February 24, 2018

Black History Month: William Levi Dawson

In our third installment for Black History Month, we turn to William Levi Dawson (1899-1990), a renowned African-American composer, choir director, and professor. Dawson wrote chamber music, orchestral music, and choral music, and is best known for his arrangements of African American spirituals. Through all the forms he worked with, Dawson consistently incorporated African American themes and melodies into his music. In both his work and teaching, Dawson stressed that while African American musical heritage was key to many developments in jazz and jazz-derived music, it didn’t need to be limited to just these popular forms.


Dawson’s life took a multifaceted and variegated path, but education always remained his primary dedication. Born in Anniston, Alabama, Dawson ran away from home at the age of 13 to attend the Tuskegee Institute. There, he sang in the choir, played trombone in the college band, and started composing at age 16. After graduating in 1921, Dawson went on to study composition at the Horner Institute of Fine Arts in Kansas City, where he convinced the then all-white school to allow him to earn his BA through one-on-one tutoring sessions. Dawson later earned his master’s degree in composition from the American Conservatory of Music in Chicago. Dawson began teaching in the Kansas City public school system, and in 1930 was invited back as a professor at the Tuskegee Institute, where he played an integral role in founding the music school. There, Dawson also developed the Tuskegee Institute Choir, which became an internationally acclaimed ensemble, performing tours around the U.S. after their initial invitation to sing at New York City’s Radio Music Hall in 1932.


I talked to Dr. Gwynne K. Brown, Associate Professor of Music History at the University of Puget Sound, who is carrying out research on Dawson. Dr. Brown, currently writing a book on Dawson’s life and works for the American Composers Series published by University of Illinois Press, commented that a major theme for thinking about Dawson is the centrality of education in his life. As Dr. Brown describes: “He ran away from home as a young teenager to attend Tuskegee Institute, and he left a promising career as a trombonist in Chicago to return to Tuskegee in 1930 and create a school of music there. He was a devoted teacher and mentor to many young black musicians. He knew that the rigorous training he could provide, along with helping them to develop their self-discipline and resilience and ambition, he could help make sure that their talents and potential wouldn’t go to waste in a society that was ready to undervalue and discourage them. After he resigned from Tuskegee in 1955 he spent more than three decades sharing his knowledge and musicianship with young musicians of all races all over the country.” 


Indeed, after Dawson retired from teaching at Tuskegee in 1956, he spent much of his time conducting choral festivals and leading workshops around the world. Dawson was deeply committed to his art and had high standards for the students he worked with. In Dawson’s rehearsal notes for members of the All-Eastern Division Chorus in the 1961 Music Educators National Convention, he writes: “There will be no time to teach notes, rhythms, or pronunciations. All rehearsal time will be needed for fine points of performance such as interpretation, style and polish. Start learning now!” As a conductor Dawson asked for precision and attention to detail from his choirs. What set Dawson apart from other teachers, however, was his dedication to educating his choirs on the historical legacy and the proper singing techniques of the genre of spirituals. We’ll explore Dawson’s spirituals here, but first, let’s explore one of Dawson’s most well-known pieces for orchestra: his Negro Folk Symphony.


Listening to Dawson: The Negro Folk Symphony


One of Dawson’s keystone works is his Negro Folk Symphony, a significant yet largely unacknowledged contribution to the development of the American symphony. The Negro Folk Symphony was premiered in 1934 by the Philadelphia Orchestra with Leopold Stokowski conducting. It was Dawson’s aim to “to write a symphony in the Negro folk idiom, based on authentic folk music but in the same symphonic form used by the composers of the [European] romantic-nationalist school.” Inspired by Antonín Dvořák’s views towards nationalism in music, Dawson wanted his symphony to shed light on the African American voice, highlighting the music of his neighbors and ancestors alike in rural Alabama and the segregated South. Later in 1952, after a recent trip to West Africa, Dawson revised the piece to include more African rhythms, stating a desire to convey “the missing elements that were lost when Africans came into bondage outside their homeland.”


The Negro Folk Symphony sounds akin to late-Romantic orchestral music in terms of overall shape and instrumentation. However, as musicologist John Andrew Johnson describes, “Each of its three movements, while cast in a traditional form, is ultimately not controlled by these predetermined structures; rather, a continuous process of variation and development shapes its course.” Each movement has its own subtitle: “The Bond of Africa,” “Hope in the Night” and ”O, le’ me shine, shine like a Morning Star!” Dawson weaves characteristic melodies from African American folk songs and spirituals throughout each movement. While the piece can be appreciated without previous familiarity with the melodies or underlying background, there are strong programmatic elements in the piece that tie in with the titles of the movements.



The first movement, for example, “The Bond of Africa,” contains two related main themes. The first theme is original material by Dawson and represents the “missing link” from “a human chain when the first African was taken from the shores of his native land and sent into slavery.” The second theme, initially heard in the oboes, is based on the folk song ”Oh, m’ Lit’l’ Soul Gwine-A Shine.” Dawson incorporates some distinct techniques for programmatic effects in the second movement, as well. Tolling bells bring about an atmosphere of grief and lament, with a background of pizzicato strings representing the lives of slaves in bondage. Three gong strokes denote the Trinity, a symbol of hope guiding man through the night. In the third movement of the Negro Folk Symphony, Dawson takes on a lighter perspective. Here, he incorporates two African American melodies, “O Le’ Me Shine, Le’ Me Shine Lik’ A Mornin’ Star” and “Hallelujah, Lord, I Been Down Into the Sea” to illustrate a scene of children playing, unmoored by the despair of their slave heritage.


The Negro Folk Symphony is one of Dawson’s seminal achievements as a composer, but it remains relatively unknown today. In asking Dr. Brown about aspects of Dawson’s career that often go underappreciated or unacknowledged, she expressed to me that “many of Dawson’s choral works are routinely performed by high school and college and church choirs, so his legacy in that regard is firmly established. I do wish that more people had a chance to hear his Negro Folk Symphony. It is an American masterpiece. In my view, it should be in heavy rotation in the repertoire alongside the symphonies of Florence Price and William Grant Still. Every other time an American orchestra is about to program a symphony by Dvorak, they should stop and choose Dawson’s instead, or one of Price’s or Still’s.” (Stay tuned for our next post, which will kick off Woman’s History Month by featuring the works of Florence Price as well as several other noteworthy women composers).

All Classical will be featuring Dawson’s Negro Folk Symphony on the air this Sunday (2/25) at about 6:30pm, so be sure to tune in then!


Dawson’s Spirituals


As Dr. Brown mentioned above, Dawson’s arrangements of spirituals remain popular among choirs. Songs including “Ain’-a That Good News,” “King Jesus is a-Listening,” and “I’ve Been Buked,” are regularly performed and recorded by choirs around the world. Dawson’s love for African American folk music emerged from a young age, having heard them in church, local concerts, and at home. Dawson spent hours playing with folk melodies, creating idiomatic settings that make full use of the human voice and adding new rhythmic elements to them.



African American spirituals themselves originated in slave plantations, where singing was the only way slaves could express themselves musically. Slaves often sang at religious gatherings, which served for slaves as a conduit of free expression. It was the intention of white masters to use religion as a means of controlling slaves, with preachers brought into plantations to preach to slaves on the “evils” of running away or disobeying masters. However, religion became an important means for slaves to speak out against their oppression and for hopes of freedom. In both their religious gatherings and in work settings, slaves imbued their songs with code words that allowed them to communicate messages to each other without the masters’ knowledge. The word “home,” for example, was an expression of yearning to escape and live in a free land. A chariot or train represented the means of traveling home. (Songs such as “Gospel Train” and “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” were references to the Underground Railroad). Crossing the Jordan River referred to crossing the Ohio River and into the North, where freedom could be found.


