10 Reasons to Study the Orchestra, Composers and Music Appreciation

Music appreciation means that everyone appreciates music in some form. But many parents are hesitant to have their children study formal music appreciation – that is, the orchestra, composers and classical music – because they think their child is not interested in this kind of music. Certainly, classical music offers more depth than your regular country or pop song, so it can take a little longer to understand and appreciate it. Also, many pieces – like symphonies –  are as long as 45 minutes, so attention span can be an issue. However, when children are exposed to all kinds of music at a young age, they can learn to appreciate all of these kinds of music, including classical. Also, classical music and study of the orchestra and composers offer many ways of engaging all kinds of learning and enhancing other subjects as well as offers a number of mental and psychological benefits. Here are ten reasons why everyone should study the orchestra, composers and music appreciation

Image of concert hall with orchestra on the stage with the words 10 Reasons to Study the Orchestra, Composers and Music Appreciation

1. It fulfills a human need to enjoy God.

God is the Creator and author of creativity and beauty. He is the one who has filled his creation with beautiful sounds. As Oscar Hammerstein understood, “All the sounds of the earth are like music.” And God gave us an instrument in our own bodies – our voices. In the Bible, he instructs us to sing praises to Him. When we sing in worship, we are enjoying God!

Also, God directs his people to play the harp, lyre, trumpet, cymbals in worship to Him. He encouraged the creation of instruments and inspired composers to write music, so we can enjoy God through listening to and understanding the great orchestral and choral works of music.

2. It fulfills a human need to enjoy beauty.

Humans also seek beauty. Music helps us to do this. When we sing or listen to music, we are also enjoying beauty and ministering to our own souls which can lift us into a whole new world. As Willys P. Kent defined, “This, then is the purpose of a course in Music Appreciation; not to teach us facts about composers, but to help us to love their works; to make Beethoven’s Symphonies as essential to us as are the plays of Shakespeare; in short to give us a new sense-organ for the perception of beauty.” *

3. The more we know about something (listen to a piece), the more we appreciate it.

Some parents have told me that they don’t study classical music because their children don’t like it. In reality, though, everybody likes some kind of music, and children who are exposed to a variety of music at a young age learn to develop a taste for all kinds of music. We can all grow to appreciate different forms with exposure to it. For example, wouldn’t you say that the first time you hear a song on the radio – any kind of song, not just classical – you don’t really enjoy it? It is only after hearing it a few times that it becomes familiar, and after many repetitions, the song becomes like an old friend. Have you ever flipped through the radio stations looking for a song you know because the unfamiliar songs are annoying you?

Classical music is a broad genre, and as we all have our own tastes, probably nobody likes all classical music. But we probably don’t like all pop music or rock music or gospel music or jazz music or movie music, etc. either! However, with repeated listening and study of the structure of a musical piece, we can come to appreciate a piece. Also, when we study who a composer is, the historical period he or she composed in, his or intentions in composing the piece, and we give the musical work some context, we will come to enjoy or at least appreciate the music and what went into the composition. As a musician, I have also found that the pieces I spent hours practicing and performing are the ones I have the greatest appreciation and love for.

4. Music tells a story and is a means of communication.

We are drawn to stories. In classical music, there are some works that are specifically called program music and are meant to tell a story, like Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 “Pastorale”, in which he suggests scenes from a walk in the countryside by naming each movement (section) of the symphony with a title explaining what the story of the movement is. Also, ballet music moves us through a story with music and dance combined, like Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker. Operas and oratorios are stories where all the words are sung, and musicals tell a story through a play sprinkled with singing and dance numbers.

Not every song or musical work tells a specific story, but music is a means of communication and provides an evocative exploration and expression of emotions. As author Victor Hugo reflected, “Music expresses that which cannot be put into words and that which cannot remain silent.”

