What to say when you’re asked, ‘Is classical music dying’?

What to say when you’re asked, ‘Is classical music dying’?


norman lebrecht

July 29, 2014

I was asked the question yesterday by a Classic FM camera team at the opening of the Bristol Proms, an event that is trying to break the straitjacket formality of concertgoing.

The answer that sprang to mind was: ‘if classical music is dying, then you’re doing it wrong’.

If the audience wont’ come, choose another audience.

If the hall is morbid or forbidding, change the venue.

And don’t – whatever you do – call it classical music.

Every label you attach to music diminishes it. Genre is history. People in the 21st century talk of ‘my music’, not some marketing category.

The global interest in music has never been higher – this website is proof of that. Just get out there are bring makers of music together with those who crave it.

Here’s the impromptu interview.

Bristol Proms carousel



  • GEll says:

    That may be true for culturally, ethnically, racially homogeneous countries/societies that value education, including musical, and that have good educational systems in place. And that have more income equality perhaps. Not so, unfortunately, for the U.S.A. – the opposite of all of the above.

  • myopic view says:

    How many million children are taking up piano in China? Classical music will be around for at least a couple more generations…

  • Elaine Fine says:

    Doing classical music (or whatever you want to call the thing that many people like me think of being in the same personal category as eating, sleeping, and breathing) wrong means playing (or singing) out of tune. It means playing or singing in a way that does not “meet” the composer with the greatest respect. It means playing or singing in a way that does not challenge the possibilities of what music can be. It means playing or singing dishonestly. It means adjusting your values to a “marketplace” (which is often necessary in order to make a living). It means finding halls that were once live and warm acoustic spaces transformed into “shiny” venues that make people who claim to appreciate modern architecture (functional as well as “artistic”) applaud but acoustically causes the music not to really reach the people in the audience (like Bing and the now rubber-floored stage of the local community college theater where I used to enjoy playing).

    I have never known a “classical” musician to be able to choose his or her audience. The audience for “classical” music is already small and elite. The “if you build it they will come” attitude works for baseball and movies, but we musicians need to “serve” the audience that likes what we do. Trying to get uninterested people truly interested in the music itself is almost fruitless.

    People will come around given significant others’ interests, and given the occasional search for meaning in midlife, but only in a large population does this ever amount to more than a handful of people.

    • Nick says:

      “Trying to get uninterested people truly interested in the music itself is almost fruitless”

      What a hideous,senseless and ridiculous suggestion! You condemn “classical music” to an ever diminishing audience “searching for meaning” in their lives. Ultimately you condemn it to death!

      I have worked in the “classical music” business for decades. I believe passionately in the highest of standards with music being played in the finest possible acoustics. And it is perfectly clear that “classical music” is not just alive and well in quite a few parts of the world, its audience is becoming more knowledgeable, more discriminating and listening in ever increasing numbers.

      Personally, I’m with NL. I loathe the term “classical music”!

      • John says:

        So Nick, you didn’t say what you call it. And with the new name, does it make any difference to the person/people you’re talking to?

        • Deirdre O'L says:


        • Nick says:

          Frankly, I don’t know! I just believe that the term “classical music” has connotations, especially in the west, that have become far too negative for many people, old and young. How many times have we heard people say something like: “Classical music? No, that’s not for me. I won’t like it.” Before we start, the first of a number of barriers has been erected.

          Like it or not, the performance of all music is now part of the overall leisure and entertainment industry. Former generations generally had relatively few options for their spare time. Going to a concert or an opera became one. That became a kind of tradition. In the USA, the subscription system of selling tickets often resulted in parents handing down their tickets to their children or other family members. Thus another barrier – exclusivity. Classical music was to be enjoyed by the rich and the ‘connected’. It was not for the ordinary man in the street.

          The advent of recordings, special concerts and concert series aimed at a more mass audience (like the London Proms), concerts of popular music, the Walkman, YouTube etc. all resulted in a sort of democratisation of classical music. Now it could be heard by anyone who could afford a tape, a disc, a player, a computer.

          But enjoying classical music in relative privacy throws up a number of other barriers the moment someone then wants to experience a concert. That experience can be confusing and indeed off-putting. Why do the men in an orchestra wear Edwardian evening dress, for example? For two reasons – uniformity, which is important, and because that is what the audiences used to wear more than a century or so ago when concert-going became more the thing-to-do. But sartorial tradition and public perceptions have changed dramatically. Does anyone actually wear white tie and tails now? I remember the ladies in the Scottish Chamber Orchestra once used to wear long Thai silk dresses in different muted colours. It was such a refreshing change and the orchestra looked as magnificent as it sounded.

