Why Classical Music Matters

When I first tried understand if classical music was indeed an “endangered” art form, I basically ran into a tense shootout between ideologues. Overall, it strikes me as a stuffy debate that is best kneaded to a pulp in your local Starbucks . Do I sound impatient? No. I just believe that some topics are so multifactorial – so complex – that it would be pretentious to think one could bring forth the entire body of evidence and arrive at any sort of accurate conclusion. But being so permeated with the dogma of evidence-based decision making, I believe that it is necessary to try our best to quantitate the trends and phenomena occurring in the world of classical music.

The question is: by what model or metric would we be able to assess the state of classical music anyways? The figures could be propagandized to fit either hypothesis. The statistics are free for interpretation. I’ve taken the grotesque liberty to spam a litany of numbers below, just to give you an idea how difficult it is to fully encapsulate all the angles. For example, are we to assess academic output related to classical music? Is popular consumption a more germane index? Is the financial wellbeing of symphony orchestras most important? Or is how well the music traditions of the past will be propagated and inherited by younger generations?

If you want to feel optimistic, you could selectively amass a few rosy questions. Percentage share of worldwide music sales? (Holding steady at 3% of compact discs, increasing to 12% of internet downloads). Number of professional symphony orchestras? (Increasing). Average indebtedness of said orchestras? Finally it is decreasing (75% of orchestras breaking even or turning profit, seeing an average revenue increase of 8%). Number or concerts per year? (They are up +30% to 36k by 1,800 orchestras since 1994).

On the other hand, alarmists might counter with a few more apocalyptic questions questions of their own. Number of syndicated classical music radio stations? (Decreasing, -30% to 34 commercial and 100 or public stations). Performance revenue shortfall of the largest symphony orchestras? (They dropped from 52 to 45% between 1987 and 2000). Number of records published and sold by major labels? (Decreasing). Number of people attending classic concerts per year?  (It’s down -29% between 1992 and 2008, although this must be interpreted in the context of a global decline in patronage in all domains of recreational outing, including museums, galleries, cinemas, and theaters). Head count per concert given by the largest symphonies? (It dropped from 1,900 to 1,400 between 1987 and 2002). Dependency on philanthropy to offset operating costs? (Charitable donations increased from 36.2% to 42.7% between 1990 and 2000).

At the close of 2010, the League of American Orchestras published their Audience Demographic Research Review. I read through this highly disturbing report (linked here) and was taken aback by the negativity of the statistics. Total U.S classical retail sales (traditional and digital media combined) dropped 42% between 1998 and 2008, while total music retail sales for all genres dropped only 9%. Classical music participation rates, by survey self-report, nadired at 8.9% in 2007, whereas they were12.9% in 1982. Perhaps the most striking result is the disparity between the aging of the American population and that of the average symphony audience. Between 1982 and 2008, the proportion of U.S citizens under age 45 shriveled from 58 to 49%. We have Promethean advancements in medical care to account for this longevity effect. However, in the same time period, the proportion of audience members under age 45 collapsed from 60  to 41%, reflecting a 2-fold attrition rate.


Between 2002 and 2008, total audience volume for classical performances dropped 13%. The decline of 1.8 million attendees amongst the “great generation” (i.e. those aged ≥ 87 years old) must mostly attributable to age-related morbidity and mortality.  The increase of 1.7 million Generation Y-ers (i.e those aged 8 – 24 years old) is mainly due to an artificial effect at 18 years, at the transition from minor status into the adult cohort. It does not reflect increased involvement. In fact, when stratified by age, there was a progressive decline in concert attendance across all of Generation X. If these findings are true, then they invalidate the notion that more young people are flocking to the concert halls. When the data were extrapolated to the year 2018, models forecast further declines in all cohorts except for Hispanics. In fact, the only morsel of optimism I could shuck out of the report was the projection that Hispanic participation in symphony concerts would increase by +46% (1.2 million persons), and these increases would be supplied by Generations X, Y, and the late boomers. Why this is the case is not clear, but perhaps it has something to do with the fresh global fame of Venezualan conductor Gustavo Dudamel. Originally quite unknown as the director of the Simón Bilovar Youth Orchestra, he soared to preeminence in 2007 as the new conductor of the LA Philharmonic.

But I digress. The graph that was most thought-provoking reproduced below. It tracks seven generations over a period of 25 years (which is about one generations’ worth of time). The data recapitulate the common wisdom that classical music attendance peaks at around age 54. The essence of these data is that younger generations are participating less than prior ones. Furthermore, the midlife pickup that is seen in the Boomers, Silents, and Greats (currently ages 40 – 65), has not been manifested by the X-ers. When the data are extrapolated to 2018, the models predicted a 0.8 million person decline in participation, apiece, for both generation X and the late boomers. This is especially significant because the size of these two cohorts will remain constant over the next decade. Yes, probably most of this decline can be attributed to the overall economic recession. After all, the first casualties of any slump are the institutions of fine art and culture.

I think these results encapsulate the paradox that has beset American orchestras over the last thirty years or so: as orchestras continue to recruit ever more talented and excellent instrumentalists, and enjoy an increase in operating budget and concert volume, they are playing to an aging and dwindling audience. The universe of classical music training is becoming exponentially competitive, so that members of any given professional orchestra actually belong  to a rarified subset of all conservatory-trained performers.  Standards of musicianship and technical mastery have been upped mightily. And maybe I’m mistaken, but there is a greater parental impetus, nowadays, to steer their youngsters towards music lessons at an early age. Enrollment in early music programs and private lessons in school-aged children has not waned at all. Ever since the recognition of the oft-hyped “Mozart effect” in 1993, music lessons in the young have taken on the semblance of an arms race. Not to mention that the this effect has been grossly misrepresented by popular media; the study investigators merely found a transient boost to spatial-temporal reasoning. The effect was obsolete within 15 minutes of the music stopping.

On counterpoint, I think it is totally reasonable to be skeptical about how well concert attendance is correlated with the health of classical music. Perhaps spending the night at a concert hall is no longer the normal vehicle pf consumption. I do not know of any study that has queried the population to determine the breakdown of how classical music is consumed (on a dollar basis, say) by different age groups. As a whole, around 87% of listening time outside of the concert hall is still spent with analogue media, such as traditional radio and CD albums. But the trend, especially among the younger generations of classical music listeners, is a shift towards digital formats, such as internet and satellite radio, online music stores (iTunes), and streaming user-generated media (YouTube). In the current pricing structure, single track downloads far outnumber whole albums, but are less lucrative. This is thought to explain the discrepancy between  the loss of classical music revenue int he face of increasing internet purchases.

And then there are the dwindling graphs of doom that I quickly generated from Google’s Trends analyzer. Exhibit 1 shows the decreasing popularity of total searches and news entries for the words “classical music” (blue), “symphony” (red), and “orchestra” (orange). Notice the gigantic and reproducible spikes in popularity enjoyed by “orchestras” every December! In fact, integrating the area under the orange curve, we find that perhaps up to 40% of the total annual search interest occurs over the Winter holidays. I also  think you can appreciate the trickling net downslope in all three plots. This can certainly be criticized as a crude method that is inappropriate for the question at hand. But I do think it bespeaks of some true underlying drift,  on a mass population level, when the trend is so linear (i.e. it may be shallow, but the correlation is tight), and so reproducible.

Although the viral rise of a new basketball player or pop singer might be correlated with their popularity on a search engine, I doubt that this type of data mining has been validated for truly reflecting the visibility of a cultural mainstay like classical music. Keep in mind that less than 40% of avid classical radio listeners surveyed reported using the internet at all. And I’m sure that one does not sit down and deliberately search for “classical music”. No, the internet corpus of classical music is an amalgam of diverse but specific search terms.

We could also use another lovely data tool provided by Google Labs (the n-grams viewer in this case) to look at the frequency of book publications with titles or content containing certain words of phrases. It would appear that books about “symphonies” and “orchestras” hit a nice peak in the 1940s, a period that the old guard fondly remember as the “golden age” of classical music and orchestral radio broadcasts. There is a gentle and tantalizing upward trend in “classical music”. I am not sure what the statistical – or for that matter, what the cultural – significant of this might be. Does greater book output, most of which is sure to be scholarly necessarily correlate with the vitality of a certain topic? Maybe there is more authorship about the subject because it is indeed felt to be a dying art; or maybe more of these books are bemoaning the demise of classical music. Finally, nobody can say if greater authorship about a given subject necessarily correlates with greater readership.

Classical music has always been unpopular. Benjamin Zander, the eccentric and hyperactive conductor of the Boston Philharmonic, embodies the gallant notion that classical music should be popular and accessible to everyone. In his lauded TED speech from 2008, he appealed to the

So I think the real question is: should classical music me stably unpopular?


To pontificate about whether classical music is dead or alive, trending up or down, geriatric or young – this only serves to create meaningless boundaries in an ocean; you might part the waters ever so briefly, but then sure enough everything immediately inflows and mixes together once more.

Even among sub-to-the-nth-genres (and I literally mean the nth power) and molecular niches, the knife of musical snobbery is still capable of discrimination. Whether its City X Philharmonic versus City Y Symphony Orchestra and their respective interpretations of Finnish Nationalistic tone poems; or decrying the lack of political concern in modern club mixes compared to the unplugged bloody heartbreak of Bob Dylan or John Lennon; or mocking the cheesy gluttony of glam rock in the 1980s, opting instead for the severe minimalism of a guitar and drumset duo; or stifling a chortle at every lyric penned by the hyper-literary indie crooners, but listening raptly to every cryptic utterance of a British schizo-psychedelic group from the 1970s…you get the idea. All of these are distinctions that can be made on the scale of 4.6 MHz on your radio (classical music on 89.2, hip hop on 93.8), on the scale of decades and countries, or – as in the present example – on the scale of western classical music and everything else.

As my mentor and friend Alan Futterman said, “I am not pessimistic, but there have been significant changes in the last five years.” I guess that says it all. Classical music is not polarizing in one axis or another. It is changing, and many of these changes are paradoxical. Conservatories are enrolling more students each year (+1.2% more over six years to be exact) and major symphony orchestras are becoming more youthful on average. Standards of musicianship, technique, and performance savvy have increased astronomically over the last century. The titans of the classical music recording industry (Decca, EMI, Deutsche-Grammophon/Universal) have recessed and are being supplanted by smaller labels, friendlier towards new composers.


And so the argument goes on. But

So then I began to think about a new question. Why is classical music important?

It’s far too easy to vilify popular music of today as being too simple, too vulgar, too materialistic. But your brush would be too wide. Also, I can understand why most listeners wince internally at the mention of classical music, for they perceive it as too academic, too tedious, too polite. Again, these are just prejudices that don’t appropriately

So I suppose the question is, “why is does there remain so much popular apathy about classical music?”

That fact is that classical music is difficult. Instead of appealing to the basal ganglia

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