Classical music is dying

That’s the sort of headline you see from time to time in places like Arts & Letters Daily and the arts sections of major newspapers. Invariably, what follows a few weeks letter is the rebuttal which argues, “No, it isn’t.”

It’s obvious, the Dying side says, that appreciation for serious, adult music is at an all time low. Just turn on any radio, walk into almost any business, or attend nearly any function purportedly for adults and you will hear simple, pop music, or worse. Classical music has all but disappeared.

Not true, say the Optimists. Just look at our attendance figures for last season’s opera or for the yearly Jazz Festival. Sure, the numbers wax and they wane, but they have held steady since roughly 1950. Concert halls are just as filled as they ever were.

I’ll suppose that later claim is true, that attendance is holding roughly steady. I can’t find an exact figure, but let’s say that concert attendance is 100,000 seats per year in the United States. The precise number doesn’t really matter: pick any steady number you want and what I’m about to say is just as true.

Here’s the relevant picture:
Classical music attendance

The left-hand vertical axis depicts the U.S. population in millions since 1950; it shows a doubling over the past 50-60 years. The right-hand vertical axis depicts the percentage of residents who buy tickets to adult music concerts conditioned on the fact that each year about 100,000 tickets are sold. The numbers are in hundredths of a percent. If I’m wrong and the number of tickets sold is a million, then the figures are the same but are in tenths of a percent.

This figure, of course, doesn’t account for people who buy multiple tickets. If we assume that the percent of people who buy multiple tickets is roughly constant, then the shape of the red line is still the same, it’s just shifted up or down a slight bit. Even if this percent is not constant, there will only be a small correction.

So, while population has doubled, appreciation has fallen by roughly 50%. No trivial amount, that.

Of course, some people will not go to concerts and will buy music instead. But we already know that the sales of classical music have dropped off a cliff. The number of radio stations that host classical music has declined, too. Do you even have one where you live? (NYC is an oasis in this respect.)

How about listening online? For one example, it wasn’t until earlier this year that Pandora began carrying adult music. In fact, when I was listening the other day they had a tool pop up on the side of their player which would allow you to move three sliders and then click a button, after which a search engine would find music you like. The distressing first slider was BPM: Beats per Minute. The others were something inane like funkiness or quirkiness. I wish I had the opportunity for a screen capture to show you. Anyway, I am unable to discover statistics on on-line listenership beyond the anecdotal, but I don’t find anybody boasting. The opportunities are there, on line, they are just not being fully used.

I don’t think lack of education accounts for the demise of serious music. There’s more than enough of that panacea going around. I believe it has more to do with fears of being called an elitist or of being thought old, or at least no longer youthful. To say that what you are hearing when you go into a bar (restaurant, store, bookstore, etc., etc.) is juvenile, simplistic, or just plain awful makes you sound crusty and sour. If it wasn’t for the constant barrage of bad music everywhere you go, we elitists would keep quiet about all this. But silence in a public establishment is rarer than a sense of humor in an Upper-West-Side Obama supporter.

To some extent, it’s those who create music who are to blame. Some of the musicians who call themselves “serious” are anything but. I’m thinking of that fellow Glass (which rhymes with) and that guy who “wrote” the piece where those on stage sit still for 9 minutes so the audience can hear the sounds of people gasping for breath after discovering they paid good money for the privilege. That’s art. Jazz in the mainstream has mostly devolved into the pablum called “smooth”: all flutes, and what I suppose are synthesizers, all the time.

I’m with the crowd shouting “Dying!” Too bad the only response seems to be “Who cares!”

To get a head start on the criticisms: no, there is nothing wrong with listening to pop music, just as there isn’t anything wrong with drinking pop. An occasional glass can be just the thing. But if you drink nothing else, your teeth will rot out, your stomach will ulcer, and you’ll regress towards diabetes and imbecility. Listening to Andrea Bocelli is like switching to diet pop: you have the idea that you’re drinking real pop, you just can’t identify that strange aftertaste. You are what you listen to. The British Invasion was just that: we should have fought back. Imagine a world without the musics of John Lennon. It’s easy if you try. Heaven.

37 Comments

  1. Mi chiamano Mimì, ma il mio nome è …. 🙂

    I’m not a big fan of Glass either. But I do love most opera.

    I have to admit though, my sister and I walked out of an awful, long German opera performed at the Lyric last year. (Not Wagner. Something about a woman with no shadow…. the other woman’s unborn babies yada, yada, yada. )

    Still, we’ve had season tickets for about four years, and enjoy nearly all of them.

