Dead People’s Music

Avatar of Leila Yokoyama

Whenever I tell a Berkeley High School (BHS) student that I play classical music, I typically expect one of three reactions. The first reaction would involve the student raising their eyebrows and saying “Oh cool!” in a way that makes me feel as though it’s not cool at all. The second (and most common) reaction is when the student smiles in a funny way and boasts that they know all about classical music “and Mozart.” The third response: the student scrunches up their nose and says, “Isn’t it all for dead people?”

Yes, whenever most teenagers in the United States hear the phrase “classical music,” their minds conjure up images of old white men in powdered wigs and velvet breeches. But what most people don’t realize is that classical music is not limited to 18th century Europeans. It is a living, breathing form of expression that is being created all over the world by people of all ages and backgrounds. I’m sure you all have heard a few famous classical pieces that have withstood the test of time, and though you might not know their titles, you could definitely identify that you’ve heard them before. There is a damn good reason why these compositions have lasted 500+ years!

“Classical music is just happy and relaxing.” This stereotype, unfortunately, is held and believed by most people who are not classically informed. The truth is that some of the greatest classical works of human history portray the pain that their composers were feeling, and many of these pieces were written in a time of terrible suffering. Take Beethoven’s experience, for example. He became deaf towards the end of his life, and as you can imagine, it was very difficult to cope with his loss of his hearing. Yet, his inability to hear noises did not impede his ability to create music. Beethoven could not hear a single external sound when he wrote his late string quartets; however, these masterpieces are considered by many to be some of his greatest works. You can really hear the anguish and misery he was feeling in the notes and harmonies of these pieces, and I can assure you that listening to them certainly doesn’t make you feel happy or relaxed. 

On the other hand, there are countless other classical music pieces that are delightful to listen to. The wonderful thing about this genre of music is that it can recreate the whole range of human emotions with sound. Just as Adele can write a tragic love ballad and a raging revenge song, Mozart could write a comedic opera and a soul-wrenching Requiem (a piece to be played at a funeral). If you really boil things down, heavy metal and classical music have more in common than you probably realized, because they are both a form of human expression.

If you’re skipping through this and haven’t understood a word I’ve written, I beg you to at least understand this one point: classical music isn’t all for dead people. I’m sure you’ve heard it in a Geico ad at least twice, but there are other less obvious times that you have encountered it in your daily life. Have you heard of the modern-day composer John Williams? If you haven’t, you need to go look him up right now! If you have, do you know you know what sort of music he writes? The answer you’re thinking of is probably movie music, but I’m happy to inform you that it’s really classical music. So the next time you grab your TV remote (or press the Netflix app on your phone) and decide to watch Star Wars, Harry Potter, Home Alone, Superman, Indiana Jones, or Jurassic Park, pay close attention to the music playing behind the film. And unless you’re a dead person, I can assure you that you are alive, well, and listening to classical music!