Art Michaelmas 2020

Five classical music pieces to calm the mind

Classical music does not just have to be background noise when completing supervision work.  [Credit: Mark Heath]

It is a fact universally acknowledged that being at any university comes with an immense amount of pressure. Not just in an academic sense, but perhaps even more so in a social sense. We are often made to feel, consciously or unconsciously, by parents, teachers and even each other that we are in the midst of our most exciting and important years, and that we should make the most of every single second. For me, a key saving grace among the chaos and intensity of uni (along with chocolate and banana porridge, and vast quantities of tea) is music. It’s what I turn to when I’m feeling most overwhelmed.

Picture this: you’ve just finished an essay, it’s 2:30am and your friends are all asleep. Your brain is still working at three million miles an hour and you need something that will just provide a bit of calm. What do you listen to? Here are five of my go-to songs and classical pieces… 

  1. The Changing Lights – Stacey Kent

I was introduced to this song by my Mum, for whom it is a particular favourite. It evokes vivid images of the urban landscape, seamlessly weaving them together into a familiar narrative. I was unsurprised to learn that the lyrics were written by a novelist; it’s the melodic equivalent of watching an old Hollywood film. But beyond this, the words subtly remind you of the superficiality of emotions, ceasing to pretend everyone is happy every minute of the day. Your friends began to sing When You Wish Upon A StarAnd you clapped along like you didn’t have a care. But I turned to glance at you … And your face looked haunted. People may like to portray that they’re constantly having a wonderful time, feeding you the idea that the same should apply to you. Chances are they’re not. They just won’t show it. And you don’t need to pretend either.

  1. The Water – Johnny Flynn and Laura Marling

I don’t pretend to be an avid fan of folk music, but I make an exception for this song. The gentle rhythm of this paradoxically jolly, yet calming, tune chunters along steadily as the two harmony lines playfully intertwine. It’s the sort of song you can’t help but tap your foot along to. If you need a distraction at the end of a long day, try identifying and singing along to each harmony line; it’s surprisingly challenging. But, if nothing else, this song is a good reminder to drink more water. The water sustains me without even trying. Stay hydrated, kids. 

  1. Thankful – Rumer

Again, this song was introduced to me by a family member, this time my sister. Described by the singer as a meditation on the four seasons, the optimism and grounded tone of the lyrics shine through. The message is straightforward: I’m alive and I’m thankful for this time. Short Cambridge terms are stressful. Six books sit in a pile waiting to be read, you have 17 unread emails and your next deadline is looming. Plus, you’re dealing with things going on at home that your friends at uni might not know about. This song is a gentle reminder to be thankful, amid the chaos, for all the little things that Cambridge offers: the chats you have with a friend on the way home from Cindies, unexpectedly finding your favourite food in the hall, or realising that cocktails in Sidney bar are less than £3. 

  1. Mahler Symphony No. 5: Movement Four (Adagietto)

Acknowledged to be one of Mahler’s most well-known compositions, the fourth movement of Mahler’s fifth symphony is one of the most stunning and serene pieces of classical music I have both heard and played. Said to represent Mahler’s love for his wife Alma, it is somehow both heart-breaking and euphoric. Being both beautifully simple and fairly short in length, it is certainly accessible to those who are not avid classical music listeners.

  1. ‘The Girl with the Flaxen Hair’ – Debussy

In picking my final choice of recommendation, I was stuck between a number of Debussy pieces. While any Debussy work gets my vote of confidence – with the alternative choices ‘Clair de Lune’ and ‘Reverie’ being high up on the list – ‘The Girl with the Flaxen Hair’ fits the bill for being, again, beautifully simple, calming, and sort of dreamlike, but without being a tear jerker. It has been said that listening to this piece is like entering the world of a portrait by one of the great Impressionist painters. As I listen to it for the four hundredth time, I can truly understand what was meant.