Why don’t people like Classical Music?

A month or two ago i read a history of the London Symphony Orchestra. A revelation, not least finding out how “Rock’n’Roll” some of its musicians have been – off-stage, if not on. It certainly made me want to hear more of their music and more Classical Music generally. It seems i’m one of a dwindling band however: one of the themes that dominates the latter part of the book is the idea that Classical Music is in crisis: its audiences are growing older while its repertoire remains dominated by music that was mostly written in the 18th and 19th centuries. The author also suggests that audiences are becoming less educated about the music they’re listening to.

Assuming this is true – and it sounds broadly correct to me – why should it be so? Classical Music is supposed to be one of the great achievements of Western culture so why should it struggle in this way?

Yesterday i read a blog which suggested that one of the genre’s biggest problems is its failure to engage with the popular music of the 20th Century. Earlier composers may have been happy to invoke the feel of folk music but most of their modern descendants seem to try to avoid acknowledging that Rock, Reggae, Electronica and so on exist.  Even more remarkable is the blind spot many demonstrate in relation to Jazz and to non-Western Music. Indeed composers and musicians often talk of “music” as though Classical Music was the only form in existence*.

This is a conceit which is almost guaranteed to irritate fans of other kinds of music. It also has another effect: in separating Classical Music so decisively from any other musical genre its would-be guardians actually make it harder for newcomers to connect with it. They don’t just keep its enemies at bay, they do the same to possible allies. If you don’t speak the language, know the references, accept the absolute aesthetic superiority of this musical form then you’re liable to be made to feel like an interloper: as though your opinions aren’t valid and your concert hall etiquette leaves something to be desired.

The blogger mentioned above also points out that the refusal to engage with popular music means that Classical Music lacks the sounds which make up most younger people’s sound worlds. How important is this? I think it doesn’t help matters – especially the lack of a strong rhythmic pulse. This is more of a problem in later music rather than earlier, which means ironically enough that many younger listeners find Bach more accessible than Beethoven – and definitely more accessible than Boulez.

Equally important i think is the way that Classical Music has identified itself (or allowed itself to be identified) so strongly with the old white/European/upper class cultural elite of the western world. It has fallen victim to a  rejection of that elite’s claims to hegemony. This has wider implications: whereas the refusal of a folk musician to embrace electronic sounds may be perceived as a mark of authenticity, the same attitude in Classical Music is seen as evidence that it’s out of touch, anachronistic, etc.

And then there’s the fact that Classical Music is harmonically complex and often extremely abstract. Its works – concertos, sonatas, symphonies and so on – are structured in very distinct (and to an outsider very perplexing) ways. Worse still the titles of these works provide little sense of what they are about or what they might offer us: 5th Symphony, Opus 28. Any added musical information (“Andante”, “Allegro”) is usually  in Italian! Audiences are increasingly unwilling to make the effort to do the work needed to be able to penetrate this mystery. As many people have said we live in an age of instant gratification. Mind you, we also live in an age of information overload and ever-increasing work pressures: tired, stressed people aren’t in the best place for studying music. And the same pressure on the school system means that there are often fewer chances to learn an instrument or learn about music generally than there were in previous decades.

Still… still… still… i listen to a Bach cantata or something like ‘Jonchaies’ by Xenakis and i can’t believe that people wouldn’t enjoy them if they gave them a go.

* Although this is changing slowly (too slowly?)


3 thoughts on “Why don’t people like Classical Music?

  1. I think classical music is among the harder (the hardest?) genres of music to get into. I have a hankering to try myself, but have never quite had the time yet.

    You’ve mentioned many reasons why it is difficult to approach and I’d add only its history – and thus its extremely broad canon – as an additional hurdle for the uninitiated. Younger musical genres – i.e. pretty much anything other than classical music – tend to have smaller groups of leading lights, who in turn have smaller back catalogues to explore. Naturally this makes them easier to approach.

    Moreover, popular music of the last 60 years (and I use the term popular very loosely) has tended to build upon previous bands, movements, sounds, so that it generally has a continuity that belies most of the ‘year zero’ claims.

    Also, when you look at the solidly mainstream music of recent decades, it has been driven by a relentless commercialism that has swept aside other musical genres.

  2. Dear Eyoki—This was certainly thought-provoking. My knowledge of music, classical or modern, is limited, and yet over a lifetime I’ve certainly listened to a lot of both, and enjoyed it for the most part.

    I’m sure the snootiness of classical musicians (or at least of their followers) has something to do with the decline of interest among the young. But I’m afraid it may have more to do with the dumbing down of the culture and the increasing difficulty of concentrating—on anything. Whether it’s a Beethoven sonata, a Cole Porter lyric, or a rousing rock number, you have to pay attention to get the most out of it. And you can’t be texting at the same time. (Of course this could be the reaction of an old fogey who doesn’t text.)

    I once asked a musician friend how I should go about repairing my lack of knowledge about classical music. He suggested listening to all the piano works of Wilhelm Backhaus. I tried, but couldn’t keep it up very long. Years later I told this to a professor of music and she exclaimed, “What an awful idea!”

