Tag Archives: listening to music

Heart-wrenching Music

Music Score by the blue deviant fox

During the holiday season of late November through December each year, I confess that I have a tendency to tune out Christmas music, i.e. Christmas carols that are played ad infinitum in public spaces. There is still some Christmas music, however, that has the power to move me. Stille Nacht (“Silent Night”) with its inherent stillness can give me goosebumps. I love it especially sung by a lyric tenor. Certain sections of Handel’s Messiah can also bring tears to my eyes. But that’s about it nowadays.  I don’t know if it’s just the constant repetition, year in and year out during the holidays, or the fact that I performed all the holiday songs when I was growing up, whether in choirs or in an orchestra. I now have a tendency to avoid Christmas music.

Thinking about Christmas music sent my mind wandering down the path of music that is emotionally moving. All music is emotionally moving in some way since music is emotion in sound. But I’m thinking of that music that has just the right vibrational frequency or whatever it is that will bring tears to my eyes. When I was writing advertising copy for arts organizations, I remember one Marketing Director talking about the phrases and words that he would not approve in ad copy for describing music: “heart-wrenching,” “tear your heart out,” and so on. He thought that these words and phrases described death more than life. But poetically speaking, music moves the heart, sometimes violently, in different ways.

Here is a list of music that I find especially moving to my heart (sometimes wrenching it, too) and that I never tire of hearing:


Prokofiev Second Violin Concerto, Movement 2: This sweet, sublime melody played by the violin soloist over a pizzicato accompaniment always manages to take my breath away and concentrate my attention. There’s nothing else like it in the repertoire that I know of.  If you’d like to listen for yourself, it’s here, and the second movement begins at 11:00.


Bruckner Symphony No. 8: This magnificent symphony is a deeply emotional sound journey for me.  The first time I heard it was in concert with the Minnesota Orchestra, and it was like sitting on a beach with waves of sound rolling over me. While Bruckner is known for big brass moments and loud passages, he also wrote some extraordinarily lyrical and poignant moments. If you’d like to listen to this symphony, here’s quite a good recording here. The conductor in this video is Stanislaw Skrowaczewski, a renowned Bruckner conductor, who was also the Conductor Emeritus of the Minnesota Orchestra.

Bach Concerto for 2 Violins, Movement 2: I don’t think most people consider Bach when thinking about emotionally moving music, but he wrote some extraordinary music. This concerto is just one example, and the second movement is especially moving to me. In this recording, the second movement begins at 4:00. The two violins are like two voices intertwining.

Verdi’s Requiem: Verdi is best known as an opera composer, and this Requiem is operatic. To me, it is the best example of music capturing the stages of grief, with a Dies Irae that beautifully shows what anger sounds like.  For me, though, it’s the final movement that can leave me sobbing. This final movement was the last music performed at Princess Diana’s funeral service. You can listen to the final movement here.


Elgar “Nimrod”: The British composer Edward Elgar is known for his Pomp and Circumstance marches and for his Enigma Variations in which he composed a series of variations on a theme that only he knew because he didn’t include it in the piece. Each variation is a musical portrait of a dear friend of Elgar’s. The “Nimrod” variation, often used in memorials especially for Brits, was written for Elgar’s friend Augustus Jaeger who supported and encouraged his music composition when Elgar, in depression, was in despair and thinking of giving it up.  Here’s a lovely performance of it.

Brahms First Piano Concerto: The pianist Rudolf Serkin once commented that Brahms’ music was all about memory.  I think of it as being about longing for something that can never be. This concerto begins with a tumultuous orchestral introduction as if Brahms was raging against something, but then it quiets.  The piano comes in with the most sublime music, I think, in all of the piano repertoire, and continues throughout this concerto.  The second movement is a perfect example of Brahms’ longing in his music.  I recommend listening to the entire concerto here.

Classical music is full of “heart-wrenching” music.  Perhaps you have your own list?

What is Classical Music and does it take a PhD to enjoy it?

classicalmusicFor the last few years, I’ve been accumulating ideas from interactions I have with people who claim not to know anything about classical music and who feel inadequate to being able to listen to it with any appreciation or enjoyment. I want to tell these people (and I often do) that classical music is music, just like country music, rock music, and religious hymns. Music is music, no matter what sort of label humans have attached to it. But I also recognize that this explanation does little to assuage their fears and doubts. In American society, we are taught that classical music is for “the elite” and is not for everyone.

