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Forte: It won’t make you smarter, but keep listening

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yso column

Sara Mayo, Yakima Symphony Orchestra Principal Trombone

Why do we listen to classical music?

There are a lot of articles out there about the benefits of listening to classical music. Apparently, it makes you smarter, more focused, less stressed, less depressed. It lowers your blood pressure, reduces your pain, improves your sleep, whitens your teeth and freshens your breath. Each article has a different number of “shocking benefits,” but the message is the same: classical music makes you a better person. As a society, we’ve started viewing classical music the way small children view vegetables: something that must be endured rather than enjoyed for its own sake.

I have some thoughts.

First, some bad news: it turns out that the Mozart Effect has been largely debunked, and we should no longer hope to make our children into prodigies by making them listen to Mozart. Supposedly it does still help you study and stay focused, so at least those Baby Einstein mixtapes won’t go to waste.

My biggest complaint, however, is the generic use of “classical music,” because the classical genre covers a lot of ground. Most of these articles only list a small handful of musical examples, but there is so much more variety to choose from, much of which doesn’t fit the benefits claimed.

Will listening to Barber’s Adagio for Strings make me less depressed? Will I be calmer after listening to Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring? Will the Ride of the Valkyries help me sleep?

(Also, as a trombonist, I’ll note that Ravel’s Bolero is terrible for my blood pressure, but that’s a different conversation entirely.)

Out of all the studies out there, the one that makes the most sense to me looked at how classical music affected subjects’ ability to be more open and expressive about their emotions. Just like any art form, it spans the entire range of human emotion, from calm serenity to dissonant rage and everything in between. Ultimately, the reason we listen to classical music is the same reason we interact with any kind of art: because it reflects the human experience. It may not always be pleasant or comfortable, but it is what makes us human.

Sara Mayo is the principal trombonist for the Yakima Symphony Orchestra. Learn more at

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