Editorial: The Classical Misconception

Overcoming a Conundrum

by: Colin Oettle

Concert Hall

As classical music struggles to attract a new generation of concertgoers, and as organizations continue to fight for solvency, pundits ceaselessly tout stuffy tradition and prohibitive cost as the reasons many people find classical music unattractive.

While these elements may indeed play a role in public perception of classical music, efforts to make the classical experience less formal ultimately fail to identify the crux of the issue: the music.

There are simply not enough people excited about classical music. Yes, part of the problem may indeed be obscurity. And yes, a more modern approach to marketing may yet bring classical music into the public eye. But this is just treatment for the symptoms of complacency which ail the classical audience; it will not create a new generation of fans. No marketing campaign can make someone like classical music.

It is the music that must win the audience. Moving performances given by passionate musicians will inspire listeners, not subscriptions and rewards programs. Music can change lives, but only for those who open themselves to the opportunity.

Inaccessibility is not the problem. To what length will someone go to attend an event of his or her choosing? Every year, thousands of fans endure freezing temperatures for hours to see the ball drop in Times Square. Frequently, ticket prices at pop venues rival or surpass those of classical concerts. But before going to such lengths, a concertgoer must first have the intention to attend. While a more relaxed approach to performance etiquette may be a viable way to nudge ticket sales, modernizing the concert experience will only entice those who already have a relationship with classical music.

The problem at its core is apathy. In Venezuela, classical music has blossomed into a national phenomenon thanks to the statewide youth orchestra program El Sistema. The program is accessible due to government subsidy, but persists simply because generations of children who grew up with classical music can no longer imagine life without it.

More Americans must learn to find music invaluable. The first step is to help others form relationships with classical music, and the primary goal must remain to inspire. After all, if people are not moved by classical music, no amount of industry reform will help.

See also:
Classical Music Aims to Evolve, Build Audiences Without Alienating Old Guard
The Awfulness of Classical Music Explained

One Response to “Editorial: The Classical Misconception”

  1. Superb assessment, Colin! Although my work is primarily in the pop arena, I have a deep love for classical music – a love that is rooted in my exposure to it when I was a small child. Way back then (in the 60s and 70s) sharing music was a communal experience; we listened to albums with our friends and family, and our parents often used music as an accent in our homes. While the technology has given us a more realistic and detailed listening experience – from a sonic standpoint, anyway – young people today enjoy music in almost complete isolation. Where we once listened to a single radio while traveling in the car, it’s not uncommon to find three or four kids in a car – all listening to different music on their iPods! The disappearance of “communal listening,” whether in or outside of one’s home, has had a tremendous effect on how young people listen to music – and what they listen to.

    My attraction to classical music first came from my mom’s extensive LP collection. The covers of those albums, with their serious-looking conductors and artful shots of the orchestra fascinated me. The artwork and technology were primary to me at the time. the music secondary. But, because of the constant exposure I began listening carefully to the records and discovered some incredibly magical music. I’ll never forget the first time I heard the somber second movement of Beethoven’s 7th, the thundering power of Stravinsky’s ‘Firebird,’ or the emotional punch of Shostakovich’s ‘Leningrad.’ In the decades since, I’ve become a voracious listener of classical music of all kinds. My only regret is that life isn’t long enough to hear it all!

    Exposure is the key, and sadly music is not a priority in many modern homes. Other pastimes have filled the nooks and crannies where music was once a central diversion, and parents today tend to have more contemporary tastes (thus, they seldom play classical music.) I, however, bask in the beauty of Beethoven, Mahler, Mozart, Copland, Ravel and Debussy – along with Sinatra, Miles Davis, The Beatles etc. People need to understand that there’s room for all of it – they just need the introduction…



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