What’s Wrong with Classical Music?

by Colin Eatock

Colin_Eatock_small Every day I pass through Toronto’s Bathurst Street Subway Station, on the way to work. And sometimes, on days when I’m not running late, I pause to listen to the classical music that the Toronto Transit Commission pipes into the station. But as much as I enjoy being gently eased into my working day with a Mozart symphony or a Vivaldi concerto, I’m well aware that the TTC isn’t really trying to gratify my particular musical tastes. There are other motives at work here.

Bathurst Street Station is a multicultural crossroads in the downtown, and there are several high schools nearby. Among the subway riders who pass through the station are thousands of young people of differing backgrounds – a volatile mix that’s constantly in danger of boiling over. The TTC’s answer to this threat is to crank up the classical music.

The use of classical music in public places is increasingly common: in shopping malls, parking lots, and other places where crowds and loitering can be problems. The TTC is by no means the only transit service to use the technique: in 2005, after classical music was introduced into London’s Underground, there was a significant decrease in robberies, assaults and vandalism. Similar results have been noted from Finland to New Zealand. The idea may be a Canadian innovation: in 1985, a 7-Eleven store in Vancouver pioneered the technique, which was soon adopted elsewhere. Today, about 150 7-Elevens throughout North America play classical music outside their stores.

As a classical music lover, I’d like to believe that my favourite music has some kind of magical effect on people – that it soothes the savage breast in some unique way. I’d like to think that classical music somehow inspires nobler aspirations in the mind of the purse-snatcher, causing him to abandon his line of work for something more upstanding and socially beneficial.

But I know better. The hard, cold truth is that classical music in public places is often deliberately intended to make certain kinds of people feel unwelcome. Its use has been described as “musical bug spray,” and as the “weaponization” of classical music. At the Bathurst Street Subway Station, the choice of music conveys a clear message: “Move along quickly and peacefully, people; this is not your cultural space.”

Some sociologists have expressed concern that this particular use of classical music only serves to further divide society along lines of age, class and ethnicity. And, not surprisingly, some in the classical music community are offended by this new purpose for their art. The English music critic Norman Lebrecht has written that using classical music as a policing tool is “profoundly demeaning to one of the greater glories of civilization.”

However, it’s not really the fault of those concerned with public order and safety that many young people – especially those who come from economic and cultural backgrounds that have never embraced Western classical music – have an aversion to classical music. The managers who install the loudspeakers and switch on the music are pragmatists who are taking convenient advantage of a pre-existing socio-cultural state of affairs. To direct hostility against them, as Lebrecht has done, is to shoot the messenger.

So why do so many young people dislike classical music? (I include among the “young” people in their 40s, 50s and even older who have retained the musical tastes and attitudes they formed in their teens.) I recently surveyed a group of undergraduate students, in a music appreciation class that I teach at the University of Toronto, asking for their views on the reasons for classical music’s lack of appeal. Broadly speaking, the reasons they suggested can be divided into two categories: things people don’t like about the way the music sounds, and things people don’t like about the culture that surrounds the music. To my students’ suggestions, I’ve added a few thoughts of my own, based on criticisms of classical music that I’ve encountered over the years. What follows is a litany of reasons – or at least perceptions – that collectively go a long way to explain why large swaths of society can be driven away by my favourite music.

Classical music is dryly cerebral, lacking visceral or emotional appeal. The pieces are often far too long. Rhythmically, the music is weak, with almost no beat, and the tempos can be funereal. The melodies are insipid – and often there’s no real melody at all, just stretches of complicated sounding stuff. The sound of a symphony orchestra is bland and over-refined, and even a big orchestra can’t pack the punch of a four-piece rock group in a stadium. A lot of classical music is purely instrumental, so there’s no text to give the music meaning. And when there are singers, in concerts and opera, their vocal style is contrived and unnatural: so much shrieking and bellowing. The words are unintelligible, even if they’re not in a foreign language.

Culturally speaking, classical music is insignificant, with record sales that would be considered a joke in the pop music industry. Indeed, classical music is so un-popular that it can’t survive in the free market, and requires government subsidy just to exist. Yet even with public support, tickets to classical concerts are prohibitively expensive. The concerts themselves are stuffy and convention-bound – and the small, aging audience that attends them is an uncool mixture of snobs, eggheads and poseurs pretending to appreciate something they don’t. In a word, classical music is “elitist”: originally intended for rich Europeans who thought they were better than everyone else, and composed by a bunch of dead white males. It has nothing to do with the contemporary world – and its oldness appeals only to people who cling to obsolete values. You say there are living composers who still write classical music? Never heard of them.

