Is Classical Music Dead?

Scroll through the average teenager’s playlist and you find Taylor Swift, Bruno Mars, Rihanna, Ed Sheeran, and the like. But there is usually a stark absence of, well, dead white males. While Bach’s Toccata in Fugue is immediately associated with Dracula in pop culture, and everyone recognizes the opening four-note motif from Beethoven’s fifth, the minority of teens have any further interest in the sounds from the eras of Handel, Mozart, Schubert, or even the notoriously reputed Stravinsky. Sadly, many of these composers have influenced the structure and harmony of much of the music we listen to today, and go unappreciated, archived in our collective memory. Why is this the case?

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Foremost, we will take a look at the musical culture from the past. At its earliest, music was treated as an extravagance and luxury, performed in courts for wealthy patrons and composed for church services. Later, as concert halls were opened for a paying public, recordings were not yet available, so one might have passed their entire lives hearing their favorite piece performed live only once or twice. But in the 20th century, the growth of Broadway musicals, ragtime, and swing began to catch the public attention, and musical tastes roughly split into two pathways of evolution – the elite, upper-class concert goers, and the middle-class, who enjoyed these affordable popular numbers, and that gap has been widening ever since.

Nowadays we always open iTunes or Spotify to get our music fix. But these apps are not very user-friendly for fans of classical music. Most composers’ works are organized by opus number, while most music software categorizes songs by artist and album name. Furthermore, it is confusing because a particular recording of Brahms’ Piano Concertos could be filed under either Daniel Barenboim, the soloist, Sergiu Celibidache, the conductor, the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra, or Brahms, the composer himself. The system is frustrating at best and can even deter serious listeners from finding what they want.

Apart from the obvious time gap from when Wagner and Mahler and their like walked this earth and today, and the fact that a songwriter from two years ago would be considered “old”, the popularity of classical music could be dying out among young people because it’s simply not very accessible. In our consumer-heavy culture, we want things to get to the point quickly, and we enjoy repetition, stimulation, and strong bass lines. In contrast, classical music is generally subtle in its expression and development of melody, complex in its polyphonic textures, and lengthy in duration. It takes approximately forty minutes to get through Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in D Major, while Adele’s top hit, Hello, has a gratifyingly short running time of five.

For the untrained ear, Chopin’s nocturnes may all sound approximately the same. And this could also be the problem. The majority of the population has not been classically trained on an instrument and may find it difficult to appreciate the full scope of these masterpieces. And certainly, from the way that these concerts are set up, it’s intimidating to even try. Imagine that your friend has invited you along to listen to Yo-Yo Ma perform Saint-Saëns’ Cello Concerto No. 1 in A minor. From the onset, you look around at the audience around you and are impressed by their pretentious silence. What happened to the woots of approval you had been so accustomed to making in the concert hall when Bon Jovi came to town? You stifle them in fear, not daring to disrupt this orderly and utterly foreign culture. In the end, you applaud, and the musicians leave the stage, and everyone shuffles out of their seats. It’s impersonal and unfriendly, even if you did enjoy the music itself. No wonder there’s so few people from your age group here!

Unfortunately, this distance between performer and audience is what keeps many people from approaching concert halls. And this culture is inevitably going to be why classical music, if it wants to survive in the future, must change so that the commoner can approach it. Steuart and Michelle Pincombe, a couple who have spent their past year traveling the United States on an untraditional campaign called “Music in Familiar Spaces”, seek to bring “the classical music experience at its highest level” to accessible, crowd-sourced venues such as homes, parks, cafes, breweries, and churches. Steu, a world-class leading cellist that I have had the pleasure to meet, realized that for many, his art is an indulgence unnecessarily expensive, or simply something people never realized they would enjoy. He has been successful so far in presenting pieces normally performed in acoustically sophisticated halls in places where he can meet, connect, and befriend the people he performs to in the places where they are comfortable. One of Steu’s most popular solo cello programs, “Bach and Beer”, involves three Bach cello suites accompanied with short histories and interpretations along with comments on the historical brewing method of each beer matched to the suite, offering a fresh perspective on both. And this framework, of bringing classical music back to the people, not just a faceless mass of onlookers but up-close individuals, is I believe what will keep classical music from dying out.

Because of the combination of systems both in concert halls, online streaming, and popular culture, classical music is fading away into something that only a small, elite group of people enjoy. But it doesn’t have to be this way. The future of music is changing, and whether you’re the regular concertgoer or the tagalong friend, you should stay eager, because both communities are working hard to converge once again.


This article originally appeared in the May 2016 edition of the publication UNIT-E.

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