Written by Jane Seung
Classical music, while still appreciated and respected by the majority of people, does not reside as a predominant form of music for the current generation.
This is hardly surprising, considering that much of the evolution of music has paralleled the shifts in popular culture. In the twenty-first century, classical music, by nature, is less relevant than other genres that have emerged in the more recent past and established themselves as part of a cultural phenomenon- such as EDM and the rave culture. Given that the most prevalent classical compositions of today are those from the past (namely Johann Sebastian Bach and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart of the eighteenth century), it is not hard to make sense of the fact that people of the present are having an easier time connecting with the music and culture of the present.
As a result, classical music has been placed somewhat distant from our wider culture. Classical concerts are not exactly leapt upon by a starving public, as an outdoor music festival might be: stats show that orchestra subscription sales are dropping all over the world, and the audience is getting older.
Where then, does the future of classical music lie? Is the modern culture sending the industry into a tailspin? Is classical music dead?
A large part the reason why classical music seems aloof from the present lies in the fact that we have accumulated such an eclectic pot of musical forms over the centuries. Adaptation after adaptation, these new forms have continued to push the boundaries of the musical norm, and with the subcategory of musical genres becoming more and more extensive, ironically, our definition of music as a whole is becoming more and more ambiguous. Even though the classical influence still lives in most of the new genres that have emerged and are still emerging today (the harmonic progressions of pop music and syncopated rhythms in jazz that owe to classical roots, just to name a few), it seems that classical music has become more categorized as a genre of ‘the past’ for the wider public as they are familiarizing with new forms of music that have overtaken the music market.
And thanks to the advancement of technology and social media, the amount and variety of music that is readily- and cheaply- accessible to the public nowadays is overwhelming. So the fact that classical music is an expensive art form adds to the disconnection the public might feel towards it (although classical music can also be accessed through cheaper means, the largest revenue for the industry by far are live concerts).
However, music has always been evolving, with new genres always arising. If we look back at the history of music, one could see that the ‘crisis’ in classical music has in fact lasted for almost as long as the genre has lived. As the musicologist and pianist charles Rosen cleverly puts it, “The death of classical music is perhaps its oldest continuing tradition.” Classical music has faced several roadblocks in its time- most of which has been a change in taste, accompanied by a suffering budget- but it has survived every time. So it is somewhat superfluous to declare this generation to be the Armageddon for classical music.
So classical music isn’t dead- yet. But it’s not thriving either.
The main culprit, I believe, of the declining audience of classical music is its all-too-traditional marketing. Despite its roots tracing back to as far as the Medieval Period, classical music has stuck around for a very long time- but for as long as it has been a functioning industry, it has not necessarily been a flourishing one (with the exception of the classical period of 1730-1820 when it was, in fact, mainstream). Classical music has always been positioned as something serious and heady, with the strict rules of conduct at the concert hall that endorse an aversion to active participation and interaction among concertgoers, which in the worst case promotes mindless viewing.
While credit should be given to the motive behind this cardinal principle that is to give the optimal musical experience to the audience, it’s also worth reconsidering the kind of experience that the industry should promote, to make these concerts more inviting for the wider masses.
Perhaps the traditional concert experience could be enriched by an aid of modern elements, such as a backdrop of a cinematic sequence or a theatrical performance, that create an ambience suited to the music. This way, the strict atmosphere could transform into a livelier one without having to invalidate the original intention of giving the optimal auditory experience. It could even be a way to bring people with other artistic interests into the genre of classical music.
The danger of the demise of classical music lies not in the fundamentals of the music itself but in the unwillingness of the industry to invest in promoting the genre as a living art form, so that it can be repositioned as twenty-first century art. In order to come more into the popular vernacular and speak to the modern audience, classical music must adapt to speak the language of today with the tools of traditional elements.