Does classical music help you "think for the future"?

by Gwendolyn Hoberg
December 17, 2013
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A monitor of brain activity at the Minneapolis VA Medical Center. (Jeffrey Thompson/MPR)

David Brooks of the New York Times recently published an op-ed about mental abilities that, he argues, will be useful in our era of "mechanized intelligence." I noticed that a number of the abilities Brooks discusses are ones that classical musicians — and their audiences — tend to have.

Freestylers follow the lead of computer programs (such as GPS devices) as a rule, but sometimes override the system because they think another decision would be better. As Brooks says, freestyling is "the skill of knowing when an individual case is following predictable patterns and when there are signs it is diverging from them."

This ability reminds me of reading music parts. For ensemble musicians especially, it is important to follow the composer's notations. Occasionally, though, it makes sense in the moment of performance to overrule the markings on the page. For example, a musician might play a passage marked soft a bit more loudly because it is the central theme of a piece, or because of the acoustics of the room. If you perform classical music, you know how to follow the rules — but you also know when to break them.

Synthesizers know how to manage overwhelming amounts of information. They can "surf through vast amounts of online data and crystallize a generalized pattern or story." Music scores contain a great deal of data, and they also connect to a larger body of information. A musician must read the part itself (notes, dynamics, articulation) and combine that with knowledge of the composer and his or her era, a familiarity with the performance space, and other data in order to create the desired effect for the audience.

Listening to classical music is also an exercise in synthesis: a listener can just sit back and enjoy the music, but the more familiar a listener becomes, the more he or she will begin making connections among different parts of a composition, among different works by a composer, and among different performances by a musician.

Moralizers "insist that human beings can't be reduced to the statistical line" and the "cash nexus." Brooks points out that without moralizers, an organization can "end up destroying morale and social capital." Ideally, music organizations have members, employees, or supporters with a moralizing function to help community members see beyond efficiency and the bottom line. These people explicitly show how music can increase the morale and social capital that is so important even in a mechanized age.

Then, of course, classical music itself is full of moral messages and dilemmas, from the humanist themes of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony to the complex shadings of guilt and pleasure in Mozart's Don Giovanni.

Economizers, according to Brooks, know how people can lead rich lives even with limited incomes. Despite historical stereotypes of classical music as the provenance of the rich, in reality classical music is a very affordable art form to enjoy. Many orchestral performances are free or inexpensive, and there's a wealth of classical music on the radio and the Internet.

As for how musicians can support themselves in the age of what Brooks describes as "the free bounty of the Internet," music-specialized economizers can help address this supply/demand issue, helping musicians make a living even though many of their supporters can only offer modest financial support for the music they love.

Gwendolyn Hoberg is an editor, writer, and classical musician. She lives in Moorhead, plays with the Duluth Superior Symphony Orchestra, and writes the Little Mouse fitness blog. She is also a co-author of The Walk Across North Dakota.