“Classical music is dead”: Misconceptions and More

“…when someone has the audacity to say they enjoy classical music, it follows that they must be rich, pretentious, and an utter bore, if they like that elevator stuff.”

Every now and then, I’ll be reminded of the general public’s perception of classical music. Among common words and phrases are that of boring, elitist, and most of all, dead. While classical music—the study of it, at least—certainly has elitist elements and may very well be “boring” to the biased ear, it’s not dead.

My sister, a budding violinist

Take your average pop song, as exemplified perfectly in Pop 101 by Marianas Trench: verse, pre-chorus, chorus, verse, pre-chorus, chorus, bridge, chorus, and outro. This song is the perfect average pop song, and for good reason—Joshua Ramsay, the lead vocalist, hits us over the head with the exact formula to get on Billboard’s Top 100, then executes it flawlessly. He even says it in the pre-chorus:

“Real quick now, don’t you bore us

Hurry up and get to the chorus

Dumb down, they won’t ignore us.”

Ramsay comments on what the general public wants and loves to hear; that is, fast-paced, mindless, and catchy hits with commonly written tropes in the lyrics that fail to engage listeners beyond the ways that the words fit together aurally. In his words, “some things just go together like ‘higher’, ‘desire’, and ‘fire’”.

This, of course, is a rather generalized and almost pessimistic view of the audience at hand, but I’m not here to debate on the extent to which audiences are seen as brainless consumers. What I am here to do, however, is offer a small number of reasons why the misconception classical music is dead exists.

Pop 101 came out in 2014, so while its accuracy to today’s range of pop music falls somewhat short, it nevertheless touches on why other music may be considered “boring”. The fact that this song exists at all is a pretty good indicator that today’s media has molded our perception of a “good song” to fit this cookie-cutter pop hit. We’ve become so accustomed to hearing these sorts of songs in pop culture—upbeat, pleasing to the ear, easy to memorize and sing—that anything that doesn’t fit this mold must either fall into our preconceptions of it or be dismissed entirely.

Our preconceptions/misconceptions of classical music seem to be thus: that it can only be enjoyed in person by shelling out hundreds of dollars per ticket in some grand, illustrious hall; that it is dreary, calming, and only used for studying or trying to fall asleep; that it is a small section of our extensive music history; that only old people like it. So, when someone has the audacity to say they enjoy classical music, it follows that they must be rich, pretentious, and an utter bore, if they like that elevator stuff.

There’s quite a bit to unpack here, so let’s go one by one.

Toronto Symphony Orchestra at the Roy Thompson Hall

1. Classical music is expensive and only for old people.

Tickets to concerts with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra will set you back around $80 – $120 CAD on average.  Whether that’s affordable, or even accessible, really depends on you. But the premise that you need to hear classical music live to enjoy it is inherently wrong—you can just as easily enjoy Vivaldi’s Four Seasons by listening to recordings on YouTube. Experiencing music live has merit, but you wouldn’t say that you can only enjoy Frank Ocean when he’s performing in front of you, right? Think of it this way: if music was a language (in some sense, it is), genres would be dialects of it, and not different languages entirely.

As for the age: why only old people? Music is music, and if you like it, then don’t fight it! The idea that you have to be a certain age to enjoy classical music is absurd and is an idea perpetuated by mass media and the entertainment industry (see: any talent show on TV). If you’re not already familiar with TwoSetViolin or their community, I highly recommend checking them out. One look at their Reddit page will give you a glimpse into the scope and magnitude of young classical musicians. And, at over two million subscribers on YouTube, nobody is doing it quite like TwoSet. They’ve taken the world of classical music and made it entertaining and accessible to the general public through humour.

Eddy Chen and Brett Yang / TwoSetViolin

The truth is, no one is gatekeeping, and contrary to popular belief, classical musicians want more people to listen to classical music, regardless of pedigree, social standing, or any number of superfluous things.

2. Classical music is background music.

This preconception, I attribute to a lack of exposure. Classical music in pop culture has only been used as background music or sound effects to accent a visual scene, so that’s all the general public knows it as. We hear Richard Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra in advertisements for toilet paper. Einleitung—the first part of this tone poem—is one of the most well-known “sound effects” today, but I can almost guarantee that your average person will recognize it and won’t be able to name the piece, much less the composer.