          Newcomers tend to associate the ‘look’ of concerts and concert venues as dull and boring. More barriers. They should be bright, warm and welcoming. Why are concert programme notes often written by academics that are essentially aimed at a knowledgable elite? Why not something more general. In many concert halls why is the audience lighting dimmed to such a low level that you cannot even read these notes during the concert? Why are concert programmes the length they are? They used to be far longer! And why do they normally include an overture, concerto and symphony? Shouldn’t more orchestras be experimenting with programming, length and timing? Some orchestras already have rush hour concerts. I can recall when the Edinburgh Festival started its late night short concerts at 10:30pm. They were hugely popular. I also remember a regular Sunday lunch hour series by the chamber ensemble Cantilena at which a light lunch was served and patrons could take their drinks in to the concert. Even London’s National Theatre now permits drinks to be taken in after the interval (at least in the Cottesloe).

          I can even remember when Andre Previn took the London Symphony into the BBC Studios and had ‘mood’ lighting projected on to large screens behind the orchestra. Why do we insist that most of the audience can not see the conductor’s face and gestures? Would that be so distracting? Surely it is actually quite important. After all, when the public watches the DVD of a concert, isn’t the ‘front’ of the conductor regularly featured?

          I am not advocating a wholesale change away from the traditional concert experience. What I am suggesting is that there should be far more questioning of how concerts are presented and different formats tried out. Some orchestras are already doing that. In general, though, “classical music” and its presentation is stuck in some sort of time warp. It is in desperate need of rebranding so that the public in general perceive it to be far more relevant to the needs and wants of people generally in the 21st century.

  • myopic view says:

    Well, that’s one way to look at it. Maybe we could look at it in terms of historical cycles. It’s the East’s turn (again after a thousand years) to be cultural leaders? Why not…? If you really believe it’s about the music itself, then whatever race of people making it shouldn’t matter. I am curious to hear what kind of musicians emerge from China in the next twenty years…

  • Will Duffay says:

    “the straitjacket formality of concertgoing”: I wonder what is meant by that. If it refers to the convention that the audience sit quiet and still to enable the performers and other audience members to concentrate, then perhaps it’s a slightly unfamiliar environment for a lot of people.
    But otherwise, the rules and procedures of going to a concert are the same as for the theatre, and no more formal or straitjacketed.

    I guess it’s the sitting quiet and still which is the problem for most people, and I can understand why there’s a push to relax that. And up to a point a bit of noise and shuffling is fine. It’s when it’s persistent or very insensitive that it’s a problem (a performance of Elgar 2 ruined for me by the person in front saying in the silent moments after the quiet ending “that was very good”).

    As for the name ‘classical music’: it’s ghastly and loaded and pretty meaningless. What else do we call it? Certainly not ‘art music’ though that’s what it is. How about just ‘music’? Let’s reclaim ‘music’ for our music.

  • Elaine Fine says:

    I have spent my life trying to interest people in music. I have taught countless private students (some have kept their interest, and some have not), and I have taught community college students for nearly a decade. Most of the college students keep their interest through the semester, and a handful continue to listen (though not many go to concerts, even though they claim to have really enjoyed the ones they had to go to while taking my class). Real devotees are indeed a small segment of the population. The class I teach has little chance of “making” this semester because there are not enough interested students enrolled. I used to teach three classes with an average of 60 students per semester. Now I’ll be lucky to get eight.

    I’m not saying that the audience is “ever-diminishing.” It has probably remained pretty much the same size for the past half a century, but the population has grown. Perhaps the record-buying public is different. Perhaps it is different in large cities (of course it’s different in large cities).

    My love for music hasn’t diminished in the slightest. It grows every day. And I continue to participate in every way I can even though my “audience” consists of a tiny segment of the local population and is peopled mostly by like-minded musicians scattered all over the world who read my blog and play the music I write.

  • Nick says:

    “It’s the East’s turn (again after a thousand years) to be cultural leaders”

    I was referring to @Myopic View’s post merely because it gives an instance of a new emerging and potentially huge market. Generally I think we all have blinkers on – in the sense that we know our own communities and their reactions to “classical music” and assume therefore that the rest of the world reacts in the same manner. But the world of “classical music” is changing rapidly. And it’s not just the rise of China.

