10 Pieces of Music that Can Change Your Life for the Better

Nov 7, 2017

I know, I know. Another seemingly sensationalistic claim tossed out into cyberspace like so much line at the fishing hole. Sure, winning the lottery can change your life — but a piece of music?

Of course. Even the most hardened Hannibal Lecters (remember the Goldberg Variations scene?) know that music does something deep inside us. Allow me to rhapsodize for a moment about some music that, I believe, does the human heart good.

1. Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis 

This piece is so incredibly special that I really don’t know where to begin with it, except maybe right at the beginning. Its atmospheric introduction takes you somewhere else — I always envision mist rising off the verdant English countryside, in a gray and distant century long past.

Then there’s the stunningly understated treatment of the mournful melody by the 16th-century English composer Thomas Tallis on which Vaughan Williams based the piece, and all of the later moments that have the musical feel of incense floating to the heavens in an English gothic cathedral.

Just listen to it. The piece can speak plenty well enough for itself.

How this music can change your life: It gives you an excuse — as if you need one — to bask in sheer beauty.

Andrew Davis leads the BBC Symphony Orchestra:

2. J.S. Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos (Take your pick.)

Bach composed six so-called Brandenburg Concertos, concerti grossi in an all-new style and dedicated to the margrave of Brandenburg in a fruitless effort to curry enough favor with him to get a job.

Just when you think you’ve found your favorite Brandenburg Concerto, you hear another one that’s even more joyous, or features more mind-blowing virtuosity or, frankly, just sounds cooler.

So here are some tips: You can jam out on your air violin, air trumpet or air flute with Brandenburg 2, you can crush your air harpsichord with Brandenburg 5. And for air cello, you can’t beat Brandenburg 6. 

How this music can change your life: Joy overload.

Here’s the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra:

3. Franz Schubert’s Symphony No. 8 “Unfinished

When stuff goes wrong all over the place and everything’s hitting the fan, it’s sometimes good to resist the temptation to flee from reality and, instead, sit quietly for a while and acknowledge it. It’s even better when you have a soundtrack that affirms you. The first movement of Schubert’s sublime Eighth Symphony gives you the emotional space to look squarely at what just ain’t right.

(Riccardo Muti conducts the Vienna Philharmonic.)

Then everything turns for the better in the second movement, the musical equivalent to your favorite bathrobe. When the symphony’s over, you’ll feel as though you’ve weathered the storm, and that your world is greener, lusher and more alive.

(Riccardo Muti conducts the Vienna Philharmonic.)

How this music can change your life: It speaks your righteous indignation to power, then pampers you, like a day at the spa.

4. The Adagietto from Gustav Mahler’s Fifth Symphony

If it is true that music is a language, then it is also true that music can communicate things that no words can. By a composer for whom there was no silver lining without a dark cloud, Mahler’s Adagietto shines forth as quite possibly classical music’s most powerful testament to love in a world that often leaves us wondering.

How this music can change your life: It will love you like no one else can.

Leonard Bernstein leads the Vienna Philharmonic:

5. The Andante from Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21

The second movement of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21 is just one of those inspired works of art. This movement is so heartbreakingly beautiful that it actually causes emotional pain — but in this case, it’s the kind of pain that, to quote that great musician-philosopher John Cougar Mellencamp, hurts so good. I describe all of this in this episode of my long-running podcast The Mozart Minute.

How this music can change your life: You’ll relax. You’ll breathe easier. You might even attain Nirvana.

Pianist Maria João Pires is the soloist with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, along with Claudio Abbado conducting:

6. "Un bel dí," from Giacomo Puccini's Madama Butterfly

A few years ago, the Metropolitan Opera presented Madama Butterfly as part of its Live In HD series. Familiar with the opera and its story of the ill-fated title character Ciocio-san and her poor, betrayed heart, my husband and I hopped over to the movie theater and cozied into our stadium seats, all geared up for some great opera.