Certainly, classical music can be used as background music or sound effects for popcorn ads; but take a minute to actually listen to Chopin’s waltzes, or Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in D, and you’ll find that these pieces demand our attention. Just because music may not have a vocal part doesn’t mean there are no soloists or no discernible melodies—it simply means that other instruments are singing.

3. The label “classical music”.

I’ve been using it so far as the general public uses it—an umbrella term meant to encompass everything from the first Gregorian chant to the instrumental/orchestral music of today. As discussed previously, what we call “classical music” is so broad a term covering so many different kinds of music that I’m not sure it can even count as a genre of its own—what term could possibly describe both the atonal weirdness of Claude Debussy’s Prélude à L’Après-midi d’un Faune and the Renaissance vibes of Claudio Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo with any amount of accuracy? That’s like saying The Marías make the same kind of music as Led Zeppelin did, or that Justin Bieber’s music sounds like Nirvana’s.

Do you see how ridiculous this is? And yet.

There’s something more to it, I think, and these misconceptions are just excuses. The word expensive might as well be replaced with its (near) homophone: expansive. The term “classical music” spans literal centuries, and there are hundreds of recordings for many of the same pieces. Unlike pop music (and here, I use the term pop very loosely), where the recording of a song can be attributed to the original artist and where covers are extraneous, classical music is almost all covers. Additionally, the celebrity aspect of pop makes up a significant portion of the music itself; for the everyday person who hasn’t been exposed to the “stars” of the classical music community, all the names blur together. There are no, or at least very few, media giants dictating who you should be paying attention to. As such, the aforementioned everyday person can’t know where to begin listening with ease.

“… no one is gatekeeping, and contrary to popular belief, classical musicians want more people to listen to classical music.”

I sympathize. Really. I’m a classically trained musician, and when I think of the sheer volume of music I haven’t listened to… well. New music is being released every day, but I’ll never be caught up with the 1700s, or heck, even the 4th/5th century. None of us will ever be. “Classical music”, or as we’ve slapped a huge label over it, is so overwhelmingly vast that the thought of it can be headache-inducing. As consumers in today’s world, this obstacle of going out of our way to find pieces that we like is already too large of a barrier. Add that to the time it takes to listen to classical pieces, and you have yourself a recipe on how to get people to quit trying.

The sublime.
Caspar David FriedrichWanderer above the Sea of Fog, 1817, Kunsthalle Hamburg.

There’s a certain fear to it, as well. Music—the mechanics of it, the technique, the science—can be hard to grasp. We become unsettled because we don’t automatically know why certain pieces are pleasing and others unpleasing, or why things like the repeated use of dun dun dun duuun are so important. We fear the unknown in any extent, and we fear the notion of facing our own inadequacy.

When people say classical music is sublime, they’re not kidding. You feel small and insignificant in comparison to the historical weight of any piece that is transcribed today. Remember—this music has survived centuries. You are but a fraction of a speck of dust in the history of the world, and these dots on a page have and will live on regardless of whether or not you’re there to experience them. Classical music has reached this level of immortality that, to the everyday person, makes it unfathomable. And, thus, it is “boring”: we as the general public don’t like to think on it, so we simply don’t, and further, the people who do—who do think about classical music critically and do take pleasure out of experiencing it for what it is—baffle us.

So, no, classical musical isn’t dead. Our preconceptions and misconceptions about it are simply rooted in a lack of exposure and understanding. But if you feel as though you’ll never get to learn, take heart; young musicians are constantly reshaping what it means to appreciate classical music, and pop culture icons like TwoSetViolin can serve as a great introduction. Once you get over the barrier of effort, a world awaits you.

3 comments

  1. […] “Classical Music is Dead”: Misconceptions and More — rxtrogression takes on the many misconceptions a lot of people hold about classical music, a couple of which I mentioned in the bit above about Chopin, but also including equally mistaken ideas like “it all sounds the same.”  When you’re dealing with a set of music written across an entire continent and a few other places besides, and over a period of three centuries, you can’t generalize about it.  This piece does a great job at breaking that subject down. […]

Comment here.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s