The two paragraphs above articulate a pastiche of attitudes, rather than a unified critique. For example, the complaint that classical music can’t survive without subsidy is a right-wing objection; whereas the argument that the music is “elitist” tends to come from the left. Nor are all of the points entirely valid. Ticket prices are not necessarily prohibitive – some classical concerts are free – and there’s certainly more to the audience than snobs, eggheads and poseurs. Furthermore, is it fair to scold Bach, Beethoven and Brahms for being dead, white and male? It’s not like they chose to be any of those things. But regardless of whether the objections are true or untrue, fair or unfair, they add up to a broad-based dismissal of classical music.

I don’t personally share the values I’ve attempted to encapsulate; on the contrary, they distress me. And what distresses me most about them is the fact that they’re not just held by those content to live in a cultural world bounded by pop music, television and major-league sports, but also by many inquisitive and sophisticated people who take an active interest in literature, film, theatre and other arts. These are exactly the kind of people who, a few generations ago, would have felt that classical music was “their” music. Yet today, even among the artistically inclined intelligentsia, classical music is often regarded as a foreign thing. Its remaining fans are well aware of their marginal status: much like Mormons, vegans or Marxists, they are denizens of a strange subculture, outside the mainstream.

In the Western world today, classical music is challenged not merely by a crisis of popularity, but also a crisis of purpose and legitimacy. While I don’t share the view of some alarmists that the whole edifice will come crashing down any time soon, I do believe that urgent action is called for, if this art-form is to throw off the perception that it’s a buck-naked Emperor with little to offer the modern world. Of course, this is easier said that done. While some of the concerns I’ve articulated above could be readily addressed, others are more challenging – still others may be impossible to do much of anything about. Let’s start with the easy things.

Trapped in its Own Traditions

The concert-going culture of classical music, such as we know it today, had its origins in the nineteenth century. It was a time of overt class distinctions, and listening to “good music” was a powerful marker of social status. The concert etiquette that was cultivated in this environment was based on upper-class values of formality, solemnity and propriety. Yet what one era finds formal, solemn and proper, another may find stilted, boring and oppressive – and that’s where we are today. Much must change, if the popular view of what a classical concert “feels like” is to be fundamentally renovated.

Things are already being done, people in the classical music world will proudly tell us, to address this issue. Many orchestras nowadays have “casual concerts”: audiences are encouraged to dress informally, and the conductor may speak from the stage about the music on the programme. And the traditional white-tie-and tails-uniform for conductors is an anachronism that is slowly fading away.

And there are other, more controversial, changes in the air. The practice of withholding applause between movements – a “tradition” that did not exist in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries – is a formality that some (such as Alex Ross, music critic for The New Yorker) would like to see abolished. An even bolder idea is to install giant screens in concert halls that display simultaneous projections of a live concert from different angles – close-ups of a pianist's hands, for example – and this has already been done in few places. The technology is expensive, but the investment could bring about a revolution in the way orchestral concerts are experienced, just as supertitles revolutionized the opera world twenty-five years ago. And some musical organizations have questioned whether the civic concert hall is the best place for concerts: other venues that are less formal and more imaginative may better serve the cause of updating the image of the classical music.

These are all intriguing ideas. However, I’ve noticed that some initiatives, aimed at attracting new audiences, can come across as little more than transparent marketing ploys undertaken for the sole purpose of putting more bums in seats. First and foremost, the institutions of classical music must give the impression that they sincerely want to keep up with the times, not that they’re being dragged into the twenty-first century kicking and screaming. It’s not enough to do things in new ways; it’s also necessary to convince the coveted “younger demographic” that they’re not being pandered to, and that efforts to court them are more than token gestures or acts of desperation.

The Trouble with New Music

Unfortunately, when we turn from the challenge of reforming the concert environment to reforming the concert repertoire, things become more difficult. And one of the greatest repertoire problems today is contemporary music – and by this, I mean contemporary classical music.

In the twentieth century, many composers of classical music adopted a contrarian aesthetic stance, willfully writing music that was incomprehensible to many listeners – the very opposite, in its aesthetic values, to the music that most people enjoyed. For some composers, unpopularity was valued as a badge of honour. Such perverse ideals were not so prevalent in the realm of popular music: while jazz, rock and rap all met with some initial resistance, they soon became mainstream styles, attracting millions of devotees. By contrast, contemporary classical composers drifted into such profound obscurity that most people today don’t even know they exist.

Ironically, the composers of the twentieth century who claimed to be champions of the modern era wrote a kind of music that was sorely lacking in cultural authenticity. By this I simply mean that modernist classical composers failed – after a century of trying, with impressive determination – to carve out any substantial cultural space for their art, or to convince more than a handful of people that theirs was the true voice of modernity. Quite the reverse happened: this music alienated a whole generation, and many classical music enthusiasts today view any new work with suspicion. (I take no pleasure in saying these things, by the way: some of my favourite modernist works could be deemed failures, from a cultural perspective.)