The orchestra began to play, the vocalists started to sing and, within 15 minutes, I was bawling like a baby. True story: I had to use all of my popcorn-grease napkins to dab my eyes. Ciocio-san’s unwavering faith that her beloved will return for her, all the foreshadowing of her sad destiny — not to mention Puccini’s heartrendingly glorious music — literally moved me to tears.

I didn’t stop crying until we got home. Needless to say, it was a long drive.

“Un bel dí” is Ciocio-san’s signature aria and one of the all-time great arias in the opera repertory. In it, Butterfly sings that “one beautiful day” her lover, the U.S. Navy Lieutenant Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton, will return to Japan for her.

She then elaborates in painful detail on her vision of how that reunion will play out: She will see white smoke from a ship sailing into the harbor. She will see her beloved disembark and walk up the hill towards her, but she won’t run down to meet him — no, not her. She will stay put and wait for him to come to her.

She clearly has dreamed of Pinkerton’s return every moment since his departure — every pet name he will call her, every tilt of the head and blink of the eyes, every nuance of emotion all mapped out. If you know how the opera ends, your heart can’t help but break for Butterfly.

How this music can change your life: The ancient Greeks spoke of great drama as a means of catharsis, or cleansing one’s inner landscape through the release of emotions. Madama Butterfly is catharsis city.

Here is soprano Renata Tebaldi’s classic performance of the aria:

7. The Adagio from Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto

While we’re all dreamy with Mozart’s music, let’s just stay here a while and bask in the second movement of his Clarinet Concerto. I’m too verklempt to write. Just take a listen ...

(Clarinet soloist Robert Marcellus performs with the Cleveland Orchestra conducted by George Szell.)

How this music can change your life: It affirms that a single beautiful melody is truly all it takes to make the world a better place.

8. Wotan’s Farewell (“Der Augen leuchtendes Paar”) from Richard Wagner’s Die Walküre

There are moments in Richard Wagner’s music that bring tears to the eyes. This aria is one of them. Die Walküre is the second of the four operas in Wagner’s sprawling Ring of the Nibelungs cycle.

At this point in the tortuous drama, Wotan, the king of the gods, has ordered his daughter Brünnhilde, the fiercest Valkyrie (warrior-goddess), not to protect Siegmund in his battle with Hunding, and Brünnhilde has disobeyed him.

Being a parent, Wotan is compelled to punish Brünnhilde for her disobedience and does so by removing her godhood and putting her to sleep on a mountaintop to be found by the first mortal man who awakens her.

How sublimely Wagner’s music speaks Wotan’s heartbreak and his tenderness as he kisses Brünnhilde’s eyes, “Kissing her godhood away,” as he gently lays his favorite daughter to sleep, covering her with protective armor before leaving her on the mountaintop to live out her destiny in the mortal realm.

How this music can change your life: You will come to understand and embrace that special love you have for children, even when they break your heart.

Here is one of the finest Wotans ever to cross the stage — the American bass-baritone James Morris — with soprano Hildegard Behrens in the Metropolitan Opera’s classic production of Die Walküre:

9. Mozart’s Symphony No. 41 "Jupiter"

This symphony is what you might call high on life: no angst, no melodrama, no sharp edges, no pointy elbows. Just sheer, unadulterated, unmitigated, blinged-out joy. And doesn’t everyone need more of that?

How this music can change your life: I repeat, doesn’t everyone need more blinged-out joy?

Nikolaus Harnoncourt conducts the Concentus Musicus Vienna in Mozart’s “Jupiter” symphony:

10. Ludwig van Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony

I can think of no other piece of classical music that towers in the collective soul as mightily as does Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. From its iconic opening — “fate knocking at the door” — to its majestic scherzo, to the riveting transition into its triumphant finale, there are too many great moments in this symphony to count, and each one leaves you feeling better than the ones before.

There’s a reason why Beethoven’s Fifth is arguably the best-known, best-loved work in the classical repertory — it’s music so inspired that it brings out the best of humanity.

How this music can change your life: After hearing Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, you’ll feel like you can do anything. And it’s good to be reminded that, really, you just about can.

Here’s the complete Fifth Symphony by Beethoven. Leonard Bernstein conducts the Vienna Philharmonic: