Rewards in classical music

David P. Anderson
1 January 2024
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We listen to music, go to concerts, read about music, and discuss music with friends. Many of us play or sing; some of us compose.

Why do we do these things? What do we get out of them? These questions led me various places; forgive me if this seems obvious or pedantic.

  • For me, the central reward in music is the emotional reaction to hearing or playing a piece of music. This can be anywhere on the emotional spectrum: contentment, elation, sorrow, maybe even anger. It can be very powerful.
  • The emotion may be painful, but even this is wonderful; it reaffirms our ability to feel, which is a key aspect of being human,
  • Music may unlock a repressed emotion; it may reveal a previously unknown side of yourself. Listening to a piece of music can change you fundamentally and forever.
  • Music can connect you to an earlier period of your life, creating an intense nostalgia ('saudade' in Portuguese). In this way it can tie together your life and help you make sense of it. It can be psychotherapeutic.
  • Music can also provide intellectual pleasure: e.g. the vast architectural genius of Bach choral works. Music can be funny. Music can provide a sensual pleasure; it can make us want to dance.
  • For performers and composers, music is a form of self-expression - perhaps the primary one.
  • Communicating with other people about music - describing our experiences, hearing theirs - can be wonderful. So can simply sharing a musical experience with someone. Music can bring people closer.

... and so on. For want of a better term, I'll call all these things "rewards".

Musical activities can give us rewards, but not all of them do - I've been to plenty of concerts that produced no emotional or intellectual reaction in me. And each activity has a cost: time, and in some cases money.

How can we get more rewards at less cost? E.g., how can I attend more concerts (as listener and perhaps performer) that give me lots of rewards? How can there be more such concerts? To get a handle on this, let's look more closely at musical activities and the factors that affect their rewards.


This includes both

  • Listening to recorded music: CDs, radio, Internet streaming (Spotify, YouTube, etc.). At home (perhaps as background music), in the car, at the gym, at a friend's house.
  • Listening to live music: concert hall, small venue, house concert.

The reward listening brings depends on many factors:

  • The piece itself, and how it resonates with your individual taste.
  • The particular performance of it, and how it resonates with your individual taste.
  • Whether you've heard the piece recently, or at all. Hearing a piece for the first time can be a uniquely rewarding experience.
  • The listening context: what mood you're in, who you're with, and whether your attention is focused on the music.

You might get more reward in hearing a piece if you know something about

  • The composer's intent in writing it.
  • The compositional techniques they used.
  • The composer themselves: their personality, life story, social/historical context, etc.

This information can be provided by program notes at a concert, or liner notes with a record. Perhaps a better medium is a live performance where the composer is present, and talks about the piece before or after its performance.


This might involve:

  • Playing by and for yourself; practicing.
  • Playing ensemble music, but not for an audience.
  • Playing for an audience: perhaps just a single person, or in an amateur music group, or in a house concert, or in a concert venue.

As with listening, the reward in playing a piece can depend on the piece itself and its interaction with your taste.

Playing for an audience can bring various types of rewards; it depends on the performer. Some seek applause and praise. Some want to express something, and for them a misty eye is worth more than applause. Others might want to touch a single heart in the audience.

In any case, the performer wants a reaction from the audience. It's no fun to play a piece for an impassive audience.

There can be more reward in playing for a small audience, with which you can interact, than for a big audience in a concert hall.

There is reward in making music with other people (duets, chamber music, orchestras), especially if their tastes and musical sensibilities are aligned with yours.


I imagine there can be rewards in composing for its own sake. But there's probably more reward if someone plays your composition - especially if they have related taste, and they like it. Or if they give you useful feedback. Or if their performance inspires you to improve the composition.

There's probably reward if your composition is performed for an appreciative audience. Especially if you're there. And maybe even more if you have a chance to talk to the audience about the composition.

There's probably more reward if someone records your composition and makes it available to the world, and to posterity.


When I hear a piece of music, I often want to tell people about the piece and my reaction to it. I want confirmation and feedback from them. If I like the music, I want to share it with them. And the process of formulating my thoughts usually expands and clarifies them. Of course I also want to hear what other people think about the music; they may have an insight that I missed.

At a higher level, discussing music is a great way to meet people, get to know them, and potentially become friends with them.

These interactions might take place in a social hour after a house concert, or in a Meetup group going for drinks after a large-venue concert. Or they could take place online, in the comments section of a YouTube video, on a message board, or in a chat room.

In any case: music-centered socializing can be a powerful reward. And it can also be a powerful tool for music discovery. When you meet someone whose tastes overlap yours, they can turn you on to great music you've never heard, and they can help you understand why it's great.