Stop selling classical as snooze music

Anne Midgette has shepherded into the Washington Post a fine piece by Jennifer Gersten, winner of the 2018 Rubin Institute for Music Criticism prize.

Jennifer argues that the music industry does us all a disservice by pitching classical as background music. Some will, inevitably, attempt to deny that this is so. But where I live Classic FM exhorts listeners day and night to relax, as if they are about to undergo some horribly invasive medical procedure and need music to anaesthetise them.

This is what Jennifer hears:

If classical music really sounded the way it’s described in radio ads, composers would have fallen asleep while writing it. “You’ve found an oasis — a place where you can get away from all the craziness,” intones WCLV, a station in Lorain, Ohio, in a recent promotion. “Take some time to relax.” “Calming and refreshing,” KBAQ, a Phoenix station, declares. “Rise above it all,” the District’s own WETA proclaims. These stations regularly offer more raucous selections than these exhortations suggest, but they are advertising themselves as musical sanitariums. The San Francisco-based station KDFC even offers a daily “island of sanity,”including slow pieces by Mozart, Debussy and Bach, in the interest of tempering rush hour woes….

Read on here.

She’s right.


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  • It is an awful way to market, and the article is a good one. Here at WFMT the 5 o’clock hour is marketed as “At 5:00 pm, jump off the hamster wheel with a commercial-free hour of best-loved classics, making the commute easy and breezy.” Ironically I avoid this particular announcer altogether (Candice Agree) as her upper-class actressy voice sets my teeth on edge.

  • I semi-concur. I have a relation who, after hearing anything not an adagio, sniffs and says, “well, that wasn’t a very relaxing piece!” I doubt the radio ads did that, however.

    Every genre of music has a mistaken stereotype that exasperates actual performers. Go watch any Hollywood movie with musician characters in it.

  • It’s also played loudly in places to prevent potential anti-social behavior (shopping malls, convenience store parking lots, etc.)

  • Thank you so much, Ms. Gersten.

    May I offer up in support a bit of wisdom from Charles Ives:

    “Beauty in music is too often confused with something that lets the ear lie back in an easy chair. Many sounds that we are used to do not bother us, and for that reason we are inclined to call them beautiful. Frequently—possibly almost invariably—analytical and impersonal test will show that when a new or unfamiliar work is accepted as beautiful on its first hearing, its fundamental quality is one that tends to put the mind to sleep.”

    Minimalism, anyone?

  • Classical music in the US and the masses: it’s a desperate situation.
    Radio stations desperately trying everything to find their niche of survival.
    Classical music can only thrive in wider circles of the population, when people believe they have to make an effort to become better humans and be successful. In short: when it is necessary to have real aspirations in life.
    But in a country where you are spoon-fed the madness, that you are exceptional, just because you happen to be born there, such a country surely is doomed in the not so far future.

  • “Often, when struggling against obstacles of every sort which oppose my labours: often, when the powers of mind and body weakened, and it was difficult to continue the course I had entered on; – a secret voice whispered to me: “there are so few happy and contented peoples here below; grief and sorrow are always their lot; perhaps your labours will once be a source from which the care-worn, or the man burdened with affairs, can derive a few moments’ rest and refreshment.” This was indeed a powerful motive to press onwards, and this is why I now look back with cheerful satisfaction on the labours expended on this art, to which I have devoted so many long years of uninterrupted effort and exertion.”

    Joseph Haydn

    Of course I’m sure what he really meant was “screw you, Prince Esterhazy: my art is edgy, confrontational and it’ll mess with yo’ head. “

  • Very good article. Like others, I have been thinking this kind of thing for years.

    I would add: something that makes music valuable to the human experience is the idea of catharsis, “the purification and purgation of emotions—particularly pity and fear—through art or any extreme change in emotion that results in renewal and restoration” (thank you, Wikipedia).

    The idea of music as anaesthetic invites us to avoid thinking about our struggles, fears, or other problems. While this can provide welcome relief for a time, of course, it doesn’t necessarily help us. The idea of music as cathartic lets us embrace — however reluctantly at first — the idea of facing our problems, going through the struggle, and coming through with some form of victory.

    This is the famous theme of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, and the implied (or explicit) theme of many works of art: struggle followed by triumph over adversity. I’m listening to Mahler’s “Der Abschied” from Das Lied von der Erde as I write this — a description of a different kind of victory.

    Tchaikovsky’s 6th ends with — it’s hard to call it a victory, but it’s not purely a defeat, either. The protagonist of that story certainly puts up a heroic struggle against an inexorable fate; that is something we are all going to experience sooner or later. I would submit that Tchaik 6 helps us face that fate, or at least acknowledge the idea of it, with a little less fear of the unknown than we would otherwise have. That is much more valuable, IMHO, than “let’s just not think about it for awhile, but listen to pretty music instead.”