Dawson’s arrangements of traditional African American spirituals are classified as “concert” spirituals. The concert spiritual began with the 1871 tour of the Fisk Jubilee Singers of Fisk University, who gave performances across the country to raise funds for the school. The primary material this group used for their concerts were formal settings of traditional slave melodies, but sung in a style associated with European art music. Unlike anonymous and improvisatory folk song spirituals, concert spirituals are crafted, written-down pieces intended to be performed by classically-trained voices. One might compare the African American spiritual to European counterparts such as the French chanson, the German lied, the English lute song, and the Italian madrigal. Spirituals are generally intended for non-religious concert performances rather than sacred use in church services, but they can have religious texts or deal with religious subjects.


During the time Dawson was emerging as a young composer, professional touring ensembles from historical black colleges were beginning to face struggles due to budget retractions from the Depression and changing music fashions in pre-World War II America. Dawson’s Tuskegee Choir, which he led from 1931-55, brought about a resurgence in popularity for spirituals. Dawson’s arrangements were unique in that they brought a more vigorous style of singing to spirituals. There is a sense of rhythmic momentum in arrangements like Ezekiel saw de wheelEv’ry Time I feel the spirit, and Ain’-a That Good News! that recall the tradition of slaves singing in a ring shout. Ring shouts, often performed by slaves after the conclusion of a regular worship service, was an expression of their African roots. Men and women arranged themselves in a ring, dancing in a circle at a faster and faster pace until individuals reached an ecstatic state and dropped out in exhaustion. In Dawson’s arrangements, the rhythmic energy accumulates in a similar way, with richly voiced extended harmonies closing out each phrase in ecstatic jubilance.


William Dawson and the Tuskegee Institute Chapel Choir.


Spirituals, including Dawson’s are typically performed with a distinctively Southern diction. Early composers of spirituals would often write the lyrics in the actual regional dialect. For example, ending consonants are softened, and final “r” consonants are modified to “h” (“over,” for instance, becomes “ovah”). This may have looked disrespectful to a performer in the post-Civil Rights era. Ultimately, however, composers incorporated this diction in their settings with intent of preserving and celebrating the unique quality of speech of a unique group of people in unique place and time. Commenting on a paper she wrote entitled “The Serious Spirituals of William L. Dawson,” Dr. Brown described to me how Dawson “crafted his choral spirituals with incredible care to make sure that they wouldn’t be performed or interpreted as humorous. Thanks to the legacy of blackface minstrelsy, there was a tendency in the early 20th century for white audiences to perceive all black music-making as comical. It’s fascinating to see Dawson’s strategic defusing of that danger through the way he handled spirituals in his compositions. He really valued the religious folk song heritage of his enslaved ancestors, and he cared both that they be taken seriously by white audiences, and that they not be abandoned by African American musicians who felt the songs were too demeaned to be worth saving.”


”I have never doubted the possibilities of our music,” Dawson once told an interviewer. Dawson’s works bridged the gap between listeners, having been known and loved by black and white audiences alike. If you are eager to jump into Dawson’s sound world, listed below are some suggested recordings of his orchestral and choral works:

Still: Symphony No. 2, Dawson: Negro Folk Symphony / Detroit Symphony Orchestra
Contains Dawson’s Negro Folk Symphony

Steal Away: The African American Concert Spiritual / Seraphic Fire, Patrick Dupré Quigley, Piano and Conductor
Contains Dawson’s arrangements Ev’ry Time I Feel the Spirit and There is a Balm in Gilead


The Glory of the Father / Washington County Chorale, Bernd R. Kuehn, Conductor
Contains Dawson’s Ain’-A That Good News



  1. Brown, Gwynne K. Personal Interview. 17 Feb 2018.
  2. Emory University, “A Life’s Journey,” William Levi Dawson: The Collection at Emory, 18 Jan 2008. Web. Accessed 12 Feb 2018. http://wayback.archive-it.org/6324/20130124150530/http://larson.library.emory.edu/dawson/web/
  3. Huff, Vernon Edward. “William Levi Dawson: An Examination of Selected Letters, Speeches, and Writings.” Arizona State University, Doctoral dissertation. May 2013. Web. Accessed 20 Feb 2018. https://repository.asu.edu/attachments/110287/content/Huff_asu_0010E_12647.pdf
  4. Lloyd, Thomas. “A History of the African-American Spiritual: Dawson and the Emergence of Large Mized Choirs in the Historical Black Colleges.” Bucks County Choral Society. Aug 2004. Web. Accessed 12 Feb 2018. http://www.buckschoral.org/news-and-archives/resources/spiritual-history/chapter-11/
  5. Pratt, Micheal. “The African-American Spiritual and its African Roots” Music for the Soul. 3 Sept 2009. Accessed 12 Feb 2018. https://michaelpratt.wordpress.com/2009/09/03/the-african-american-spiritual-and-its-african-roots/
  6.  Quigley, Patrick Dupré. Steal Away: The African American Concert Spiritual / Seraphic Fire, Patrick Dupré Quigley, Piano and Conductor. CD liner notes.
  7. “William Levi Dawson, African American Composer & Professor.” AfriClassical.com. 1 Jan 2016. Web. Accessed 12 Feb 2018. https://chevalierdesaintgeorges.homestead.com/Dawson.html
  8. “William L. Dawson, Composer, 90.” The New York Times. 4 May 1990. Web. Accessed 20 Feb 2018. http://www.nytimes.com/1990/05/04/obituaries/william-l-dawson-composer-90.html

The Canvas of Silence

Here at All Classical Portland, we have our own library of CDs which we draw from to use in our day-to-day radio programming. However, rather than playing these CDs directly on the radio, volunteers first burn each CD into our hard drives, where we can use them on-air  in the form of .wav files. One of my current tasks as an intern is to edit .wav files of pieces that have been burned into the computer but are still not quite ready for air play. Using a music editing software, I listen to each piece and edit the amount of silence that occurs before a piece starts, after it ends, and between movements of pieces like concertos and symphonies. This task is important because there are often up to four or five seconds of silence before sound starts on a CD track. I edit each piece to begin with just the right amount of pause for the radio host to press play after announcing the piece, and set the stage for the start of the music.


Measuring the moments of silence that bookend a piece got me thinking about the crucial role that silence plays in our experience of listening to classical music. Music, of course, is made up of sounds, but it is also characterized by the silences that happen between the sounds. The silence that takes place within a piece of music can create profound effects – effects of surprise, humor, fear, or a sense of expanded time and space. Sometimes these moments of silence are tiny, even unnoticeable to a listener. Other times, they can interrupt the flow of music and shock a listener into a new level of awareness. Throughout the history of classical music, many composers have realized that silence can be just as expressive as sound, holding different philosophies towards their use of silence as a tool to create different effects on the listener. Let’s explore some of those effects here.   


Silence as Surprise: Joseph Haydn, String Quartet Op. 33 No. 2, “The Joke,” IV. Presto (1781) 




Haydn’s music is filled with humor and wit, and one of his common tricks is to manipulate silence in his pieces, which deliberately thwarts listeners’ expectations of what will happen next within his otherwise predictable and logically organized forms. One of Haydn’s more famous uses of silences occurs at the end of his second opus 33 string quartet, nicknamed “the Joke.”   


The final movement, “Presto,” has a rondo form, containing a recurring main melody that alternates with contrasting themes. Haydn’s main melody is a buoyant tune comprised of four two-measure phrases. After several variations on the theme and a slower Adagio passage, Haydn starts up the theme again in its original form to close out the piece. This is where the “joke” of the piece happens – Haydn now splits up the tune into its four smaller components, with a two-bar rest between each one. When the melody finally ends, the piece appears to be over. Unsuspecting audience members might start to applaud, only to stop in confusion when the music starts back up again after a four-measure rest. The quartet plays the first half of the melody, but fails to finish out the phrase, leaving the audience hanging in suspense. As an uncertain and awkwardly hilarious silence fills the hall, the audience breathes out in relief and laughter as the quartet finally sets their bows down.   


Silence as Release: Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings (1936) 




In contrast to the Haydn example above, silence can also be used for the opposite effect, creating a moment of space, relieving the audience and releasing tension built up after sound has said all it can possibly say. One example of silence as an act of release can be found in Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings, which was originally composed as an Adagio movement in his String Quartet, Op. 11. The piece outlines an arc that travels from hushed sadness to intense grieving, and finally back to silence. The entirety of the 8-minute work develops out of a stepwise melody stated at the start of the piece. The music progressively builds in intensity via denser textures, stronger dynamics, and ascending registers in the strings.   


