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No, Really. Beethoven And....

basketball headphones.png
Colleen Phelps
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Apparently classical music can count Lebron among its fans.

On the online series The Shop, NBA player Lebron James recently gave a picture of his typical game day - how he arrives hours before the start time, visits the weight room, and listens to music. He has been on a DMX kick, but that’s not all that’s on his playlist.

The basketball star’s claim that he includes “Beethoven and [stuff]” in his pregame ritual (his language was more colorful) was met with a fairly large degree of skepticism on social media. But the fact is that it’s not unusual at all for elite athletes to make special playlists or rely on music as part of their rituals. And, there’s nothing unbelievable about someone looking to find a moment of centering and focus turning on a little “Beethoven and stuff.”

Anecdotally, I personally switched my running playlist to all Haydn symphonies in an experiment last summer, with spectacular results. Just from naturally timing my stride with the tempo I took a full minute off of my rolling mile for months. I know that Haydn isn’t your typical runner’s sound world, but that doesn’t make it any less useful for an athlete, even one like me who is the very definition of an amateur. The physiology of using music to influence one's mood and performance is well documented. My running with Haydn was similar to a study of treadmill walkers, who moved more quickly with up-tempo music.

Lebron James isn’t even the only NBA player to ever mention classical music. Kobe Bryant famously also enjoyed Beethoven’s music, learning the Moonlight Sonata at the piano. Bryant even compared the structure and momentum in Beethoven’s symphonies to his own view of a basketball game.

Music choices are personal and can come about for all sorts of reasons. Actor Tom Hiddleston famously put together playlists for the Loki series. Barack Obama still shares annual playlists. Nobody doubted the motives to include Arctic Monkeys or Lizzo on either of those lists. But for some reason when it comes to classical music, it’s viewed as possibly a front, as if the listener is just claiming the genre to sound smart. The numbers around classical listening, however, support a genuine interest.

In this past December’s trend report, music licensing service Epidemic Sound described the classical genre overall as in “rude health” (that's a good thing). They reported a 90% increase in the streaming of classical music on YouTube in the last year, with a large increase in usage by content creators. Tiktok also saw a 17% increase in the use of classical music among the under-35 set during the pandemic. Epidemic Sound cites the variety of moods and sounds available within the genre as part of the reason for its growth - there’s something in classical music for every story being told.

Consider the 700 or so years of music history that classical music fans have at our disposal. Relaxation and centering are certainly there. But realistically there’s no one emotional quality we can apply to the genre. Look (or listen) and you will find anger, bliss, devastation, lust, and hope. You’ll have moments that float in midair, and times where you groove.

Given this variety, I put together a playlist of what I’d give Lebron pregame, which you can find at the end of this article. Not sleep-inducing “classical for relaxation.” But rather, music that can transport the listener, with an emphasis on energy and fun. A musical cup of coffee - refreshing your focus.

The greater question here is why we would doubt anyone’s enjoyment of classical music. Whether it’s for your daily crossword and morning coffee, your little one’s quiet time, a long commute, during your dinner prep, or to get you ready to hit the court with the NBA, everything's better with a soundtrack.

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Colleen is the Music Director and host for LPM Classical. Email Colleen at cphelps@lpm.org.