Study Music! A Musical Prescription for Stressful Times

It’s that time of the year again! And as always, it can be a pretty painful procedure. So, I’ve decided to mix up a little anesthetic for you. You will find below an intricate, well-balanced, painstakingly compiled (exaggeration) playlist of relaxing pieces from the classical literature, spanning from the ancient Baroque (early 17th to the mid-18th century) all the way to somewhat contemporary times (1950’s). Some of them you may have heard (especially Bach’s “Sheep May Safely Graze”), and others you may not (for example, Liszt’s Second Concerto for Piano and Orchestra). European composers dominate the programme, but I’ve also included two non-European works which you may find highly fascinating. The first one, Mathieu’s Concerto de Québec, comes from, (believe it or not), our own Québec, Canada! And because I hail from a Chinese background, I just had to include our immortal Butterfly Lovers as part of the repertoire. All of these works are very long, therefore you don’t have to worry about constantly switching songs. So enjoy, and I hope that you will find inspiration and strength in these wonderful treasures that have been graciously passed down to us!

1.) Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750): Sheep may safely graze (1713)

No one can say that Bach wasn’t an inspired musician after listening to this. Its soothing nature repels every darkness of the soul. Indeed, it makes you feel that there is someone watching over you, guiding your every footstep so that you, like the sheep, can safely graze in the midst of all these horrifying wolves which we call “exams”. I like to listen to this piece right before I start studying; it makes me feel refreshed and ready to go.

2.) Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791): Piano Concerto no. 21 in C Major, K. 467 (1785)

The timeless melody of the second movement appears in the 1967 Swedish film Elvira Madigan, which tells the story of two lovers who forsake society to be with each other. Mozart was extraordinarily gifted at writing melodies. He had such a unique way of developing melodies, combining melodies, and letting one melody flow effortlessly into another.

3.) Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791): Piano Concerto no. 23 in A Major, K. 488 (1786)

This concerto has an interesting structure. We begin with a gentle first movement, which is followed by a dark and tragic second movement. But after that comes a galloping finale, filled with energy and hope. As you listen to this, know that though times may be depressing, there is always hope. And with hope comes triumph.

4.) Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827): Violin Sonata No. 5 in F Major “Spring”, Op. 24 (1801)

The title says it all. What can be more refreshing than spring? It is actually shocking that Beethoven could write something like this. Not that he was incapable of crafting soft, warm melodies, but he often liked to mix them up with harsh and turbulent tunes that make the listener feel as if he/she is on a battlefield. However, in the “Spring” Sonata we truly find spring throughout; winter exerts no influence here.

5.) Franz Schubert (1797-1828): Piano Sonata in B-Flat Major, D. 960 (1828)

Schubert was a great admirer of Beethoven; in fact, he was the torchbearer at Beethoven’s funeral. Therefore it is not surprising to hear a bit of Beethoven in most of Schubert’s works. But Schubert was also guided by a more personal influence. He was a gifted singer, and in his compositions one always experiences the feeling of a love song drifting into the darkness of the night, beyond all reach of humanity…

6.) Franz Liszt (1811-1886): Concerto for Piano and Orchestra no.2 in A Major, S. 125 (1839-1840)

We have now moved from the Classical to the Romantic Period of music. It is a common misconception that Liszt’s life possessed only two elements: piano and women. True, piano and women played important roles in Liszt’s life (he was kind of a “rock star” in his time), but deep down inside he was always seeking for inspiration from the Divine. I believe that in this concerto he found what he was looking for. Unlike his First Concerto, which abounds with sonic-speed, bashing piano passages, here he was composing for the sake of music alone.