 At one point, the intensity reaches such a level of agonized pain that the strings appear unable to go any further, stuck on a note in the melody that gets louder and louder until it is thrown off into complete silence, creating a climax of emotional catharsis. (This moment happens at about 5:23-6:05 in the above recording by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, but I recommend listening to the whole piece for the full effect). Echoes of the climax note are left resonating in the empty space before the strings begin again in a quiet understatement, slowly dying away to the end of the piece with a new sense of peace and resignation. One of our hosts here at All Classical Portland, Christa Wessel, often says on air that classical music can serve as a “respite from the ruckus of the world.” The impact of this silence in Barber’s Adagio for Strings, a moment to sigh and catch one’s breath, is one of those magical places of respite you can enter into that can never be explained completely by words.   


Silence as Interval: Toru Takemitsu’s The Dorian Horizon (1966) 



The silence in Barber’s Adagio for Strings serves as a turning point, marking a moment between the climax of the piece the gradual descent to the end. This notion of silence as an interval between two events was key to the compositional technique of Toru Takemitsu (1930-1996), a Japanese composer known for his works which synthesized Western classical forms and experimental 20th century techniques with traditional Eastern sounds and instruments.  


Takemitsu was skilled in subtlety manipulating orchestral colors using unusual percussion, electronics, spatial arrangements of instruments, and silence, imbuing music with a sensuality he believed it had lost. Takemitsu’s use of silence in particular was heavily informed by the Japanese aesthetic of maMa is an everyday word from the Japanese language that incorporates various meaning of space and time – the space between two structural parts, the gap between two events in time. Ma is a type of emptiness, an interval of in-between, or a negative space. Ma can be seen in various aspects of Japanese culture, such as the deliberate pause at the end of a bow before coming back up, or the honoring of pauses and silence in conversation. Ma is a core concept underlying Japanese art forms, including architecture, gardens, sumi-e brush painting, and Noh theater. For music, Ma is the silence between all notes.   


The empty space of ma is not a void, but an energy filled with possibility. This sense of possibility can be heard in the silences of Takemitsu’s 1966 piece The Dorian Horizon. The Dorian Horizon is a collage of varying orchestral textures, some dissonant and grating, some soft and gentle. Each sound event is separated in space and time by intervals of silence or near silence. Sometimes this silence is absolute, creating a sense of space and sparseness. Other times, the silence is colored with deep ominous drones in the cello and bass, creating an atmosphere of claustrophobia and unease. In his own writings, Takemitsu defined ma as “the powerful silence.” Throughout The Dorian Horizon, it is the silences from which the events of sound arise, more than harmony or form, that create a sense of tension and resolution.  


Silence as Sound: John Cage’s 4’33 (1952) 



Early on in Takemitsu’s career as a composer, he was preoccupied with absorbing Western European orchestral music into his idiom. In his later years, however, Takemitsu found himself returning to experimentation with Japanese instruments and music styles. He credited this return in part to his contact with John Cage, who’s own artistic philosophy was greatly influenced by Japanese art and thought.   


One cannot discuss silence in music without addressing John Cage, who proposed the radical notion that there is no such thing as silence. Cage expressed his artistic philosophy through his compositions, but also through a series of essays and performative lectures throughout his life which are summarized in his book Silence: Lectures and Writings. As Cage describes in Silence, artists have always wanted their work to mean something, to do something. Cage, rather, aspired to be meaningless through his work. For Cage, that idea that art is useless and it expresses nothing is the very source of its strength. He declares in his “Lecture on Nothing,” “I have nothing to say and I am saying it and that is poetry as I need it.”   


Silence, in a way, became Cage’s symbol of this profound meaninglessness. Arguably Cage’s most famous (or infamous) work is his 4’33”, a three-movement work composed in 1952. 4’33”‘s score consists of three blank pages. The performer is instructed not to play their instrument throughout all three movements, which are to be timed with a stopwatch. Such a concept may seem like a gimmick, but unlike Haydn’s motivations in his Op. 33 quartet, Cage did not intend for 4’33” to be treated as a joke. 4’33” is a piece comprised entirely of silence – or is it? Without any notes to latch onto, the listener starts to become aware of the sounds in the environment around them – the uncomfortable rustling of clothes, the ever-present hum of the air conditioning, the traffic outside, even the thoughts running through their head.  According to Cage-ian scholar Kyle Gann, 4’33” represents “an act of framing, of enclosing environmental and unintended sounds in a moment of attention in order to open the mind to the fact that all sounds are music.” And indeed, in a recollection of the premiere, Cage describes: “You could hear the wind stirring outside during the first movement. During the second, raindrops began pattering the roof, and during the third people themselves made all kinds of interesting sounds as they talked or walked out.” Through the conduit of silence, Cage gave countless musicians and performers permission to go beyond the limitations of standard instrumentation and embrace all sounds as music.   


 After the Last Note 


One of my favorite moments to experience in classical music concerts is witnessing the very last note of a piece. As the final chord hangs in the air, the reverberations gradually dissipate through the concert hall. In that moment before the applause, it is as if the entire audience is holding their breath together in suspense and awe. Each listener was taken on a different emotional journey while listening to the piece just played, but in this moment everyone has arrived in the same place. Then, as the conductor lowers their baton, there is sudden exhale of relief. The hall once again resonates with life; this time not with the tones of instruments, but with the warm rush of applause and elated “bravos.”   


Even though the radio is not quite the same as a live concert, I feel that the hosts at All Classical are also sensitive to this special moment after a piece ends. When I edit the length of silence at the end of a piece, it is my job to create a fade out with a generous six seconds of silence after the last note ends. This gives the radio host the freedom to let the resonance of the last sounds and the emotional weight of the piece settle in with the listener before announcing the conclusion of the piece and moving on to the next track of the day’s program.  


By holding that precious space of silence with their listeners before speaking again, an All Classical host acts like the conductor in a concert, holding the baton up in the air before lowering it as a signal of finality, welcoming in applause from the audience. While everyone listens and experiences the station in their own way, I often personally feel that when listening to radio I am not truly listening alone. Rather, I am listening simultaneously with thousands of other people also tuned into the station.  Maybe this is why when a piece ends on All Classical I get that same feeling of shared suspense and relief as I experience in concerts.  



In the concert hall, on the radio, and in our daily lives, where does the sound end, and when does the silence begin? Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky died only nine days after the premiere of his Sixth Symphony, the “Pathetique.”* Like the man himself, the end of the final movement fades away into complete silence. In the last few measures, the only sounds come from muted cellos and basses playing a low, deep B minor chord and sounding as if coming from some distant, far-off place. In the last measure of the symphony, Tchaikovsky places a rest sign with a fermata (a musical “pause”). The piece concludes in open-ended silence, merging in with the ambience of the concert hall and the energy of the audience members. When does the piece end, and when does life begin again? The conductor lowers their arms, but a heaviness remains.  


