Why is classical music so unpopular?

6 10 2007

It’s been a while since I’ve written a decent length rant about something, so it seems to me that the time is ripe to post a look into classical music and why in the eyes of so many people it’s so, for want of a better word, lousy.

Now let me first clarify a couple of points.  Firstly, when I use the term classical music here, I’m using it very loosely.  As a genre description, “classical music” is probably one of the most vague (second only to “world”, which seems to refer to all music, folk or modern, that is written in a language that isn’t western European in origin).  Its use is fairly nonsensical, since describing Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Philip Glass and Henry Purcell as belonging to the same genre would be like saying that the Beatles, Public Enemy and Michael Jackson all belong to the same genre.  I’m sure any music teacher would point out to me that I’m actually wrong, and that the term “classical music” refers specifically to a style of music that was produced mainly by the European upper classes in the mid-to-late 18th and early 19th centuries, but most of us don’t make that distinction.  There are other blanket terms in use such as “art music” and “erudite music”, but both of those seem to imply that the music they describe is somehow more sophisticated than other styles, a view which I disagree with completely.

Secondly, I would like to point out that I am by no means an expert on classical music, and that I’m more comfortable listening to Red Hot Chili Peppers than Beethoven.  I enjoy (some) classical music, certainly, but it’s just not my usual choice of listening.  I’m perhaps out of my depth completely here, but I am generally a lover of music of all descriptions, so I think I know what I’m talking about.

So let’s get straight to the point – classical music is not popular.  It is not remotely trendy.  I know people who think it’s more normal for me to listen to a Mozart piece being butchered by an enthusiastic electric guitarist than to listen to the original piano version.

I can imagine it would not be too hard for someone with a passable vocal ability, a pretty/handsome face and Pop Idol credentials to start singing traditional folk music and make it popular with 13 year old school girls, but classical music?  Not a chance.  Classical music seems to exude a kind of stuffiness that makes it incapable of breaking through to a mainstream audience.  True, the occasional rocker will take a Mozart song and transform it into a virtuoso guitar piece, and it’s not unheard of for a techno composer to take the most recognisable part of a famous Grieg or Beethoven tune, play it on a synth and loop it over a beat, but even then the songs don’t tend to have any chart success.

This is not to say that the classical community hasn’t made some attempts to attract a broader audience.  Often these attempts take the form of getting a well known writer of popular music to compose something for an orchestra, but these tend to fall flat for two reasons: (a) just because they’re good at one style of music doesn’t necessarily mean they’re suited to another (can you imagine Sir Harrison Birtwistle trying his hand at freestyle rap?) and (b) just because you listen to a pop musician doesn’t mean you’re interested in hearing that musician’s attempt at opera or ballet.

I have also heard of attempts being made to encourage young people to like classical music by making the concert as similar to a rock concert as possible, including modern instruments and influences, and allowing the audience to chat and dance about.  I’m really not convinced that this is the way forward; hilarious as it would be to see the viola players get bottled, something tells me that the sort of people who like those kinds of concerts aren’t the sort who are prepared to pay money to listen to what is still, essentially, classical music, what ever pretences it might be making.

The thing is, the problem is clearly not that the music itself is rubbish; it isn’t, and in actual fact some classical composers and musicians, such as Franz Liszt and Niccolò Paganini, were superstars in their day, similar to today’s pop musicians.  The Three Tenors notwithstanding, this doesn’t seem to happen anymore.

Perhaps the problem is not with the music itself but with the people who play it and listen to it.  I’m not saying all the people who listen to it are problem, just the community who see classical as the only worthwhile music around and all other music as pants.  This, I feel, is the core issue.  For too long, devotees of classical music have taken the view that there is no point in attempting to appeal to a wider audience because the public at large are uncultured plebs who can’t handle music of the complexity and calibre that the western classical tradition is built upon.  This elitist attitude is pure snobbery, of course, and I’ve never met someone who can provide a good reason why classical music is so much better than any other music – apparently, it just is.