To which, I say now, tell that to the five-year-old enraptured by Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf or the lilting dance rhythms in Dvorak’s music. Kids don’t put labels on music. To them, music is music, and they’re open to all of it.  So maybe adults need to learn from the kids and stop thinking of music in terms of labels.

Having said that, let’s look at possible reasons that labels have been slapped on music.


We could differentiate music in different ways. For example, by geography. We have Western music and Eastern music. We have European and American, Russian, French, German, African, Indian, Chinese, etc. music. Systems of how to put sounds together that’s pleasing to the ear have evolved in ways sometimes unique to specific locations. For example, the people of India listen to their “classical” music which is based on a different tonal system than people listening to German music. I would suspect, however, that the listeners in each country don’t think much about the specifics of the tonal systems but rather seek to listen and experience the music on a personal level. I suspect that this is universally true. If the only differentiation is geographic, perhaps everyone would be more open to all music, I don’t know.

Music can be differentiated also by tonal systems (mentioned above) and not refer to geography at all. In the West, we have the major-minor tonal system, but also the 12-tone system, the modal system, and the atonal system whose proponents compose music without any tonal references whatsoever. Eastern music has different tonal systems as well, and I suspect that African music would also, but I have not heard much African music.

None of this differentiation makes a whit of difference to a person’s enjoyment while listening to the music. You can know absolutely nothing about how music can be differentiated and still love listening to it…or not if you don’t like the sounds.

Musikverein Concert Hall in Vienna, Austria

Musikverein Concert Hall in Vienna, Austria


As with writing, marketing influences how music is presented and sold to the listening public. Nowadays, people in the business of marketing music wrestle with the challenges of increasing audience, appealing to different demographics, and communicating the value of the experience of listening to music. The marketing and sale of music is something that gained traction over time beginning in the early 19th century. How did marketers know what to call the music?

Music Historians

As music evolved, scholars began to think about how to classify it, much as biologists thought about how to classify all living things back in the day and developed a classification system that helped them give each living thing a unique place in the world. According to that classification system, humans are Homo sapiens sapiens. I’m certain that knowing that really makes no difference whatsoever on how you experience and/or enjoy people. But Homo sapiens sapiens really like to name things, and this fits in with how classification systems developed.

In music, the classification system is based first by time period, and then some of these classifications have sub-groups. Renaissance music, for example, covers the historical period of the Renaissance, just as 20th century music covers the 20th century. But then there’s Baroque music, Classical music, Romantic music, Neo-Romantic music, Avant garde and so on.

Music Score by the blue deviant fox

Music Score by the blue deviant fox

None of this classification makes a whit of difference to a person’s enjoyment while listening to music. You can know absolutely nothing about how music can be classified and still love listening to it…or not, if you don’t like the way it sounds.

When you go to a movie, do you notice the movie’s musical soundtrack? Do you like it? Chances are, you’re listening to what has been broadly classified as classical music and not rock music or jazz or pop. We humans actually love music and have included it everywhere in our lives. If you stop to think about it, that Muzak you hear in an elevator or while you’re on hold on the phone is only one small part of the music you hear all the time in different places.

In conclusion, no, you don’t need to have a PhD in order to enjoy classical music, or any kind of music, for that matter.  All you need is a pair of ears, an open heart, and the willingness to take the time to open your ears and listen.

What music do you choose to listen to the most often?  Have you noticed all the different ways music is in our lives daily? Have you gone to a concert to hear the music you like to listen to?

Why Does Music Give us the Chills?

Minnesota Orchestra (Photo courtesy The Minnesota Orchestra/Greg Helgeson)

In live symphony orchestra concerts, I have experienced tsunamis of emotion engulfing me as I’ve listened to the music, moved to cry or to laugh, and physically to shiver in pleasure or fear. Music has raised goosebumps on my arms, and sent chills down my spine.  How can music have such a physical and emotional effect on a human being?  It’s just music, after all.  Right?

The Guardian posted an article on its website on 9/2/15 entitled “Why does music give us chills?”  It should come as no surprise that one piece of music can reduce one person to tears and have little effect on another.  We each experience music in a highly personal way based on our life experiences and our state of mind at the time we hear it.  This also supports the therapeutic effects music can have on an individual both physically and emotionally. I’ve experienced those beneficial effects first hand.

Turn on your radio, iPod, CD player or whatever you use to listen to music, or go to a live concert, sit back, close your eyes, and enjoy!