  2. I love Philip Glass music. It pops up in all kinds of unexpected places, including movies. Oops, if Glass music is involved they are probably called films, not movies.

    The Kronos Quartet has recorded some Glass compositions. A guy I worked with said, “How can it take four people to play three notes?”

    Who said, “Many people complain that Wagner operas are too long. And they are.”

  3. Dan–
    Glass is fine as background music.

    The opera my sister and I walked out of was by Die Frau ohne Schatten by Richard Strauss. It has three acts which seem like 10.

    Wikipedia says this:

    “Strauss himself called this opera his “child of woe” (he even called it “Die Frosch”, which in German means frog, that is “Die Frau ohne Schatten”). The complexity of the text and the stress of wartime made its composition a laborious task, and Strauss was also disappointed with the first productions.”

    I think many opera goers were disappointed by recent productions. My sister and I sat through 2 acts. Audience attrition was visible after 1 act.

  4. Is there actually a bar in NYC that doesn’t play awful music? I used to find good, quiet, comfortable bars in Tokyo that you could actually drink in relative peace and talk with those around you. I have yet to find this in NYC.

    I really have yet to find a place that isn’t blaring ridiculous music every night.

    I’d even go for a bar that doesn’t play music. Just someplace quiet to enjoy a drink.

  5. Upon what basis is classical music considered better than current music?

    Saying that classical music is better without giving a reason is merely a variation of the appeal to authority argument. Surely you can do better than just providing a rant that classical music is indeed better.

    Moreover, while your graph is a proper model and it may be true that the number of concert hall tickets sold on an annual basis is constant, it does not necessarily follow that proportionately fewer people are interested in classical music concerts over time. It can equally be that additional concert halls are not being built to match the expanding population. Your information does not provide sufficient supporting data to determine which of these statements is true.

    Using your statistical knowledge, which I admire, to muddy the issue regarding classical music is not fair to your blog’s readers, even if we agree with your stance on classical music.

    PS. Wagner still sounds worse to me than the music of the last decade.

  6. Jinnah,

    Since the topic was the decline of classical music, I didn’t think to add an argument on its importance, which I took as obvious. However, I can answer easily on what bases it is superior. Pick any, or any combination of: sophistication, importance, harmonic subtlety, complexity, finesse, beauty, gracefulness, drama, exuberance, lastingness, elan, etc.

    Of course there exists bad classical music, just as it is plain there exists appalling pop music. But the chance that a randomly chosen classical piece is better than a randomly chosen pop song is overwhelmingly high.

    In fact, I’m convinced that there exists a simple formula or algorithm which can generate an endless stream of pop music. For example,


    while (true) {
    sing <- "She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah";
    }

    Like the old joke goes: The best way to teach pop music? Stop the lessons early.

    Also, there is little or no evidence of a boon in the construction of new concert halls. Nor in the creation of new orchestras.

  7. Dr. William M. Briggs PhD (44)
    COME OVER HERE AND SAY THAT!

    Jinnah
    What decade old music are you referring to? I’ll wager there’s not a piece written in the last ten years, anywhere in the world that could hold up to musical comparison with such pieces as Beethoven’s fifth, Vivaldi’s four seasons and Elgar’s Nimrod moves people to tears. I love some modern music, but I would like to know what music you would offer as a serious alternative to these. Is something written by a computer with phrases stripped left right and centre from other pieces really music? Is it not a musical papier mache? Is there any artistic merit in it at all? Some Modern music isworth remembering. This would be the music that is carefully skilfully and artistically composed. I wonder how many scantily clad females Beethoven needed to push his music enough that people are still playing it hundreds of years later. Even Paul McCartney’s music, exceptional as it IS! Will have to last another few hundred years and still be widely enjoyed to prove itself.
    Briggs can’t help having a limited taste in music, his musical ear was ruined by a man called Ted when he was but a youngster.

  8. Ari:
    If there are no quiet pubs in NY, you’re in the wrong city. Do they have coffee shops in book shops? They’re usually quiet, or an hotel bar. (in London, you can still sip tea while someone in a frock-coat plays piano.) It does tend to be expensive.
    One has to have years of experience trawling shops to discover quiet hidy holes wherein to escape. You have not had enough practice Ari, obviously.