How do you experience silence in classical music? Let us know by emailing intern@allclassical.org 

*The Oregon Symphony will be performing Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony, along with Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in Salem on Friday, February 9 at 8:00pm at the Smith Auditorium anin Portland on Saturday, Sunday, and Monday, February 10, 11, and 12 all at 7:30pm at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall. Visit the OSO website for details and tickets 



  1. “Adagio for Strings.” The Kennedy Center. Web. Accessed 7 Feb 2018. http://www.kennedy-center.org/artist/composition/3215  
  2. Canning, Donna. “Ma.” Unique Japan. Web. Accessed 7 Feb 2018. http://new.uniquejapan.com/ikebana/ma/  
  3. Davis, Ian. “Loud Silence and Quiet Sound: The Illuminating Music of Toru Takemitsu.” Flypaper. 20 Oct 2016. Web. Accessed 7 Feb 2018. https://flypaper.soundfly.com/discover/loud-silence-quiet-sound-the-illuminating-music-of-toru-takemitsu/  
  4. Kaye, Colin. “Classical Connections: The Sound of Silence.” Pattaya mail. 23 Sept 2015. Web. Accessed 7 February 2018. http://www.pattayamail.com/arts-entertainment/classical-connections-the-sound-of-silence-51527  
  5. Reel, James. “Franz Joseph Haydn: String Quartet No. 30 in E flat major (“Joke”), Op. 33/2, H. 3/38.” AllMusic.com. Web. Accessed 7 Feb 2018. https://www.allmusic.com/composition/string-quartet-no-30-in-e-flat-major-joke-op-33-2-h-3-38-mc0002369852  
  6. Ross, Alex. “Searching for Silence: John Cage’s art of noise.” The New Yorker. 4 Oct 2010. Web. Accessed 25 Jan 2018.  https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2010/10/04/searching-for-silence   
  7. Ross, Alex. “Toward Silence: The intense repose of Toru Takemitsu.” The New Yorker. 5 Feb 2007. Web. Accessed 7 Feb 2018. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2007/02/05/toward-silence  
  8. Swafford, Jan. “Silence Is Golden: How a pause can be the most devastating effect in music.” Slate.com. 31 Aug 2009. Web. Accessed 25 Jan 2018.  http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/music_box/2009/08/silence_is_golden.html   
  9. “The most crushing, perfectly placed silences in classical music.” Classic FM. 15 Jan 2016. Web. Accessed 25 Jan 2018.  http://www.classicfm.com/discover-music/latest/best-silences-in-music/   
  10. “Toru Takemitsu.” Encyclopaedia Britannica. Web. Accessed 7 Feb 2018. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Takemitsu-Toru 

Recommended Recordings for Black History Month

All Classical Portland celebrates Black History Month during the month of February, featuring some of the best recordings of composers of African origin (American, and around the world). Here are some recommended recordings of music by black composers, musicians, and conductors. If you purchase any of the music below using the Archivmusic.com links we have provided, All Classical’s programming receives a small portion from the sales. Happy listening!

But Not Forgotten – Clarinet Music by African American Composers / Marcus Eley, clarinet, Lucerne DeSa, piano – includes music by Dorothy Rudd Moore, Alvin Batiste, Clarence Cameron White, Undine Smith Moore, and more.

Violin Concertos By Black Composers / Barton, Hege, Encore Chamber Orchestra – includes music by Joseph Bologne Chevalier de Saint-Georges, Joseph White, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, and Chevalier De Meude-Monpas.

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor: Chamber Music / Kelly Burke, clarinet, John Fadial, violin – includes Coleridge-Taylor’s Quintet for Clarinet and Strings in F Sharp minor, African Dances for Violin and Piano, and Nonet in F minor.

American Classics – Edmond Dédé / Richard Rosenberg, Hot Springs Music Festival Symphony Orchestra – includes Edmond Dédé’s ChicagoMerliton fin de siècleRêverie champêtre, and more.

Ellington: Black, Brown & Beige / Jo Ann Falletta, Buffalo Philharmonic – Includes Ellington’s  Black, Brown and Beige Suite, Harlem, Three Black Kings, and more.

Hailstork: An American Port Of Call / JoAnn Falletta, Virginia Symphony – Includes Hailstork’s Symphony No. 1, Launch Out On Endless Seas, Fanfare on “Amazing Grace,” and more.

Joplin: The Complete Rags, Waltzes & Marches / William Appling, piano – An extensive of Joplins ragtime pieces, including Sugar Cane, The Cascades, Bink’s Waltz, and more.

Still: Summerland / Susan Dewitt Smith, piano, Alexa Still, flute / New Zealand Quartet Includes William Grant Stills’s  Prelude for Flute, String Quintet and Piano, Pastorela, Folk Suite No. 1, and more. (Note from John Pitman: Susan Dewitt Smith is from Portland, and has been featured on our Thursdays @ Three program!)

Still: La Guiablesse, Danzas Da Panama / Jackson, Still, Berlin Symphoniker – Includes three of John Pitman’s favorites:  Danzas de Panama, Summerland and Quit Dat Fool’nish.

Samuel Coleridge Taylor, and Fela Sowande / Chicago Sinfonietta/Paul Freeman, cond. – features Fela Sowande’s beautiful African Suite for Strings.

American Classics – Dreamer – A Portrait Of Langston Hughes / W.G. Still, Margaret Bonds – Includes Bonds’s The Negro Speaks of Rivers, Kurt Weill’s Street Scene: Lonely House, and more.

Imani Winds – Includes pieces by Jeff Scott, Ravel, Piazzolla, Mongo Santamaria, and Umoja, a piece by Imani Wind’s flutist Valerie Coleman. (Note from John Pitman: One of their first recordings, and still of favorite here at All Classical Portland.)

George Walker:  Lyric for Strings / Paul Freeman, Chicago Sinfonietta – Includes pieces by composers Ulysses S. Kay, George Walker, Roque Cordero, Adolphus Hailstork, and more.

Florence Beatrice Price:  Dances in the Canebrakes / Althea Waites, piano – Includes pieces by William Grant Still, Margaret Bonds, Ed Bland, and Florence Beatrice Price.

Obo Addy: Our Beginning / Kronos Quartet – includes pieces by Dumisani Maraire, Hassan Hakmoun, Foday Musa Suso, Lawrence JKS Tamusuza, Obo Addy, and more. (Note from John Pitman: Obo Addy taught music at Lewis & Clark College prior to his death in 2012.)


Do you have any other favorite classical music recordings by black composers or musicians? Email us at intern@allclassical.org to let us know!

Black History Month: William Grant Still

Since 1976, the United States has officially recognized February as Black History Month, an annual time to recognize the central roles blacks have played in U.S. history and a celebration of the achievements of African Americans in our culture and society. All Classical Portland will be joining the celebration of Black History Month, featuring some of the best recordings of composers of African origin (American, and around the world).


One of the critical values of classical music (and of art in general) is that it allows listeners to hear the world through different lenses. Through their unique set of backgrounds, experiences, and values, composers create works that expose their audiences to humanity’s rich variety of perspectives and cultural traditions. However, as an art that draws from a primarily western European tradition, celebrating diversity is also one of classical music’s greatest challenges to overcome. Even today, black composers remain on the outskirts of the classical music establishment. Social prejudices, as well as other factors, have excluded them from entering the classical canon, which continues to be largely dominated by white, male composers. However, African-Americans have deeply influenced the orchestral tradition in the United States and beyond.


One of the most prominent African American contributors to the history of classical music was William Grant Still (1895-1978), a leading figure in the Harlem Renaissance and known to his colleagues as the “Dean of Afro-American composers.” Born in Mississippi and raised in Arkansas, Still took formal violin lessons and taught himself clarinet, saxophone, oboe, viola, cello and double bass. He was interested in pursuing a college music education, but his mother pushed him to study medicine at Wilberforce University in Ohio, concerned that societal limitations would prevent a successful career as a black composer. Nevertheless, Still later dropped out of Wilberforce and entered Oberlin University to study music.

Still had a diverse musical training. He wrote jazz arrangements for blues masters and bandleaders such as Artie Shaw, Paul Whiteman and W.C. Handy, but also received formal instruction from composers including George Chadwick of the first New England school, and the French modernist composer Edgard Varèse. Over his career, Still wrote over 150 compositions, including operas, ballets, symphonies, chamber works, choral pieces, and solo vocal works.


Still broke racial barriers and earned many “firsts” in the realm of classical music. He was the first African American to conduct a major symphony orchestra in the United States, as well as first to have an opera produced by a major company in the United States. Additionally, Still composed the first symphonic work by a black composer to be performed by a major U.S. orchestra, the Afro-American Symphony, premiered by the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra in 1931 under the direction of Howard Hanson. On Thursday, February 1st, All Classical will be featuring this work alongside some of the other greatest works by African-American composers.


The Afro-American Symphony fits within the standard framework of a European four-movement symphony but incorporates African American musical idioms throughout the piece. By blending jazz, blues, and spirituals into a traditional classical form and placing them within the context of the concert hall, Still highlights these styles as something to be celebrated, rather than downcast as low class or vulgar music. Let’s explore the ways that Still interweaves these three African American idioms – jazz, blues, and spirituals – into his Afro-American Symphony, with a focus on the first movement.