So what kind of music should orchestras play to attract new audiences? Pop tunes, arranged for orchestra? Concerts featuring rap artists as guests? Such repertoire does not satisfy the need for a contemporary classical music: a kind of music that, while new, is in some way attached to the ideals and traditions of European art-music. Another approach is to encourage, through commissions and performances, those composers who look back to the Good Old Days and write in styles reminiscent of Puccini, Rachmaninoff or Richard Strauss. There are some composers today doing this very thing – but their exercises in musical nostalgia fail to satisfy the need for a new classical music that sounds new. And there’s the rub: a truly successful contemporary classical work would have to be authentically new, and authentically classical – and genuinely appealing to audiences.

In recent years, there have been some hopeful signs, with such composers as John Adams, Arvo Pärt and Osvaldo Golijov writing music that strives to escape from the corner that the modernists painted themselves into. But the way forward is unclear: no one has yet achieved a big breakthrough, and contemporary classical music remains stigmatized as unlistenable. Nevertheless, it behooves composers to try solve this conundrum – and it behooves performers to support them in their efforts. To abandon the challenge is to acknowledge that classical music is indeed a “dead art.”

The Trouble with Old Music

It’s perhaps difficult for someone immersed in the culture of classical music to see the oldness of the standard repertoire as problematic. Yet almost nothing composed in the last fifty years has been integrated into the standard repertoire. As such, the classical canon today is a kind of museum of musical values from bygone eras. And while this museum culture may appeal to those who are historically inclined, for people today who have little interest in the past (a considerable chunk of the population), it’s a problem. Musical values have changed substantially in the last century.

I’m not here to rant about popular music, or denounce rock and roll as “the Devil’s music.” On the contrary, I grew up with plenty of popular music in my life, and I still enjoy it. But what concerns me is the hegemony of pop music, which has, I think, had a profound effect on the way people listen to classical music – indeed, on their ability to listen to it. People who have heard nothing but popular music all their lives (again, a considerable chunk of the population) will, of necessity, develop certain assumptions about what music is “supposed to” sound like. Someone who only knows a repertoire of three-minute Top 40 songs in verse-chorus form may find a lengthy, textless orchestral work daunting and interminable. Someone weaned on percussive rock or rap music at high volumes may hear a string quartet as feeble and wimpy. And someone who admires the “natural” voices of Bob Dylan or Tom Waits may experience Plácido Domingo as artificial and overwrought.

These sorts of reactions are, I believe, the greatest challenges facing the classical-music world – because they underscore a fundamental rupture with the core values of the music itself. How does one “fix” the “problem” that a violin is not an especially loud musical instrument, or that Schubert’s Octet has no words, or that Mahler’s Symphony No. 9 is an hour and a half long? Ultimately, classical music is what it is, and its survival depends upon some portion of the population accepting it – and embracing it – on its own terms.

A Few Modest Proposals

There are those who say that what’s needed is more music education programs, with a classical emphasis, in our schools. I’m certainly not opposed to this, but I fear that such efforts often create an academic aura around classical music that serves to further separate it from the “real world.” (This is the sorry fate that has befallen the art of poetry.) The goal should be to bring classical music back into the everyday lives of everyday people.

Musicians, educators, concert presenters, and all others involved in the promotion of classical music need to take a hard look at the cultural messages that may be undermining their efforts. It’s worth remembering that the division of musical cultures into “high” and “low” – separating the classical from the popular – was largely an invention of the classical music world itself. This kind of thinking has a long history, but it was only in the twentieth century that it coalesced into a rigid ideology of exclusion.

It’s time for classical music to finally get over the idea that it’s not merely different from, but opposed to, other musics: that classical music and no other kind is “timeless,” “universal” and “great.” This, in and of itself, will not solve the problem of getting people to appreciate (or even sit through) a Wagner opera. But it would, at least, bring classical music back into touch with the values of the contemporary world. If classical music today finds itself isolated on the wrong side of a cultural Berlin Wall, it’s a wall that it built itself. We need to demolish that wall, if we are to convince the world at large that classical music should and does have a place in the contemporary world.


Colin Eatock is a composer, critic and scholar who holds (very tightly) a PhD in musicology from the University of Toronto. He frequently writes for Toronto’s Globe and Mail newspaper, and has contributed to the New York Times and the Houston Chronicle, and to music periodicals in the USA, the UK and Canada. He is also the managing editor of The WholeNote, Toronto’s guide to classical, jazz and world music. His first book (there will be others), Mendelssohn and Victorian England, was published by Ashgate Press in 2009.