  9. I think it’s a little strange to complain about the popularity of ‘popular’ music.

    Pop music is nothing more or less than the folk music of our time – and it encompasses a huge range of efforts. Folk music has always been the music that most folk listen to.

    Classical music has it’s roots in the church and the courts of the european aristocracy (this is not a criticism), and the fact that it remains largely in those sorts of places is perhaps unsurprising.

    As for dismissing John Cage (composer of 4’33”) and his contemporaries, I think you should bear in mind that they were consciously experimenting with what could be called music – think of Warhol and others of that that time.

    Cage, in particular, could be described as an ‘ideas man’, and I doubt that he considered all of his experiments successful. Having attended a whole evening of his music a couple of years ago, (it didn’t include 4’33”), I found some of it wonderful, some of it pretty much unlistenable. Same for Stockhausen, Lamont Young, Harry Parch and others.

    In any case, I don’t believe any music’s popularity or lack of it says anything about it’s ‘worth’, whatever that may be to you, me, or anyone else.

    Personally, I find people’s ‘use’ of music as a means of identifying themselves with a social group to be the very least interesting thing about music itself, though quite interesting in other ways.

  10. Does this not suggest that the number of people buying tickets has stayed the same? If the population has doubled but the percentage buying tickets has halved, then the number of tickets is the same.
    The same type of people are, and always will buy classical music tickets. They are simply becoming a smaller percentage of a growing population. So the people going to classical concerts need to have more babies.

  11. Joy,

    I’m a recent transplant, so my time looking for a good, quiet, enjoyable pub is relatively hosrt thus far. Coffee shops are fine, but I don’t go to pubs for just liquid and a seat: I also try to enjoy a wide range of microbrewed beers that are unfortunately not offered in local markets. There’s one bar by me that offers such products, but it is of the “play music louder than a jet engine” variety.

    Heck, I’d just go for a place that doesn’t consider white zinfandel to be wine, but a travesty. If I found a bar that had a sign that said, “We will never serve Tecate and white zinfandel, nor play music that you can learn to play in a week!” it would make me happy.

  12. Joy,

    hosrt = short. I have no idea how the s managed to migrate so far…

    masmit,

    I must admit to not understanding the Schoenberg-influenced composers– Cage, Webern, Harrison, et al. don’t really make sense to me. Kind of like how not all of Coltrane makes a lot of sense to me. I wouldn’t say I dismiss it, but I sure as heck don’t “get it.”

  13. Ari:
    I googled Waggle Dance New York and found very little. I googled Waldorf Historia beer list and found that they are holding an annual beer conference this very day! So if you hurry, you could pootle on down there now. It looks like it’s on for a few days.
    There was a place called the Water Front Bar I spotted on google but it could be a rowdy place.
    Failing this just ask a cabby.
    Ari, you are in the city that never sleeps! There ought to be many options.

  14. Ari–
    When I lived in Ames, Iowa, I attended a lecture by Peter Schickele (aka PDQ Bach). He said something to the effect that he felt the same way about communism and atonal music. Both were interesting, but he was glad to that neither was going to take over the world.

    BTW, Schoenberg was mentioned on the wikipedia page discussing Richard Strauss of “Die Frau ohne Schatten”.

    I think atonal music is fine as background music in movies. Actually listening to it for an hour is not something I want to do. (I like both pop and classical music. )

  15. Masmet:
    Classical music, as all learning and writing, has it’s roots in the church. Lindisfarne Priory(Holy Island) was the birthplace of what we now know as a university in England. In Dark Age and Medieval times, the church had money. It is money and spare time that can facilitate great art. So I don’t see why classical music’s origin being ecclesiastical is of importance, other than being an interesting historical fact.
    The monks made fabulous mead. It’s still produced! And they ship around the world.
    They were rubbish on the piano though.
    http://northumbria.info/Pages/lindisfarne5.html

    On the man with no music.
    If a scientist blows up the lab because he’s experimenting is this credit worthy?
    If he wanted to experiment, did he have to ask people to pay a retail price for a product that was still in it’s experimental stage? If he has music in his soul, he will write music, if he is empty, his music will be empty too.
    If anyone says “I’m trying to understand this” they’ve lost the plot and have been had by an artist that was too lazy to sit down and write a musical score. He is a charlatan.
    Art does not need an advocate if it is worthy. We all know what silence sounds like, and had I wanted that I’d go to the top of a mountain. What an insult to the audience’s intelligence!
    Every month I receive a programme of concerts from the Royal Albert Hall RNIB box. The quality music, classic and modern sell out like hot cakes and names go into a draw. However, every new listing is shortly followed up by a list of concert tickets still for sale. They are always of the variety you describe. No-one wants to go, even when it’s at a knock down price in a quality box.
    So the corporations often pay for a years worth of tickets in a given box, giving the illusion of increased ticket sales but it’s not until you see a full house on the night that you really know.
    I ought to have collected the emails, I could have produced some real data.