    Of course, it’s hard to sell this idea to an audience that doesn’t necessarily know much about music; much easier to market music as a quick but mild sedative to help you get through your rush hour commute (“when you wake up, the hard stuff will be over, and everything will be fine”).

  • I second the motion!
    Of course there is a healthy portion of the repertoire, and by no means the worst of it, that is quiet, contemplative, and calming. But so much wonderful music gets left out when that becomes the programming requirement.

    My beef with FM radio is that it isn’t just that they market what they offer as relaxing and quiet, but the programming follows suit exclusively. Even Haydn’s Surprise Symphony’s slow movement is too surprising it would seem. Quantz and Stamitz reign supreme.
    In some cases I also believed they tampered with the dynamics to smooth them out.
    I’d rather see them market it as restful music, but then lie about it and program Stravinsky and Ginastera now and then ….

    There is plenty of blame to be spread around. FM Classical Radio, to the extent it exists, didn’t necessarily create this and is a follower here, in my view. The record industry (to the extent IT exists) and the musicians who record for it provided ample “quiet” fodder. People buy the quiet/restful stuff regardless of whether they even have a Classical FM station to listen to.

    But this goes way, way back. Anyone else here remember Mr. Edward B. Benjamin? He was the wealthy guy who loved “restful good music” which he defined as “lovely, soft, slow music without obtrusive melody” and used the power of his purse to fund an annual award for compositions of restful good music. The Eastman School of Music and Howard Hanson (who was certainly capable of some non restful music as a composer) cooperated and I recall a Mercury LP full of the winning restful compositions. I think it was an early stereo LP so possibly circa 1956-60.

    According to Mr. Benjamin’s liner notes for a Stokowski/RCA Victor LP (LM-1875) , substantial annual awards were offered by him through the North Carolina State Symphony, Eastman School, and the slightly famous and influential Juilliard School of Music (well I suppose if the money is being waived in front of you like that …), and he employed the services of Walter Diehl “former program director of two outstanding ‘good music’ radio stations in New York City [one of them was WQXR in its glory years] to create a library of existing restful good music that helped program the Stokowski disc in question, “Restful (Good) Music” excerpted from earlier Stokowski releases (mostly Baroque transcriptions). Oddly what I hear on that LP is plenty of obtrusive melody but maybe I am quick to be obtrused.

    And yes if you are asking, I did NOT buy it for the lurid cover which is one of the more famous “cheesecake” classical cover photos (but don’t take my word for it; that’s what Google Image searches are for). The message was clear: restful good music is make-out music.

    • Good ear, David.
      FM stations have for decades compressed the dynamics of their broadcast signals to smooth them out so that they may have a wider geographic “reach”.
      I noticed this back in college when I got my first good stereo FM tuner and amp combo – a McIntosh. My first memory of this effect: the dynamics of Giulini’s great Bruckner 8 with the VPO were quashed quite beyond acceptability.
      And I seem to recall that Mercury LP as well; I believe it included a performance of Kent Kennan’s wonderful “Night Soliloquy” for flute and orchestra. Hardly restful music, seems to me….

  • I don’t think we should underestimate how serious this is.

    When classical needs to appeal to more younger people I can’t think of more damning descriptions than “snooze”, “restful”, “quiet”, “calming”, “peaceful” etc

    Like “middle of the road”, it’s probably the last thing that many of them are looking for.

  • End stage capitalism at work. Add that to the fact that Euro-centered “classical” music was never a native product in the US, where “appreciation” and support (i.e., opera, symphony, etc.) has been founded on what’s proved to be a shaky premise of class distinction and intellectual “attainment”. Meanwhile, in the field of popular music, despite a lot of dross — and capitalism at work here, as well — a more organic form of art engagement has taken up the slack, starting at the beginning of the 20th C.

  • Hear! Hear! Gersten’s critique is all too true, but the problem isn’t limited to how classical radio is pitched – it’s also germane to the limited content of classical radio’s playlist.

    In the early ’90s, the term ‘modal music’ came to characterize classical radio content – not the modal music of Greek scales but ‘modal’ as in the statistical preferences and prejudices of classical listeners. Stations like Denver’s WCFR-FM conducted studies which found that radio audiences don’t like dissonance before 9 a.m. and don’t want to hear art song or opera arias at any hour. Opera, early music and contemporary – if they were heard at all – got relegated to a specific time slot during the week.

    That emphasis on ‘beautiful’ music may work as entry level to the art – even though many listeners may never move beyond it. But just as ‘beautiful’ music has its place in the art form, so does ‘ugly’ music. ‘Inspiring’ music as well as ‘soul-crushing’ music, ‘electrifying’ or ‘soporific,’ ‘transparent’ or ‘inscrutable’ – all those and more are essential to any art that reflects the breadth and variety of human experience.

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