Image of four musicians, a string quartet, including composer Joseph Haydn rehearsing while a standing man watches over their shoulders and a few women sit to the side and watch.
Haydn Playing (Public Domain)

5. We learn history and culture.

Through music study,we connect with others across centuries and cultures, especially when music study is paired with history. For example, pre-Renaissance European music is mostly something called Gregorian chant because after the fall of Rome, the Catholic Church was the main power and influence in the Middle Ages and so “controlled” art and music. The monks of the Catholic Church sought to live simple lives, and thus their music is these simple tunes, sung in unison, in worship to God. Later, during the Renaissance, music includes small groups of instruments and singers, such as minstrels who traveled and performed to live.   

The orchestral era of music begins in the 1600s in what we call the Baroque Era (1600-1800), and the music contains frills and trills reflecting the style of the time of decorated dress and wigs. When we listen to For Unto Us a Child is Born from George Frideric Handel’s oratorio Messiah, and we understand the frivolous nature of the Baroque Era, it will make sense why there are multiple notes for one word!

Music of the Classical Era is known to be orderly and structured, so this may be why many people suggest that listening to the music of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, a Classical Era composer, is helpful when studying. When we examine the historical context of another Classical Era composer, Ludwig van Beethoven, we can bring more meaning and interest to his compositions. Beethoven lived at the same time as Napoleon and viewed him as a hero of democratic ideals and so originally dedicated his Symphony No. 3 “Heroic” to Napoleon. But when Napoleon declared himself emperor, Beethoven tore the page in half and instead dedicated the symphony to his patron, Prince Joseph Franz Maxmilian Lobkowitz.

Romantic Era music is characterized by the unabashed expression of emotion, so if you listen to the symphonies of Johannes Brahms or Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky knowing they are Romantic Era composers, you will understand why you find yourself on an emotional, introspective ride through the music.

The Modern Era (1900 to present) of classical music is filled with musical innovation and breaking the rules of the structure of the previous eras. So if you listen to Claude Debussy, Igor Stravinsky, or Phillip Glass, you may say, “I don’t like classical music” because the sounds are so disjointed. But a ballet about a maiden dancing herself to death in a sacrificial ritual (Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring) should sound chaotic and dissonant, so the music does reflect the topic, and we can only appreciate this with the historical context.

Music should be connected to history and enhances the study of each historical era.

Image of spiral bound book with turquoise cover with picture of bassoonist and other instrumentalists of the orchestra from a painting by Edgar Degas and words in white Quick Start Guide to Teaching About the Orchestra.

6. We discern worldview.

Johann Sebastian Bach was a Christian who wanted all of his work to be “to the glory of God”, and he even wrote this on each piece of music he wrote. As a church organist and choir director, he wrote a new cantata (choral piece) each week. His music is beautiful and structured, reflecting Bach’s worldview that God is a God of beauty and orderliness.

Claude Debussy, on the other hand, had no allegiance to faith in God and was known to be rebellious, unsociable, sensual, and hedonistic and cause scandals, such as being a womanizer. He was lazy about everything but his music. His world view was self-centered and anti-God and so he liked to push the boundaries of traditional structure in music with his innovative sounds. We hear this dissonance in pieces like La Mer (The Sea).

Children can listen to musical works and hear the results of world view, and so develop discernment.

7. It promotes emotional well-being.

Music is “the ultimate mood enhancer for emotional balance.” ** There is something beyond words in music that makes us turn to it, whether to listen and cry as we hear the sad elongated notes of the 4th movement of Symphony No. 6 “Pathetique” by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, or to dance in joy to his light “Russian Dance” from The Nutcracker ballet. Music (classical or not) can make us feel better or offer motivation for a long drive or working out. Music can shape our emotional experience and our subconscious narrative, much like a soundtrack in a movie. When our children study music and connect with it, they will have a powerful, life-long resource for emotional well-being!

8. It develops the brain and keeps it active.

Music enhances every stage of a child’s development – listening, motor development, language and vocal growth, social or ensemble skills, emotional or creative expression, and cognitive reasoning. Learning to listen can be an active form of learning (though we sometimes passively listen to background music), because when involved in music, the ear is being engaged and trained to listen, so neural pathways in the brain are firing. Also, music can be enjoyed at all ages and skill levels through listening. Though some of these go beyond mere music appreciation into music performance, we know that participation in music through movement, singing, playing in an ensemble, practicing and performing, or composing are also active ways of developing the brain.