  16. I think that it’s all in the ear and mind of the listener.

    We all know what silence sounds like,…

    Joy, I have always wanted to know what silence sounds like as far back as I could remember. No pun, no kidding & no irony here, just a plain true statement.

  17. You have popular music, then you have classical, which not being popular, must therefore be unpopular. That or it’s all a bunch of Philistines.

  18. On the bright side: Classical concerts on DVD have been selling very well, and although it took very long for Classical buffs to make the change from vinyl to CD they are now even downloading mp3s (emusic.com has a nice collection).
    The Dutch Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra has an interesting experiment to try and boost their CD sales. As a present celebrating their 120th anniversary, you can download 10 symphonies and the CD booklets for free. (320 kbps mp3, email registration required, downloads available till November 24)

    http://kco.radio4.nl/?page=home&lang=en

    A few months ago I was so annoyed with the crap radio stations that I could receive on my cable, that I bought a Squeezebox, a great way to listen to internet radio on your stereo.

  19. I always considered Opera the Pop music of the classics.

    I actually let a lady talk me into attending one. I was right, at least for that one and the few that have been televised that I have viewed.

    I will stick with the Concert Hall and leave the Opera Hall to those who appreciate it. Unfortunately I can get Classic streamed over the Internet for free so have no need to buy tickets, sit quietly, buy albums…

    I wonder how much that is affecting the fact there is little increase in conventional audiences and sales?? I believe that virtually all media is suffering from similar issues except for relatively current POP music.

  20. On the subject of silence: The Economist has a review in the current issue for a book by Sara Maitland “A book of Silence”. It sounds like an interesting read.

    http://www.economist.com/books/displaystory.cfm?story_id=12591006

    SARA MAITLAND’S book is not about peace and quiet. It is about silence as a practice, a discipline, a way of life. A cottage in the country will not do. It is more a matter of desert caves and open oceans, or, in her case, wild Scottish moorland. It’s the real deal.

    So what is silence like? Ms Maitland does not pull her punches. At various times she has heard choirs singing in Latin from the bedroom. She has been spooked and sapped of energy. She has lost track of time, felt her identity dissolving, lost her inhibitions, forgotten to wash. She is not alone in this. Some of it appears in the literature on sensory deprivation. But it also appears in the literature of transcendence.

  21. Jh:
    You could visit an acoustic anechoic chamber. (don’t get locked in)
    For real silence is strangely distracting. Sleep in a room made of ice in the middle of nowhere (the ice seems to deaden the sound or have a sound of it’s own. Your brain will feel invigorated.
    The other place I heard it was at top of Mount Robson on a glacier. No wind, no trees to rustle, (there were birds, but they weren’t tweeting) We all stood very still to listen to silence as instructed by the pilot
    “eeh! It’s dead quiet ‘oop ‘ere” came a voice in a broad Yorkshire accent. There were five of us. The others wanted to slosh him but I was, and still am amused by this. He really wasn’t doing it on purpose. The silence was further ruined by my uncontrollable laughter. So we managed about ten seconds. It was perfect.

  22. Who today writes symphonies that are on a par with and as popular as Mozart, Mahler or Beethoven? If, as I suspect, the answer is no one, then is not Matt’s title an understatement?

  23. Bernie:
    The music that emanated from those composers is still with us.
    If there is never again a composition to rival these, is this not sufficient?
    A composer of sufficient quality could answer with music.

  24. Joy:
    As a matter of personal taste, I agree but I believe that to be “alive” classical music needs contemporary greats – Glass et al do not make it IMHO. The lack of contemporary greats may be as much a reflection of the limited and declining interest in classical music as the objective absence of gifted classical composers. Are there similarities in the visual arts?

  25. Bernie, I’d contend that (to mention those that spring immediately to mind) Stravinsky, Ligeti, and above all Messaien have written music that equals that of any of those you mention.

