The Transformative Power of Classical Music: Benjamin Zander (Transcript)

Following is the full transcript of English conductor Benjamin Zander’s TED Talk: The Transformative Power of Classical Music. To learn more about the speaker, read the full bio here.

Probably a lot of you know the story of the two salesmen who went down to Africa in the 1900s. They were sent down to find if there was any opportunity for selling shoes, and they wrote telegrams back to Manchester.

And one of them wrote, “Situation hopeless. Stop. They don’t wear shoes.”

And the other one wrote, “Glorious opportunity. They don’t have any shoes yet.”

Now, there’s a similar situation in the classical music world, because there are some people who think that classical music is dying. And there are some of us who think you ain’t seen nothing yet. And rather than go into statistics and trends, and tell you about all the orchestras that are closing, and the record companies that are folding, I thought we should do an experiment tonight.

Actually, it’s not really an experiment, because I know the outcome. But it’s like an experiment.

Now, before we start — Before we start, I need to do two things. One is I want to remind you of what a seven-year-old child sounds like when he plays the piano. Maybe you have this child at home. He sounds something like this… (Music)… I see some of you recognize this child.

Now, if he practices for a year and takes lessons, he’s now eight and he sounds like this… (Music)… He practices for another year and takes lessons — he’s nine… (Music).  Then he practices for another year and takes lessons — now he’s 10… (Music). At that point, they usually give up.

Now, if you’d waited for one more year, you would have heard this…(Music).

Now, what happened was not maybe what you thought, which is, he suddenly became passionate, engaged, involved, got a new teacher, he hit puberty, or whatever it is. What actually happened was the impulses were reduced. You see, the first time, he was playing with an impulse on every note… (Music). And the second, with an impulse every other note… (Music). You can see it by looking at my head.

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The nine-year-old put an impulse on every four notes… (Music). The 10-year-old, on every eight notes… (Music). And the 11-year-old, one impulse on the whole phrase… (Music) I don’t know how we got into this position. I didn’t say, “I’m going to move my shoulder over, move my body.” No, the music pushed me over, which is why I call it one-buttock playing… (Music) It can be the other buttock… (Music)

You know, a gentleman was once watching a presentation I was doing, when I was working with a young pianist. He was the president of a corporation in Ohio. I was working with this young pianist, and said, “The trouble with you is you’re a two-buttock player. You should be a one-buttock player.” I moved his body while he was playing. And suddenly, the music took off. It took flight. The audience gasped when they heard the difference.

Then I got a letter from this gentleman. He said, “I was so moved. I went back and I transformed my entire company into a one-buttock company.”

Now, the other thing I wanted to do is to tell you about you. There are 1,600 people, I believe. My estimation is that probably 45 of you are absolutely passionate about classical music. You adore classical music. Your FM is always on that classical dial. You have CDs in your car, and you go to the symphony, your children are playing instruments. You can’t imagine your life without classical music. That’s the first group, quite small.

Then there’s another bigger group. The people who don’t mind classical music. You know, you’ve come home from a long day, and you take a glass of wine, and you put your feet up. A little Vivaldi in the background doesn’t do any harm. That’s the second group.

Now comes the third group: people who never listen to classical music. It’s just simply not part of your life. You might hear it like second-hand smoke at the airport, and maybe a little bit of a march from “Aida” when you come into the hall. But otherwise, you never hear it. That’s probably the largest group.

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And then there’s a very small group. These are the people who think they’re tone-deaf. Amazing number of people think they’re tone-deaf. Actually, I hear a lot, “My husband is tone-deaf.” Actually, you cannot be tone-deaf. Nobody is tone-deaf.

If you were tone-deaf, you couldn’t change the gears on your car, in a stick shift car. You couldn’t tell the difference between somebody from Texas and somebody from Rome. And the telephone. The telephone. If your mother calls on the miserable telephone, she calls and says, “Hello,” you not only know who it is, you know what mood she’s in. You have a fantastic ear. Everybody has a fantastic ear. So nobody is tone-deaf.

But I tell you what. It doesn’t work for me to go on with this thing, with such a wide gulf between those who understand, love and are passionate about classical music, and those who have no relationship to it at all. The tone-deaf people, they’re no longer here. But even between those three categories, it’s too wide a gulf. So I’m not going to go on until every single person in this room, downstairs and in Aspen, and everybody else looking, will come to love and understand classical music. So that’s what we’re going to do.

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