Music is also an effective educational tool. As previously mentioned, music study can help in history, geography and culture study as we associate a song with a composer and the time period or country he lived in or a story about the time (like Beethoven’s dedication of Symphony No. 3 “Heroic” to Napoleon.

Painting by Berthe Morisot called Julie Listening of hands playing the piano while a young girl, who is sitting next to the player, leans on a piano and listens.
Julie Listening by Berthe Morisot (Public Domain)

9. It promotes aural learning.

We often ignore how important it is to listen because we live in a highly visual world where children and adults spend hours engaging our eyes on televisions, computers, video games, electronic devices.  But listening is essential.  A baby first orders its world through sound, since he or she is unable to see in the womb and since a baby’s sight is unfocused at birth.  Yet a baby is able to hear and distinguish his or her mother’s voice in the womb.

Next, in order to communicate and develop language skills, one must learn to listen.  Eventually, it is important to learn to distinguish between meaningful sound and noise, and in music appreciation, to discriminate pitch, rhythm, and voice or timbre. In developing our ears in this progression, we are primed for aural learning.

10. It helps us develop critical thinking through skills of listening, interpretation, and criticism.

Once we have learned to actively listen and to distinguish between meaningful sound and noise, and discriminate pitch, rhythm, and voice or timbre, we are ready to move on to interpretation and critical thinking. In learning forms of music like rondos or sonata form, and music theory (structure of chords and chord progressions), and in understanding historical and cultural context, we can interpret music and criticize it.

Many of the pieces that today are popular and well-known works of a particular composer were not well-received at the first performance of them. For example, at the end of the first performance of Igor Stravinsky’s ballet The Rite of Spring, a riot broke out, because audiences were not used to such dissonant, clashing sounds played all together or the syncopated jarring rhythms. Now, however, The Rite of Spring is considered to be one of the most important pieces of the 20th century. It takes learning to listen, interpreting and criticizing to understand why it is an important piece, even if it ends up not being one of our personal favorite pieces.

Music appreciation involves active listening to progress to critical thinking.

Image of violins of different shades hanging in a row with words 10 Reasons to Study Music Appreciation

Music is a fundamental human expression as we imitate God the Creator and enriches our lives as we enjoy God and beauty. Through music we learn people’s stories, history, culture, world view, discernment, and critical thinking. We enjoy emotional well-being and purpose and keep our brains active. The more we study and understand music, the more we will appreciate it!

“I can’t imagine a world without music.  I’m sorry [academics] haven’t argued more forcefully for the gift of music in children’s lives simply for its own sake – for the beauty and light it brings into daily existence – rather than bowing to a pressure to tack on ‘academic’ value, as in ‘Mozart helps kids build math skills,’ etc.  It’s enough that the world was graced with Mozart’s brilliant music – to play it so new generations of children hear it as part of being human.”  Mary D., parent and reader of Zero to Three

Do you want to dig deeper into music appreciation? Are you not sure where to start? Check out our music appreciation course, The Composer Detective.

Do you want your children to have a music education but you’re not sure where to start?

Now you CAN help your child learn about classical music and great composers without hours of planning, even if your only experience with music is playing the radio!

INTRODUCING The Composer Detective: Helping homeschool moms and kids investigate the lives and music of some of the world’s great orchestral composers!

Notes:

*Kent, W. (1917). Why Study Music Appreciation? A Talk to High School Pupils. Music Supervisors’ Journal, 4(1), 18-22. Retrieved December 20, 2020, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/3382424
**Cardillo, Joseph, Don DuRousseau and Galina Mindlin. Your Playlist Can Change Your Life: 10 Proven Ways Your Favorite Music Can Revolutionize Your Health, Memory, Organization, Alertness and More. Naperville, Ill.: Sourcebooks, Inc., 2012.

For Resources, see our article The Best Resources for Learning about the Orchestra and Composers.

Other Jus’ Classical Articles:

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