Gramophone guest blog

Classical music gets my pulse racing

Andrew MellorMon 18th July 2016

Shouldn’t we be talking about how riveting and, yes, stressful great art can be? Now that would make a change…

After two weeks of waking up each morning to extraordinary, game-changing news about the future of our country and continent, thank heaven for those little things that never change. Like, for example, some science bod popping up to tell us that classical music reduces blood pressure, as they seem invariably to do every six months. Phew. Business as usual.

What really gets me about these studies, the most recent of which was published last week by Hans-Joachim Trappe (sadly, no ‘von’) and Gabriele Voit of Ruhr University Bochum, is…well, to be honest, everything. But top of the list is the crushing notion that the richest, most universal and arguably most stimulating art form known to man is better ‘sold’ for its passive biological side effects than for its actual, colossal inherent artistic value.

I say ‘sold’ because we as an industry seem strangely keen to get behind these reports whenever they’re published, as if we’ve discovered a priceless, ‘accessible’ elixir which will reverse the perceived trend that is classical music’s inexorable demise (another dubious notion). It’s a little like cheerfully approaching your trendy neighbour who has ‘never enjoyed classical music’ and producing the trump card: telling him it’ll make him live longer. So, like brown rice or chipboard muesli, enduring classical music is a price worth paying for a few more days treading this increasingly hostile planet. Enjoy!

Even more misguided is the idea that great art sets out to calm its audience down and assure them that the status quo is just fine, that everything’s going to be okay. I’m no Denton Cooley but I think I understand what’s happening when I sit in a concert hall or theatre and my heart starts racing, when I feel my fingers and toes tingling and wonder how my senses and circulation will cope with the cataclysmic moment I know is waiting around the corner. And I’m pretty sure it’s not a reduction in blood pressure.

Perhaps those scientists should hook their equipment up to an audience watching Janáček’s opera Jenůfa and see what readings occur at the end of Act II when the wind blows the window of the deranged stepmother’s hut open, only for her to shriek ‘that’s the icy breath of death’ over a caterwauling, schizophrenic orchestra that knows she’s just murdered a baby. If you’re not short of breath or bordering on a cold sweat at that point, consult your physician (or ask for a refund at the box office).

In actual fact, the music the scientists used in their study was Mozart’s Symphony No 40. One of the more bizarre conclusions they reached concerned the medley of Abba songs they played to their human guinea pigs as a comparator. Abba, in fact, had the reverse effect – increasing blood pressure. Why? Because the Swedish pop-combo’s ditties contain lyrics that stimulate brain activity, apparently. In other words, Abba engages people because the songs contain actual words; Mozart’s pretty, aimless noises induce them into a warm bath of fuzzy, happy nothingness.

Fair enough, it’s easy to let the finale of the G minor symphony drift over you. After all, it’s only the most dramatic and propulsive example of multi-voiced musical debate ever conceived in the Classical era...easy to miss that. A real cynic might conclude that the experiment’s participants weren’t listening all that closely, that they might even have been thinking of the modest cash fee that was waiting for them at the end of it. But that’s probably unfair. I take that back.

Let’s not deny great music its reassuring, contemplative and soothing qualities. But let’s not pretend that’s all it does either. Music of all kinds – whether heard live at the Philharmonie in Berlin or via your phone on the top deck of the 196 bus – has the ability to temporarily realign the chemical balance in our brains. It’s a wonderful, joyous, complex and often terrifying effect. If you want your blood pressure reducing, try music that’s a little less heartfelt and dramatic. Or go on a cruise. Actually, on second thoughts…

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