The Afro-American Symphony is scored for full orchestra, including celeste, harp, and tenor banjo (the piece was the first time a banjo had been used in symphonic music). The symphony has a typical sonata-form first movement, a slow movement, a scherzo, and a fast finale. While Still did not intend the Afro-American Symphony to be an explicitly programmatic piece, his notebooks did include alternate titles for each movement (“Longing,” “Sorrow,” “Humor,” and “Aspiration”). After completion of the symphony, Still linked each movement to verses from poems by the poet Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906), which heighten the emotional impact of each movement. Dunbar was one of the first African American poets to achieve a national reputation from both white and black audiences. His accurate portrayals of African American life in the South using folk materials and dialects aptly complement Still’s efforts to interweave African and European traditions in his piece.

For the music itself, the opening movement begins with an introductory melody by the English horn, followed by the first theme played by a muted trumpet, a blues melody adapted from W.C. Handy’s Saint Louis Blues. This tune becomes a prominent centerpiece, reappearing in altered forms throughout both the first movement and the symphony as a whole. We might now think of blues music as any sort of sad, downcast kind of song, but the blues has a rich African American history, beginning as a folk style that developed in the southern United States and becoming a standard genre by the end of the nineteenth century.


Since the 1920s, the blues has helped shape jazz, country music, and rock’n’roll, and many other popular musical genres. Still’s melody has several key features that make it a classic blues tune, including its use of the standard twelve-bar blues harmonic progression, a swung rhythm, and a use of lowered fifth, third, and seventh scale degrees in the melody that imitate “blue” notes. Still was aware that inserting a blues tune into his symphony could cause some listeners to perceive it as unrefined. However, as he writes in his sketchbook, his decision to place the tune at the forefront of the piece reflects his fierce defense of blues as a powerful emblem of African American identity:


“I harbor no delusions as to the triviality of the Blues, the secular folk music of the American Negro, despite their lowly origin and the homely sentiment of their texts. The pathos of their melodic content bespeaks the anguish of human hearts and belies the banality of their lyrics. What is more, they, unlike many Spirituals, do not exhibit the influence of Caucasian music.”


Other elements throughout the movement reflect characteristic features of African American music. Later, for example, the first theme repeats in the clarinet, this time with interjections from other winds. These interjections between short phrases of melody suggest the “call-and-response” style found in much African music. Still also frequently uses syncopation in the melody and accompaniment (rhythms with accents displaced on the weak beat) and chords including both major and minor thirds, further suggesting African American-influenced jazz music.


Also of note is Still’s unusual instrumental timbres. Still groups instruments together to create sounds typical of jazz big bands, including trumpets and trombones with Harmon mutes, drum set effects such as steady taps on the bass drum, dampened strikes on the cymbal, and col legno (on the wood of the bow) rhythms in the violins. All of these factors give a nod to the seminal influence of jazz as the style that became most associated with America between the two World Wars. American classical composers seeking a way to write music that was distinctly “American” took advantage of the new idiom of jazz as inspiration, including George Gershwin, Marc Blitzstein, and Leonard Bernstein. Jazz also influenced classical composers in Europe, including Erik Satie and Igor Stravinsky.


As the first movement continues to develop the jazzy melodies from the first theme, however, it transitions to a second theme with a melancholy mood, with pentatonic contours suggestive of an African American spiritual. Spirituals originated when slaves heard hymns upon conversion to Christianity and used the hymns as musical models, applying their own ideas to Biblical texts with themes of longing freedom from bondage. Still’s combination of blues and spiritual-influenced music fittingly reflects movement’s subtitle of “Longing” while sharing a core aspect of the African American experience with his audience.

The rest of the symphony continues with this fusion of African American experience into classical European form. The second movement, Adagio (“Sorrow,”) continues with themes that relate to the first movement but carrying on in the spiritual style.  The third movement, Animato (“Humor”), presents a pair themes and variations. Interestingly, several measures into the first theme is a tune that closely resembles Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm.” Did Gershwin get his melody from Still, or was it the other way around? While scholars haven’t reached a decisive conclusion, musicologist Catherine Parsons Smith suggests that Still believed Gershwin had picked up the melodic and rhythmic ideas of the tune from improvisations by Still while playing in the orchestra pit of Shuffle Along ten years earlier. Either way, the melody is a joy to listen to, and in addition to the more fanfare-like second theme the movement echoes the themes of African American emancipation and empowerment in the Dunbar poem attached to the movement. The final movement, Lento con risoluzione (“Aspiration”), begins with a poignant hymn-like section reminiscent of gospel and choral music, and gradually culminates into a lively finale.


The Afro-American Symphony is a compelling reflection of Still’s diverse range of experiences as a composer and musician. Still’s incorporation of three prominent forms of African American music into his piece, the blues, jazz, and spirituals, creates a unique symphonic style that celebrates the complexity and richness of the black experience in the post-Civil War musical era. Since the 1931 premiere of the Afro-American Symphony, Still’s multifarious style has gone on to influence even non-classical music. In 1934, Still moved to Los Angeles, where he composed music for films alongside his classical works, helping shape a style that other composers and arrangers used for scoring films and popular music. The Afro-American Symphony, however, remains as Still’s landmark piece, and remains one of the most frequently performed symphonies by an American composer in the United States. Bringing together a lifetime of musical experiences, it has earned a place in the canon of the Western classical music tradition not in spite of, but because of its daring and creative integration of African American and European idioms.


Hungry for more listening? Music Director John Pitman also has some recommended recordings of Still’s works from All Classical’s music library.  John chose a particular recording of Still’s Symphony  for several reasons:

“The performance, by the Cincinnati Philharmonia Orchestra, is especially bright and full of life.  There are also two rare gems by the composer on the CD, and a work by Olly Wilson called Expansions II, which connects Still’s mid-century music to more recent times.  The liner notes are especially valuable, as they include several paragraphs by the composer’s daughter, Judith Anne Still, who has dedicated her life to preserving her father’s important contribution to American music.”

If you are interested in listening to this CD, it can be purchased via this link to Arkivmusic.com. When purchasing the CD using this link, All Classical’s programming receives 10% from the sale.


Thanks for reading, and stay tuned for more blog posts this month featuring composers, conductors and musicians in celebration of Black History month, including Marian Anderson, Paul Robeson, André Watts, Kathleen Battle and more!



Pathways to Listening

One thing I find gratifying about classical music is that there is always more to learn from this art form. Whatever your relationship is with classical music right now, it can be enriching to continue learning about it, regardless of your level of experience and knowledge with the genre. It is a joy to hear All Classical carry this spirit of learning into their day-to-day programming. Composer’s Datebook and The Score, for instance, dive deep into the background and compositional process of different pieces of music. On air between pieces, All Classical hosts will often give tidbits of insight into the music just played or the next piece coming up. How old a composer was when they wrote a piece, a memory of the first time the host heard a piece – you never know what interesting and inspiring knowledge you might come across when listening to All Classical.

Are you eager to learn more about classical music? Whether new to classical music and want a more structured introduction to the genre, or already a long-time listener, there are many options for deepening your relationship with classical music in some way. The sheer number of resources and information available, however, can make such a task daunting. To make the process easier, let me suggest a few different pathways of learning to take, depending on your personality, preferences, or specific interests. Consider this a “Choose Your Own Adventure” – for classical music!


The Bookworm’s Pathway: Exploring Historical Context 

Do you define your quality time as spending a night in and curling up with a good book? Then you may find digging into the background and context of the music you love to be a rewarding experience. Who wrote this music? Where, and when did they write it? Why did they write it, and what social and political factors may have influenced their artistic output? Oftentimes I find that asking these questions and learning about a particular composer or time period of music can lead me into an ever-deepening rabbit hole of even more and topics to explore and pieces of music that I have never heard before.