The pop audience consequently believes (perhaps only subconsciously) what it has been told for centuries – that classical music can only be appreciated by listeners with “refined” tastes.  In the early 20th century, this gave rise to the notion that it is the music of “high” culture, to be contrasted with “low” music such as blues, rock and jazz (suspiciously, most of the styles that were disparaged in this way seem to have been African-American in origin, perhaps hinting at a more sinister form of snobbery in the classical community of the day).  This, in turn, has given rise to the misconception that all classical music is deeply serious stuff, written with highly serious intentions, and fit only for play at serious occasions.

Some classical music, it has to be said, is deeply serious, such as the music composed for religious worship and state occasions.  On the other hand, some of it is very much entertaining, even fun, such as countless ballroom dances and comic opera songs (one of Mozart’s lesser known pieces, K. 231, is a song entitled “Leck mich im Arsch”, which is the German idiom equivalent to “kiss my ass”.  You can’t honestly claim he was being serious when he wrote that!).

Classical music is not necessarily stuffy or dull, but this is a perception that has existed for many years, and the classical community at large does not seem to be doing anything to alter that perception.  This being the case, it is no wonder that the music has virtually no mainstream appeal.

I’m off to listen to Bach, or possibly Linkin Park – with so much great music around, sometimes it’s difficult to choose.


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4 responses

23 06 2010
Bill

It seems that people who like classical music write these kind of articles. I want to hear from people who hate it. And why they hate it.

Let me tell you my viewpoint. I just did not like it prior to 1980, don’t know why. Just thought it was boring. I think that’s it. Really people hate classical music and will not blog it because they have other interests I think. Music has to stike a chord in them for them to like it. Its not explainable in language I think.

31 10 2010
Audio Switch :

Classical music is the king, i like Maria Callas and operatic arias _

2 02 2011
Lindsey

I do not believe people of the classical music community look down on jazz, rock, blues, etc., because of its supposed African origin. In fact, rock had branched off from jazz which was heavily influenced by, if not a branch of, classical music. Of course, Jazz is completely from the black American culture. But where do you think the instruments in a jazz band came from? A symphony orchestra.

I’m a Violin Performance Major in college. I do agree that the classical music community is a bit stuffy and pretentious…and in many cases, popular music is looked down on. It’s a shame, there is plenty of great music out there which doesn’t require a conductor.

I think the pretentious nature of the classical music community is due to the idea of superiority they have built on classical music. With the great complexity, emotion, and skill required to play classical music, they cannot be satisfied with “normal” music. I don’t think regular music does not require talent and emotion, but do consider the countless hours people in a symphony have practiced and look at a boy band off the top 40’s.

15 06 2011
Jack

It depends what you’re calling “regular” or “normal” music, there isn’t just classical then regular music. At the end of the day, pop music (MTV, eurovision, youtube whatever) is really just “folk” music – music the common folk listen to. It’s simple and accessable, and its been around since people were getting pissed playing the fiddle.

I’ll be the first to admit advanced level classical music requires an enourmous amount of dedication, emotion, talent etc. But so does advanced level jazz and contemporary music. Look at Chick Corea, Buddy Rich or Steve Vai. Tony Williams (Miles Davis’ drummer) was well known for practicing 10 hours a day his entire career.

As a career musician I can tell you the snobery that does exist with some classical musos also exists with some jazz musos, but with a different edge. The poor old unappreciated scholars. They think “real music” (I cannot stand that term!) should be completely improvised. They view music as a conversation, where you don’t know ahead of time what you will say or be said by others, and you interact with other players, intelligently over the set of chord changes. They think classical musos are dumb because they aren’t creative enough to play music that isn’t completely written out.

I find this and the classical attitude very ignorant and arrogant. If music sounds great, it is great, it doesnt matter if it’s Mozart, Coltrane or The Beatles. Great music and elite musicians are not defined by style and classical is not harder than jazz or vice versa, its just different and requires a different skill set.

Game over.

Furthermore, jazz harmony (if you want to call it that) is another level again on classical harmony (not trying to sound hollier than thou, it just simply is, after all it was built on top of classical foundations). And in addition to this, jazz musicians have to intelligently improvise over chord changes, which is a completely separate skill again, and something most classical musos have the faintest idea how to do.




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