving experiences that slow them down, awaken their senses, and create authentic connection for them. I've watched mountain bikers, and teenagers, and cowboys, and cleaning ladies light up when they were given the chance to experience the complexities and nuances and surprises of the music that we love.

I am convinced that the problem is not one of taste but of exposure. Certainly classical music is not for everyone, but with hundreds of years and styles to choose from, it is likely that most people can find a variety of pieces that resonate with them. So, I think our true challenge is to communicate relevance to new audiences so that this vast genre and all of its trappings do not alienate them. I aspire to do this with my own blog, "The Flute Doctors - Demystifying classical music for nervous discoverers and the culturally curious". ( And because I know that no single, self-curated, recommended playlist can suit all preferences, I intend to direct my readers to other blogs like yours to get them even more jazzed about classical music.

Thanks for your insightful writings,
Laura Barron

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