Begin by creating a “listening tour” for yourself. If you don’t have the time or resources to go out to concerts on a regular basis, do not fear!  Simply make a music playlist using a favorite composer, instrument, or time period as a starting point. Services like Spotify are great for this because they can recommend music based on your listening preferences. Once you have your personal playlist created, find a resource to learn more about the topic or theme of your playlist.  (For example, you might seek out a biography or documentary on the composer you are interested in). A site like Wikipedia can also be a useful launching point, but there are also several quality websites that focus specifically on classical music knowledge. Here’s a list of recommended, free resources:

Building your playlist:

  • ClassicalArchives– An archive of classical music recordings. This is a great place to search, purchase, and download recordings. Entering search terms for classical music on iTunes can be a nuisance at times, but this site has useful search functions by composer, period, principal instrument, and more.
  • Naxos Records Classical Composers Database– An alphabetical list of hundreds of composers, with useful links to lists of all music albums which include their music.
  • Spotify “Composers Basics” Playlists – In the Classical Music section of Spotify, a number of playlists have been created for individual composers which feature their most influential and loved works.

Learning about composers and their works:

  • Classical Music Navigator– A comprehensive encyclopedia of music works, composers, as well as forms and styles of music.
  • Classical Net– A catalog of both information and news on classical music, including CD reviews and recommended recordings.
  • AllMusic– A website includes reviews of new music from all genres, but also containing useful many composer biographies and program-note style descriptions of classical music pieces. Simply look up a classical music term using the search bar.

Resources on the All Classical website:

  • Beyond The Music Blog– All Classical’s Music Director, John Pitman, listens to new classical music releases each month and selects one album to feature each month. If you are interested in seeking out new music or performers, this blog is for you!
  • Programs on All Classical– Discover programs like Club Mod, The Score, Northwest Previews, and more.


The Explorer’s Pathway: Discovering Your Local Classical Music Scene 

This pathway is the perfect option if you love live music and enjoy going out to meet new people. Challenge yourself to attend a classical music event every week or month. Try going to events that feature performers, groups, or styles you’ve never heard before – there are likely to be many hidden gems in your city waiting to be discovered. If you live in the Portland, OR, the classical music scene here is alive and well. Wherever you are, your local new publications are a good place to start searching.

Here are some useful resources for finding music events in the Portland area:

  • All Classical’s Cultural Events Calendar– A listing of upcoming music performances with descriptions and links to ticket information.
  • All Classical’s Northwest Previews– Tune in to All Classical Friday mornings at 8:00 am for a five-minute feature highlighting arts events taking place throughout the upcoming weekend. If you miss the broadcast time, Northwest Previews is also available as a podcast.
  • Oregon Symphony Events Calendar– The Oregon Symphony presents a variety of concerts each season, from symphonies and concertos to movie score music.
  • OregonLive Events Calendar– The Oregonian’s online calendar features submissions for events in the metro area as well as other cities in Oregon. Filter your search by location, keyword, or category (including classical music).


The Tinkerer’s Pathway: Pick Up an Instrument and Play! 

Have always been itching to learn to read music for the first time or pick up an instrument you haven’t played since your high school days? If you are a hands-on person and enjoy immersing yourself in the process of whatever it is you are doing, this pathway is for you. Learning to make music can be a valuable source of growth and enjoyment for the mind, body, and soul. An increasing gamut of scientific research is supporting the finding that music making promotes neuroplasticity, or the brain’s ability to reorganize and develop new synaptic connections between neurons. Learning a new instrument is a particularly effective practice that feeds the brain by strengthening existing and making new neuronal connections.

The science behind learning a new instrument may be complex, but the challenge of taking on this path is deceptively simple: keep it fun. Committing yourself to practicing for a certain amount of time on your instrument every day can turn your adventure into an obligation. Instead, find ways to engage with your instrument that remind you of the joy of music, whatever that means for you – learning your favorite songs on the piano and singing along, getting together with other musicians and playing duets, or maybe even writing your own music! The possibilities are endless. Here are some learning resources that are free and simple to use, on your own time:

  • Coursera Music Courses– Coursera is an online platform that offers free MOOCs (massive open online courses) on a variety of subjects from top universities and institutions from around the world. For music, Coursera offers options for learning music theory fundamentals as well as more specific topics, including guitar playingsongwriting, and jazz improvisation.
  • Music Theory Websites – Websites like musictheory.net and teoria are great for building up a basic knowledge in musical elements like scales, chords, and intervals, and include exercises in ear training, rhythmic skills, and more.
  • iOS and Android apps – There are a variety of free or low-cost apps for learning and playing music, including SimplyPiano, Yousician, and Uberchord.
  • YouTube Channels – There are many quality YouTube channels and videos on learning just about any instrument. Go out there and explore!


There are many ways to experience classical music, but one thing we have in common is that we are all listeners. Even when life gets in the way and we might not be able to engage with the music to the extent you would like to (as a reader, concert-goer, or musician), we can always listen. Your financial support of classical music is also a tremendously impactful action that doesn’t require too much time and effort on your part. But if you do have the time, challenge yourself to choose one of these learning pathways and stick to it. You never know what new discoveries about classical music, and also about yourself, may come your way.

Do you have a favorite resource for connecting with classical music that was not discussed here? If so, feel free send us a message at intern@allclassical.org.



  • Seinfeld, Sofia, et al. “Effects of music learning and piano practice on cognitive function, mood and quality of life in older adults.” Front Psychol. 2013; 4: 810. PMC. Web. 17 Jan. 2018.
  • Slevc, L. R., Okada, B. M. (2015). Processing structure in language and music: a case for shared reliance on cognitive control. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 22, 637-652.
  • Wan, Catherine Y., and Gottfried Schlaug. “Music Making as a Tool for Promoting Brain Plasticity across the Life Span.” 16.5 (2010): 566–577. PMC. Web. 17 Jan. 2018.

Music and the Brain: Music and Memory

The past which is not recoverable in any other way is embedded, as if in amber, in the music, and people can regain a sense of identity. . . — Oliver Sacks

In our last two posts investigating the fascinating realm of Music and the Brain, we explored what drives our musical preferences and some of the human body’s physiological responses of listening to music. Today, we look into the connections between music and memory, and how music can serve as an agent of healing through helping sufferers of Alzheimer’s Disease deal with memory loss.


Saving His Music

On January 11th’s Thursdays @ Three program here at All Classical, pianist Naomi Violette will be sharing the music of Steve Goodwin, a pianist and composer with Alzheimer’s. In their project Saving His Music, Naomi has been helping Steve write down and capture his music before it fades into the fog of his disease. Dr. Larry Sherman, a neuroscientist at Oregon Health and Science University, will also be in the studio to explain to listeners how music affects and shapes our brain.

Alzheimer’s is a form of dementia, a chronic disorder that causes problems with memory, thinking, and behavior. While the majority of people with Alzheimer’s are 65 and older, Alzheimer’s is not a normal part of aging and progressively worsens over time. Alzheimer’s begins in the early stages with mild memory loss, but in the later stages of the disease, a patient will experience symptoms that interfere with daily life, including disorientation, mood and behavior changes, and difficulty speaking.

Steve’s music, often inspired by nature, served as the soundtrack for his family’s life and easily flowed from his hands to the piano. Much of it was never written down, and early onset Alzheimer’s made it difficult for Steve to play piano. But by recalling moments from his songs, Steve has been collaborating with Naomi to fill in the gaps. His music, though he may struggle to get it out, still remains deeply instilled within him.


The connection between music and memory

Music has a profound connection to our personal memories. Listening to an old favorite song can take you back years to the moment that you first heard it. A 2009 study done by cognitive neuroscientist Petr Janata at the University of California, Davis, found a potential explanation for this link between music and memory by mapping the brain activity of a group of subjects while they listened to music.

Janata had subjects listen to excerpts of 30 different songs through headphones while recording their brain activity with functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI. The songs were chosen randomly from “top 100” charts from years when each subject would have been 8 to 18 years old. After each excerpt, the subject was asked to answer questions about song, including whether the song was familiar, enjoyable, or linked to a specific autobiographical memory. Janata found that songs linked to strong emotions and memories corresponded with fMRI images that had greater activity in the upper part of the medial pre-frontal cortex, which sits right behind the forehead. This suggests that upper medial pre-frontal cortex, which is also responsible for supporting and retrieving long-term memories, acts as a “hub” that links together music, emotions, and memories.