    Was interested in your comment the other day about W.S. Merwin. I can’t judge his translations, but my initial reaction to his poetry was that it was a bit flat—not much vivid imagery. Very, very quiet. I’ve had to make myself slow down and concentrate more—then some rather striking things emerge. There are probably two more Merwin pieces coming before I get off this subject.

    Keep writing your interesting blog.


  3. Your blog is very lovely. I think this is an interesting post and topic, but there are some obvious points missed here because of the way the topic is framed by subconscious cultural habits.

    1. Most important: because of globalization and related processes, the variety of music in the world has grown immeasurably. Styles are constantly subdividing, merging and being invented. The result is that the sheer volume of choice for any listener is millions times greater than in previous eras. The supply is completely outstripping the demand, so any given style like European classical music has a much smaller piece of the pie.

    2. The role of “classical music” has often been to fulfill the more spiritual, intellectual or ambitious ways that people experience music, in contrast to “folk music” in the sense of everyday, accessible or light-hearted musical experience, which would include “pop” as a subcategory, if not a synonym. In the past century many styles of music have evolved as alternatives to European classical music to serve this function in human culture. This is the essence of most avant-garde/experimental music, which includes hundreds of styles from music that’s way more abstract and esoteric than any classical music to avant-garde refinements to pop/rock music that blur these categories.

    3. European classical music has such a cultural hegemony in many parts of the world (e.g. America, where I have lived my whole life), permeating the everyday soundscape to such an extent that people’s ears often become numb to it. It’s used as polite background music and an empty gesture of respectable mainstream culture in all sorts of environments. The experience of Euro classical music as sacred and awe-inspiring works of art has been largely undermined. When I was a young teenager I had a cassette of Mozart flute concertos that I would play over and over, and several other Euro classical recordings I adored very much, but I think the cultural environment has taken those pleasures away from me; they’ve been debased and reduced to banalities. As an adult I find my deeper engagement in music from the likes of Evan Parker and Iancu Dumitrescu, and I can only hope someday that by exerting more control over my informational environment I will one day be able to return to the spectacular beauty and richness of the European classical tradition and hear it with fresh ears.

    4. Using the term “classical music” to refer to European classical music is a despicable practice in my view. Not only are there dozens of classical music traditions outside of Europe that are widely recognized as such, including quite a few with a longer history than European classical music, and some that can be taken as more advanced (e.g. Carnatic, Persian, Hindustani, Javanese), but also are there many modern musical traditions that can be viewed as classical musics with the same essential characteristics of complexity, refinement, etc, most notably the American classical music tradition of Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, Charles Mingus, et al. It goes without saying you have sympathy for this viewpoint, because I understand how wonderful and cosmopolitan your taste is from reading your other entries, but I’m only making this point in a very direct way that contrasts with the conventional frame of discourse in the blog post.

    5. Using the term “Western” also perpetuates a lot of obsolete, misleading assumptions. For starters, the term is usually used as synonym for “modern and global” with only a faint historical connection to the specific European cultures it once referred to. Usage of the term is vague at best. So there are many questions we can ask. Why should anyone even care about “Western culture” more than, say, Mongolian culture, or hundreds of other cultures? Who or what is “Western” anyway? I’m American, but my heavy exposure to European music (tuning system, instruments, melodic patterns, etc) is probably about the same as most people who grew up in China, Japan, Argentina, Turkey, etc. It’s common to include American culture as part of this mysterious “Western” strawman, but so far as I can tell the vast and infuential American music traditions of gospel/blues/jazz/soul/rock/etc that have largely generated most of the world’s globalized popular music traditions are partly derived from European music, partly derived from Africa and partly derived from indigenous cultural conditions. So I don’t think it makes much sense to lump American culture in with this strange concept of “Western”. It’s as strange and useless as lumping Arabic and European culture together, which probably is more justifiable. A concept of “Western” this vague and broad basically has no meaning. Growing up in an era where most of the world’s cultures are fairly accessible, I don’t really think of myself as a “Western” person any more than I would identify with Indian culture, which has also been a major part of my cultural environment since my teen years growing up in an ordinary American suburb. Furthermore, I don’t think this has much to do with being American in particular, because I think my cultural environment has probably been essentially the same as anyone of the same age and personality who grew up in England, France, Germany, etc, hearing almost all the same music as me. Given this reflection, it’s just as strange to see a German as “Western” as an American.

    6. One final point: Euro classical music is still incredibly popular! Astoundingly popular! Popular beyond proportion! People of all ages, especially teenagers, from just about every country in the world commonly take a serious interest in it. It’s a thriving, massive, ubiquitous form of music. The impression of decline is mainly an artifact of an overinflated *culture industry* based around that music, with endless redundant symphony orchestras and related institutions all over the place whose existence is based on arbitrary economic conditions (e.g. “old money”). The real question is: why is Turkish classical music declining in popularity??? Given that it’s one of the greatest achievements of human culture, why are people in Sweden listening to Hip Hop and Metal instead of Turkish classical music???

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