    On the other hand, I’d say no-one has come close to Bach, but maybe that sort of thing can only happen once.

    To my ears, quite a bit of the well-known 19th century music sounds a bit quaint, these days.

  26. Thank you, Schnoerkelma. It does seem interesting. In Chinese, peace, quietness and silence are all two-character Chinese words. While they all have the same second character; and the first character indicates profound differences among them.

    Joy, thank you. Ahhh, an acoustic anechoic chamber. I do have a supposedly sound-proof room in the basement since I have an Al Demiola wannabe at home.

  27. Masmit:
    To my untrained ear, Ligeti and Messaien are no improvement on Glass. They simply do not pass my personal “hum” test.
    Joy’s point about Church music is intriguing especially at this time of year, where the traditional always seems to trump the modern.

  28. Bernie,
    Edward Elgar was famously quoted as saying “It’s Damned hard work” when it comes to composing a symphony.
    It’s tedious and irritating when a modern art advocate, visual, performing or musical has to resort to insulting the intelligence of the onlooker or listener by persuading them that they really don’t “understand” or are not sufficiently educated to be able to take in acclaimed subtlety, that frankly, isn’t there.
    There seems to be an overwhelming number of people who like to write articles and papers and opinion pieces extolling the virtues of something that must, by virtue of fashion be new or original in theme in order to deserve merit. With any luck it will be weird for added shock value. Does the public really have to be shocked to be moved these days? It’s cheap thrill, make it loud, off key, percussive, without rhythm, unpredictable (read unmusical) and literally painful. That ought to do it! Failing that, give them nothing; “nothing will come of nothing”.
    Have artists become mercenary? Or just misguided. It is highly unfashionable to produce art that is pleasing, beautiful, or that might produce any positive emotion in the onlooker. The modern artist has become ashamed of positive emotion, of a labour of love. They have lost their muse. They should shake this off it is tyranny.

    Do we hear anyone saying,
    Food is dying, we don’t see any new food nowadays. The old favourites are still the old favourites.
    The difference is that the chef puts his own twist on an existing idea. Rarely does he invent a new dish that is adopted by everyone.
    Classical music will not die until the human spirit dies.
    The new ears and eyes will marvel at pieces that might, by some, be considered tired. It’s not the music that is tired, it’s the listener.
    This is why, in my opinion, spirituality produces great art. This is evident around the world.

    “O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend
    The brightest heaven of invention, “

  29. Joy:
    I agree. The Cavanagh article is peculiarly obtuse as to a specific position except for the fact that MP3 download data indicates that classical music sales are going up! I doubt that it is modernist music that is driving these sales. For my part I have recently discovered Locatelli and I am sure other gems await.

  30. At risk of being a stuck record, I couldn’t let it lie:
    Philip Glass produced a piece insolently called
    “Violin concerto”, “Movement 1” is sampled on his home page.

    It is blatantly and wantonly sampled and in part copied note by note from Vivaldi’s violin concerto in E and F major; F and G minor and Brahms Violin Concerto in D. There appears to be some Mozart lurking, I can’t place the name of the piece.
    He has clearly used a computer in the sampling and mixing of this. I’m even wondering if the computer can now transcribe direct from an audio file into sheet music. Such a programme must exist.
    The hand, mind and heart of a man did not write the music. It is “Braaavaldi (club mix)” A rotten apple in a crate of Coxes Orange Pippins, The dregs, the scrumpy.
    The heart of music from one or more dead composers was dissected to produce this amateurish and brain washing piece,
    On a visual note, the picture on the album cover is a hubble telescope immage.
    Brand image: note that one of the Albums is called “Einstein on the Beach. “Chillout music for the intelligent” would not be so cheesy.
    Literally, it puts me in mind of the time my two eardrums were perforated and all sounds were rendered distant, echoed, notes were sliding from true pitch as if on ice, watery and vague, rather like an old cassette player that was starting to run low on power and most sounds, especially those from violins rendered a nauseating feeling somewhere between the back of my nose and my stomach, not dissimilar to a feeling of motion or sea sickness. In plain English,, a noxious stimulus.
    Was this the exact feeling the composer was considerately trying to convey to his audience?
    If so, he is a brilliant man!

  31. I don’t see the point of comparing popcrap and rockscheisse with Mozart et al. It’s quite cruel enough to compare it with jazz and jazz-like music from Scott Joplin to the end of the Swing Era. The joint was jumpin’.

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