These findings were supported by an earlier study, where Janata found that this very same region of the brain was active in tracking tonal progressions while listening to music. This music-tracking activity became even stronger when a subject was listening to a song associated with powerful autobiographical memories. In this way, Janata describes that listening to a piece of familiar music “serves as a soundtrack for a mental movie that starts playing in our head,” calling back memories of a particular person or place.


Music therapy and Alzheimer’s

The medial upper prefrontal cortex “hub” also happens to be one of the last areas of the brain to atrophy from Alzheimer’s. This may explain why people with Alzheimer’s can still recall old songs from their past, and why music can bring about strong responses from people with Alzheimer’s, causing patients to brighten up and even sing along. In fact, a type of therapy called music therapy takes advantage of this very phenomenon.

Music Therapy is a type of non-verbal therapy that uses instruments and music to help people work through a range of emotional, cognitive, and social issues. Music Therapy can be a profound tool for healing through using the process of making and listening to music, providing people with a powerful channel for communication and expression.

How exactly does music therapy work? As we discussed in our previous post on physiological responses to music, music can act decrease anxiety and stress by affecting heart rate, breathing, and promoting the release of endorphins. But as we have discovered, music can also help bring back previously forgotten memories.

A recent study from Brown University School of Public Health found that the use of a music therapy program on long-stay nursing home residents with Alzheimer’s was associated with reductions in anxiety medication, as well as improvements in behavioral and psychological symptoms of dementia. The music therapy program used in this study, Music and Memory, provides patients with personalized listening devices stocked with playlists of their favorite music. If you’d like to learn more about Music and Memory, the program was featured in the 2014 award-winning documentary, Alive Inside. I also recommend the author and neurologist Oliver Sacks’s excellent book, Musicophilia, which explores the effect of music on the brain and the human condition through a series of portraits on people from all walks of life. Remember, wherever you are in life, music can be used as a power to heal and remember what matters to us.


Holiday Programming Details

All Classical Portland continues to bring a richness to the season with special holiday programming features. Throughout the month of December, the hosts of All Classical Portland weave together a calming and uplifting Tapestry of Holiday Sounds which gracefully reflects the sense of joy and peace associated with this special time of year. Tune in anytime to share the joy, and mark your calendars for these special programs:

Sunday, December 17th at 6pm: Handel’s Messiah

Performed by the beloved Portland Baroque Orchestra and featuring Gary Wedow, director and harpsichord; Nathalie Paulin, soprano; Abigail Levis, mezzo-soprano; Aaron Sheehan, tenor; Dashon Burton, bass; and Cappella Romana, chorus.This broadcast will remain on-demand in the Audio Archive from December 19th through Epiphany on January 6th.

Friday – Monday, December 22nd – 25th: Annual Festival of Carols 

All Classical Portland offers a most exquisite Christmas soundtrack – four days of wall-to-wall comfort & joy! During this most popular time for listening, All Classical Portland airs exquisite music specially curated to reflect the spirit of the season, including the most beautiful carols from a multitude of backgrounds, performed by the world’s greatest choirs, ensembles and soloists. Tune in anytime to warm your heart! The Annual Festival of Carols is generously sponsored by Tuality Healthcare.

Sunday, December 24th at 7am: A Festival of 9 Lessons and Carols

Tune in Christmas Eve morning for a very special LIVE broadcast from King’s College Chapel in Cambridge: A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols. First broadcast in 1928, this Christmas Eve service now airs to millions around the world. The opening carol is always ‘Once in Royal David’s City,’ and each year includes a new, specially commissioned carol.

Sunday, December 31st at 9pm: A Toast to Portland: An All Classical New Year’s Eve

All Classical Portland provides the ultimate, locally sourced soundtrack for your New Year’s Eve party! On December 31st from 9pm to midnight, hosts Suzanne Nance and John Pitman will help listeners ring in 2018 with festive selections from throughout the eras. In this Toast to Portland: An All Classical New Year’s Eve, they’ll offer exciting previews of upcoming local arts events. Then, at 11:59, the staff of All Classical Portland will countdown to the big moment!

Monday, January 1st at 10am: New Year’s Day from Vienna

On New Year’s Day morning, All Classical Portland will air the most listened to concert of the year! More than 50 million people in nearly a hundred countries tune in to the annual broadcast of New Year’s Day from Vienna. One of the world’s finest orchestras, the Vienna Philharmonic, will perform the beloved waltz music of the Strauss family and their contemporaries. Join the global celebration!

Youth Roving Reporters 2017/18

As part of JOY (Joyous Outreach to You/th), six young people have been selected as Youth Roving Reporters for All Classical Portland in order to learn key storytelling skills and emerge as arts ambassadors for their communities. The All Classical Portland On-Air team will mentor these young reporters, providing them with guidance and insight on what it is to be a broadcaster and arts leader in their community. Each youth reporter will identify two arts events happening in their community that they would like to cover. The reporters (and their families) will then be given event tickets, connected to the artists involved to interview, and provided the tools and training to produce their reporting content. The content created will be shared on All Classical Portland’s website, social media and on-air. The goal is to award this scholarship to youth from regions across the entire state providing equal opportunity to youth in rural areas of Oregon and SW Washington as well as the Portland metro area.

Aashna MacLennan

I am a sophomore at​ Oregon Episcopal School in Portland, Oregon. My passions include singing in the Oregon Repertory Singers Youth Choir and dancing Bharatanatyam, a classical Indian dance, at the Natya Leela Dance Academy.

Arden Butterfield

I’ve played cello for eight years, and have been composing music for almost as long. I like filmmaking, math, local history, and the joy of learning a new skill.

Emma Clark

I am a freshman at Catlin Gabel School who enjoys competitive swimming, participating in plays, binge-watching Netflix and eating bacon. I have also been playing classical piano for nine years and have finally felt comfortable at performing. All of that hard work must’ve paid off since I have won a few awards at local music festivals and competitions.

Madeline Wiggins

In my studies, I attend West Salem High School and perform in the school’s Symphony and Chamber Orchestras. Along with my passion for music, I also enjoy the more mechanistic classes provided, such as math, government, science and writing courses. However, I also make time to spend with friends and family and, perhaps, play water polo. I am excited to begin creating a name and image for myself and my writing.

Shania Watts

I am a senior from Woodland, WA currently enrolled in the Running Start program at Clark College. I’m an accomplished violist, as well as a very active participant in musical events around the Vancouver, Portland area. One day, I hope to become a professional musician, sharing my love of music with the world.

Sophia Suhler

I’m a sophomore at Lake Oswego High School and I play in the Jazz band and Sing in the choir. Outside of school I participate in MYS and PYJO. When I’m not playing music or doing homework I can be found playing with my dogs or drawling. And I’m thrilled about this opportunity as a way to work on my writing and an outlet to express my creativity and unique writing style.

The Beauty of JOY

While working on my blog post series that discusses events and organizations who are dedicated to bettering our community through classical music, I am inspired yet again by a project All Classical Portland has taken on. This weekend we officially launched the JOY (Joyous Outreach to You/th) and the three initiatives that are devoted to making classical music accessible to all:

Young Roving Reporters

All Classical Portland has just selected six individuals between the ages of 15 and 21 to serve as reporters within their community. Each of them will receive training and mentorship from the on-air team here to produce their content, and they will emerge as ‘arts ambassadors in their communities’. Through this initiative, the young reporters will learn relevant story-telling skills, gain in-depth knowledge about the field of broadcast journalism, and have a platform through the radio station with which to share their content.