7.) Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893): Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 35 (1878)

Romantic composers were often inspired by the sound of a Gypsy’s violin. They must had been deeply moved by such a personal expression of music, free from the constraints of rules and politics. Tchaikovsky’s one and only Violin Concerto is filled with sounds of the Roma, and he masterfully incorporated them into his grandiose ballroom style of composition. The contrast is unbelievable; at times the music is calmly reflective, then it suddenly becomes HUGE! A perfect piece to wake you up, if coffee doesn’t work…

8.) Johannes Brahms (1833-1897): Piano Concerto no. 2 in B-Flat Major, Op. 83 (1881)

The unique thing about Brahms’s Second Piano Concerto is that throughout the entire composition, he almost never tries to employ too many instruments at the same time. Instead of a furious dispute between piano and orchestra which we find in many concertos, here the piano is frequently enjoying a friendly conversation with a small ensemble. Even more amusing, each conversation is shared with a different circle of friends. The exchange can get quite lively at times though (especially in the charming melodies of the finale), so while the music is warm, it keeps you awake.

9.) André Mathieu (1929-1968): Concerto de Québec (1943)

Welcome to the classical music of the 20th century! (We find classical music in the 20th century…?) I present to you our very own André Mathieu, Canadian pianist and composer. Mathieu was a child prodigy; in fact, he was so talented that people at the time called him the “Canadian Mozart”. Unfortunately, today his works are rarely performed. The Concerto de Québec is the third of his four piano concerti. As you let its passion and lyricism take you away, keep this in mind: yes, we have hockey and we have maple syrup, but we also produce unbelievably inspired music. (listen to entire playlist)

10.) Chen Gang (1935- ) and He Zhanhao (1933- ): The Butterfly Lovers (1959)

The Chinese legend of the Butterfly Lovers tells of the love of two students, Liang Shanbo and Zhu Yingtai. Though they vow to be never apart, Zhu is eventually forced into an arranged marriage. Upon hearing this, Liang dies in despair. On the day of Zhu’s marriage, Liang’s grave opens up. Filled with passion, Zhu jumps into his grave, and they transform into butterflies, forever together. The innocence of their pure love is blissfully captured in this symphonic poem for orchestra and solo violin. Like many compositions, the existence of this piece ran completely contrary to the circumstances of the time. In 1959, China was bound in political turmoil. But the Butterfly Lovers really shows how love can survive even in the darkest of situations.

2 thoughts on “Study Music! A Musical Prescription for Stressful Times

  • I appreciate your suggestions with regards to study music listed above. However, I also would like to contribute to this catalog and offer my suggestions:

    1) Study music should not disturb the heart, as over-pouring of emotions can paralyze the mind. To that end, I find most Romantic era music unsuitable for study music (except Schubert). For instance, I find Chopin’s work (especially 4 ballades and 4 scherzi) creates much turmoil when listened in succession. Even his 24 etudes are unsatisfactory for calmness needed for studying.

    2) Study music should continually enrich the mind subconsciously, unless of course you are studying music. To that end the Well Tempered Clavier must be recommended. The intellectual complexity of Bach’s keyboard Magnum Opus should enhance the listener’s ability to penetrate deeply into a question of interest.

    3) Study music should not be operatic. I find it all too tempting to switch to the screen to watch the opera rather than listen to the music and study. Operatic music has a tendency to draw listeners to the action of the plot, especially tumultuous sections, such as the quartet from Rigoletto or Lucia’s mad scene.

    Again, thank you for your wonderful post and I look forward to your future work.

  • Dear Thomas,

    Sorry for taking so long to get back to you. I appreciate your comments, as always. And as always, your comments are insightful and mind-enriching.

    I partly agree with what you suggested. But we should remember that different people study differently. For example, some people listen to Elvis when studying; I’m not sure how they do it, but it works. Some of my friends have told me that they actually need study music that “disturbs the heart”, so to not fall asleep. Contrary to what you and I would believe, they need a bit of disturbance to focus. (This is kind of like choosing the lesser of two evils.) Even I myself need a bit of Chopin’s ballads in succession sometimes to keep my eyes on the page.

    I think that both you and I tend to analyze music overly. Even study music we try to appreciate at the most minute detail. But I believe that this is not the case for the majority of my readers. Hence while we find some types of music disturbing, others will consider them just like “any other kind of music”. Once again, I do not expect any of my readers to become music analysts and appreciate explicitly the pieces I present. But I know that the pieces will stick with them subconsciously (as you said), so that at least one day, when they hear for example Brahm’s Second Concerto, they’ll say, “Hey, I recognize that tune!”

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