It used to be argued that listening to Classical music made you a better person.

After World War II, Americans were full of confidence about their ability to improve themselves, and immersion in the arts and literature was touted for its elevating effects.

Over the latter decades of the 20th century, that assertion was no longer an accepted fact – more and more it became ridiculed as propaganda.

Ultimately, the idea that listening to Classical music made you better was unprovable, and it was easy to point out counterexamples.  After all, Hitler listened to Classical music.  Clearly, becoming a better person, whatever that may mean on an individual basis, involved something other than listening to the “right” music.

At some point, though, we have to ask where the burden of proof lies.  Is it provable, for example, that listening to Classical music doesn’t make a particular individual “better”?  Of course not, because a] we can’t agree on what “better” should mean, b] we can’t measure music’s effects on every single person, and c] we can’t compare the way an individual is with how that individual might have been under different circumstances.  Who knows, maybe Hitler would have been an even worse person if it hadn’t been for his musical interests.  Yet another unprovable and — at least in my case — unimaginable idea.

But are ideas useless if they cannot be proven?

What if there are people on this planet who are convinced that the kind of music they listen to makes them better than they would be otherwise?  We can’t prove them right or wrong, but maybe the assertion, the belief itself, has value.  Regardless of what music they are using to “improve” themselves, the effort involved could be having positive results.

Just so nobody gets the wrong idea, let me spell out that I’m not trying to proselytize for Classical music – I’ve seen too many things to go down that road.

So here is my point: there is a significant leap from saying that a particular kind of music doesn’t make everyone better to saying that there is no music that makes anyone better.  The gap between those two statements has been largely ignored over the last few decades.  As a result, people are more frequently seeking out music that gives them a quick fix of pleasure, because they are assuming that a quick fix of pleasure is the only thing music can give.

And maybe that is all music is good for.

But can you prove it?

One Response to “Can music make you a better person?”
  1. Daniel Wolf says:

    “Classical music” is not part of some moral and ethical automatism, making listener or player a better person, but the diversity and complexity (if I can use that word) of the repertoire that falls under the label may well make the engaged participant a more interesting person.

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