The positive effects of young individuals being exposed to the arts is a subject that continues to be thoroughly studied, with a wealth of scientific research stating that music exposure and music education is an incredibly powerful tool for “attaining children’s full intellectual, social, and creative potential” (The Royal Conservatory, p.1). It has been proven that music speeds the development of speech and reading skills, trains children to focus their attention for sustained periods, and helps children gain a sense of empathy for others. Daniel Joseph Levitin, an award-winning scientist, musician, record producer, and 3-time bestselling author, wrote in one of his book titled This is Your Brain on Music, “musical activity involves nearly every region of the brain that we know about, and nearly every neural subsystem.” (p.299). Even Albert Einstein credited much of his success to his music education; “The theory of relativity occurred to me by intuition, and music is the driving force behind this intuition. My parents had me study the violin from the time I was six. My new discovery is the result of musical perception,” (The Royal Conservatory, p.5). In this world of constant stimulation, classical music study leads to lasting changes in young brains, increasing their capacity to perform tasks that require sustained attention and careful listening and reading. And to top it off, the additional skills these young reporters will learn will give them a step up in their eventual search for a future career.


Where We Live Series

In line with All Classical Portland’s mission to shine a spotlight on those who are helping to enrich our cultural community, this series will highlight the local groups and organizations who are provide service-oriented programs in the realm of art, music, and theater which explore the intersection of art and social issues.

Music has always had the ability to bring people together, whether it is a rallying call to inspire action, or simply a call for peace. The emotional aspect behind every silence and sound is able to unify large groups of people with a feeling of solidarity and communal understanding. The power of music is an incredible thing, and it is All Classical Portland’s mission to bring forward groups in our community who choose to use this power for good.


Night Out

This initiative is created for music-lovers within our community who are challenged by personal circumstances to attend live arts events. Because they recognize the importance of availability and accessibility in the arts world, All Classical Portland will provide tickets and transportation with the goal being to share the joy, beauty, and sense of belonging associated with experiencing the performing arts in person. Continuing the conversation about the power of music, the positive impact is not limited to the influence on a listener’s mental being. For more information about the positive physical effects music has on its listeners, please go to All Classical Portland’s Office Manager, McLane Harrington’s blog post titled “Music and the Brain”, in which she discusses why certain musical sounds elicit a physical response.

The Beauty of JOY


Exposure to great art can only benefit us, and every initiative set forth by JOY is designed with the belief that classical music should be available and accessible to everyone, regardless of circumstance in mind. People who are engaged in the world of music benefit greatly mentally, physically, and socially. What drew me to music study in the first place is my passion for the connection between the effects music has on individuals and its ability to be utilized for positive social change. I am beyond thrilled to see the results of All Classical Portland’s newest endeavor, and cannot wait to see what inspiring work this organization will do next.


Sources used:

“Dr. Daniel J. Levitin — Neuroscientist ◦ Musician ◦ Author”. Daniellevitin.Com. 2016. Accessed November 3, 2017. 

“Introducing JOY!” All Classical Portland. November 2, 2017.

Levitin, Daniel J. This Is Your Brain on Music : The Science of a Human Obsession. New York,N.Y.: Dutton, 2006.

“Your Child’s Development: Music Study may be the Best Tool.” The Royal Conservatory. April 2014. Accessed November 3, 2017.

Music and the Brain: Physiological Responses to Music

In this installment of Music and the Brain, we are going to explore a bit about why certain musical sounds elicit a physical response. Whether it be chills, a racing heart, relaxation or tears, most of us have experienced some sort of physical reaction to music at some point in our lives. According to the research I encountered, there are a variety of very interesting reasons why this may happen.


Music calms, soothes, and heals

Perhaps you are thinking “obviously music affects us if we like it – that’s why we like it!” So, following that logic, the type of music you like is going to impact your response to it. In order to bypass this potential bias in studying effects of music, we can look to studies of infants who are exposed to music (since they haven’t formed preferences yet). In a study done by faculty members from Tel Aviv University, live music played for 30 minutes in the neonatal intensive care unit to preterm infants was found to cause an improvement in physiological and behavioral short-term stress. Live music therapy (a singer with a drum) was associated with a significant decrease in heart rate and calmer deeper sleep, occurring only 30 minutes after therapy ended. While these results were seen with live music, an absence of music or recorded music had no effect on the tested parameters.

Along the same lines of the calming effects of music, a research study in Orlando, FL found that live harp playing decreased pain and anxiety for postoperative hospital patients. The researchers in this study found that the live harp playing affected the physiological measures of patient blood pressure and oxygen saturation. The patients themselves also reported positive effects on anxiety, pain, and satisfaction after a 20 minute session of harp music.

We typically choose music not only based on our preferences, but for a particular task we are working on. In the case of the infants and hospital patients in the previous studies, music was chosen for them in order to test the effects. But in a study done by psychologists at SUNY Buffalo, differences between self-selected and experimenter-selected music was tested. In this experiment, the psychologists observed how music selected by surgeons affected their performance and autonomic responses compared to the effects of music selected by the experimenters. Interestingly, the music that the surgeons chose for themselves reduced heart rate and improved performance during a psychological stressor (mental arithmetic) which can be generalized to the stress felt during surgery. In this study, preference and familiarity contributed to the surgeons’ favorable performance responses compared to their responses to the control music: Pachelbel’s Canon.

As you can see from the graphs below, skin conductance, heart rate and blood pressure were all lower when the surgeons were listening to their selected music while performing the task.


Music awakens, drives, and motivates

So what about the opposite of calming? What about when music makes us excited or elicits more passionate feelings?

Listening to our favorite music makes our body respond in emotional arousal. Music triggers the release of dopamine in the dorsal and ventral striatum (parts of the forebrain which are critical to voluntary movement and the reward system). A paper by a group of Montreal researchers discusses how our favorite moments in music are preceded by a prolonged increase of activity in the caudate – a structure found in the stratum. This “anticipatory phase” helps us predict the arrival of our favorite part in the song. This phase can trigger expectations of euphoric emotional states and create a sense of wanting and reward prediction. Composers and performers take advantage of this phenomenon and manipulate emotional arousal by breaking up expectations or the climax in a song.

Some basic music theory that everyone is probably aware of – even just intuitively – is that music follows a pattern of breaking up or breaking down a “tonic”. This is precisely what makes music interesting; the longer the expected pattern is denied the greater emotional release (chills) when it returns. We can’t predict all of the notes in a symphony, and that’s what keeps us listening – waiting for the reward of the pattern to be complete. Personally, the piece that achieves this effect phenomenally and gives me chills every time I hear it is “The Lark Ascending” by Ralph Vaughan Williams.

Music scares!

Finally, in the spirit of Halloween, let’s talk a little bit about “scary” music. For those of you who are fans of horror films, you may have noticed the scores in those movies are quite effective at building suspense and creating an eerie or creepy mood. How is this done effectively?

Well, apart from the obvious – the scary images on the screen building suspense or depicting something gory – certain sounds are scientifically found to create fear in humans. Researcher and animal call expert Daniel Blumstein found the inspiration for his paper on this topic while studying yellow-bellied marmots in Colorado. He noticed that baby marmots often screamed when researchers caught them – these sounds are called “nonlinear chaotic noise.”

Such nonlinear sounds — a dissonant chord, a child’s cry, etc. – trigger a biologically ingrained response by making us think our young are threatened. Blumstein teamed up with film score composer Peter Kaye and communications professor Greg Bryant to create music samples for the study. Kaye composed one set of emotionally neutral clips and another set that used nonlinear elements. The Jaws theme is a great example of this. For more great examples of nonlinear sounds in music, tune-in to The Score this Saturday and Sunday at 2pm on All Classical Portland!

Participants in the study were asked to rate the music segments based on how emotionally stimulating they were and what kind of emotion they evoked. Participants ranked the music with nonlinear elements more stimulating and linked it to negative emotions such as fear. Researchers also found that musical clips where the melodies suddenly became higher provoked greater emotional stimulation than moments when the notes suddenly went lower. This, Blumstein believes, may also be linked to the study of animal calls: a marmot’s scream goes higher when the marmot’s vocal cords go tenser, and this tensing would likely occur when the animal is scared.

So whether listening to music when you’re studying, driving, working out, or napping, it is impossible not to recognize that music affects us in some physical way. The next time you choose music for an activity or to achieve a particular result, think about what you are choosing and how it is affecting you!

What pieces give you the chills or make you swoon? Shoot us an email to let us know!