Music is part of the fabric of our daily lives. Whether being sung ditties as babies, clapping rhythms with classmates at school, hearing piped Muzak in shopping centres, watching films with sweeping scores or humming to the radio while we cook, it surrounds us. Friedrich Nietzsche (who was most widely known as a philosopher, but who was also a composer) went so far as to say, "Without music, life would be a mistake."
We’re lucky if we learn to play an instrument or have a chance to go to concerts from a young age. But one of the many great things about music is that we can discover it at any point in our lives. It is always available and it is often for free.
Better still, there are many different styles and avenues to explore. All you need is time and an open mind.
The benefits of music
There have been many scientific studies to show the physical benefits of music. Listening to music releases dopamine in our brains, which is the chemical that we associate with pleasure. Simply put, music makes us feel good. A study of cancer patients even showed that music—and music therapy—can ease anxiety and discomfort in patients as they undergo medical procedures.
Listening to music can help improve memory and cognitive function, as well as concentration. It can be a way of enjoying solitude and focus—whether it's from learning an instrument from scratch, practising a violin that’s been in the attic for 60 years or sitting alone listening to recordings.
Even in its most basic form, the simple act of exploring music can help you tap into feelings and memories that have long been buried. As Leo Tolstoy wrote, "Music is the shorthand of emotion."
But it can also be a great social activity; you can go to classes, join an orchestra or ensemble at almost any skill level or attend concerts. In the words of Aldous Huxley, "After silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music." For many of history's profound thinkers, music is the ultimate form of emotional expression.
How to listen to music
Fortunately, music is not only for profound thinkers. It's for everyone, at any time of the day or night and at any time of your life.
Music is accessible night and day, most easily on the radio. The two main classical music channels are Classic FM (99.9-101.9 FM) and BBC Radio 3 (90.2-92.4 FM). BBC Radio 2 (88.1-90.2 FM) offers show tunes and classic pop music, and there are many other channels offering every possible style; Wikipedia has a list of radio stations in the United Kingdom that you can explore.
Listening habits have changed radically in the last decade. People rarely buy CDs now, but If you are digitally savvy, you can find anything you want all day long, often for free.
And if you're willing to pay a monthly fee, you can subscribe to streaming services and get access to a massive digital store. This means you don’t own anything, but you can listen to virtually everything. It’s like paying to be a member of a library.
There are some free services too, if you don’t mind being interrupted with adverts once in a while.
Free streaming channels (although some may require registration):
Paid subscription services:
YouTube offers a massive store of videos of every description and for a music explorer; it is like being a child walking into a sweet shop. Type any musical word into YouTube and you will discover recordings and films of some of the greatest players and groups who have ever lived. Based on your selections, YouTube will also select other things for you to watch, making it an amazing path to discovery.
YouTube also offers one of the most important and engaging explanations of music by none other than Leonard Bernstein. No one before or since has explained music in such inspiring and clear terms, and it is all captured in The Unanswered Question, which was filmed during his series of lectures at Harvard in the 1970s.
Other good free online resources:
The British Library Sounds collection has some wonderful old classical recordings.
The Library of Congress audio recordings includes a phenomenal archive of old classical, opera, jazz and folk music, including Alan Lomax’s seminal collection of field recordings of American folk music.
The BBC learning website offers many different educational resources, from learning to sing, to understanding harmony. NOTE: New information is no longer being added to this archived site, although you should be able to continue getting access to the existing material.
Classic FM’s website relates to its radio station and has lots of great content on it—from fun stuff to news and quite serious articles and videos, making it a great place to explore composers and styles.
If you still enjoy handling CDs and records, or you really like reading the booklet notes—but you don’t want to buy music you’re not certain about—then public libraries can offer you a good listening option. Try visiting your local branch to sample their collection.
How to discover Jewish musicians
In terms of inspiration, there are plenty of Jewish musicians that might be interesting for you to explore. Wikipedia has compiled a comprehensive list of many of them, whether composers, conductors, opera singers, pianists, or other instrumentalists.
There’s a particularly strong tradition of Jewish violinists. The Gershwins even made fun of it in the song, "Mischa, Jascha, Toscha, Sascha," about Russian Jewish violinists Mischa Elman, Jascha Heifetz, Toscha Seidel, and Sascha Jacobsen. One theory about this is that violin and clarinet were easily portable in case of impending pogroms, which were so common in 19th-century Russia. Also, valuable violins could be a good way of carrying wealth across borders in escape, although the Nazis often confiscated the Stradivari string instruments of fleeing Jews. The article entitled The stolen instruments of the Third Reich explains that history.
Another explanation for the success of (mainly) Russian Jewish immigrants is that music offered an escape from poverty. This is how young prodigies such as Heifetz and Menuhin were able to take their families from impoverished lives into the international glamour and financial security of the classical music world.
There is even a tradition of Jews combining the twin talents of comedy and classical music, with Victor Borge, Jack Benny, Henny Youngman and Oscar Levant (not to mention Harpo and Chico Marx). Many of the greatest musicals and most iconic American songs were written by the likes of George and Ira Gershwin, Jerome Kern, Richard Rodgers and Irving Berlin. And many iconic film scores have been created by Jewish composers including Alfred Newman, Bernard Hermann, Franz Waxman, Miklós Rózsa and Max Steiner. You can find out more about that impressive history in this article about The music behind Hollywood's golden age.
It’s certainly a tradition to be proud of, and one to inspire your musical adventures in whatever direction they may take you!