    Look at Asia as a whole. What about Japan which was the first Asian country to embrace western “classical music”? How many Japanese soloists have we seen? Look around orchestras in Europe and some in the US and you’ll find many Japanese musicians. Look at the number of symphony orchestras in Tokyo alone – 9 or 10. Look at the number of superb new concert halls in Japan constructed in just the last 3 decades.

    Look at Korea. How many Korean soloists are now on our concert and opera stages? How many young Koreans are studying piano and violin? Millions! Reverting to China, how many youngsters in greater China are learning an instrument? Tens of millions, many inspired by great artists like Yo-Yo Ma, Cho Liang Lin, Yundi Li – yes, and and even Lang Lang. Look at the number of Asian students at Juilliard and the other top international Conservatoires. I think I am right in saying Asian students have been in the majority in Juilliard for a couple of decades.

    In my view there are numerous reasons for this. But I do not believe any has to do with historical cycles.

  • Richard Townson says:

    I never understand such a question as was put to you.: Is Classical music dying?
    You might as well ask will no one ever wish to experience again that moment of frisson achieved in (add your favorite moment in music–for me it would be Mahler 4th 3rd Movement)?

    What might die off is how we present it but not the music itself, which is your original point.

    Thank you for all you do to help broaden the appeal of all music.

  • jeffrey biegel says:

    Music composed for concert halls and recital halls by the greatest composers from the Baroque to the present will not die–only people die. There will always be a group of people dedicated to keeping it alive–whether it is global, or regionally. It is imperative, however, to always breathe new life through the music. If you look back, one could say, ‘listen to how the pianists, in particular, bent all the rules and played ultra-Romantically, and then went back to straightforward style, and now the pendulum swings back slightly’. Trends that adjust to the times is what also contributes to keeping the music alive. Stylistic interpretations fluctuate from generation to generation, and the new technological mediums available to young musicians gives them an enterprising way to deliver their music. I see it very vibrant and healthy given the many new venues being created in many cities–new, smaller venues and the burst of YouTube videos available from artists of the past, and newcomers. Commissioning new music is extremely important, and I suspect, and we’re not quite there yet, that the next generation of musicians from various countries will start the process of getting new music commissioned by their fellow countrymen, which will create a new sound and excitement in many corners of the world.

    • John says:

      I agree with you, Jeffrey. It’s silly to think classical music or any other art form will ‘die’, that a whole industry will cease to exist. I do think, however, that it is in a state of being repositioned in the overall arts galaxy, and that in some not-too-distant future, we’ll be in a world where you won’t find an orchestra around every corner. Just using symphony orchestras as one measure, not every city that had a professional orchestra in the past will have one in the future. Not every university will have a music school or conservatory, and students who are still in those schools will be preparing for careers in many different music fields. When I started teaching in a high school in Milwaukee in the late 1960s, virtually every student knew who Beethoven was, even if they didn’t have a serious interest in music. When I quit the field in the early 90s, students would have identified Beethoven as the name of a dog in some stupid movie of the time. That said, the US can still boast hundreds if not thousands of youth orchestras, many cities still have a good classical music climate. Even here in Denver, where we are struggling to be sure, audiences are punctuated with kids in jeans and 20-something people in sweaters out to see a concert. I don’t think we’ll soon return to the ‘golden age’ of classical music (maybe the 40s through the 70s?) anytime soon if ever. But it is not going to die.

  • Stephen says:

    Personally, I have no more problems with the term ‘classical music’ than I do with those of ‘pop’ and ‘jazz’. Nor do I feel that whether or not musicians are wearing penguin suits is at the heart of the problem.
    If one looks back to the 1950s when BBC radio was the main source of music, there was Helen Henschel (daughter of the conductor friend of Brahms) talking about music on ‘Children’s Hour”. There was ‘Children’s Favourites’, with a variety of different types of music. ‘The Light Programme’ also broadcast a variety of music, including Light Classics. Then came pirate radio stations broadcasting exclusively pop and gradually the variety of the BBC narrowed. Then came The Beatles – “the greatest song-writers since Schubert”, according to the demagogues – and with increasing rapidity Pop took over as the dominant music form, helped along by relativist pundits.
    Since then pop has become louder and louder, desensitizing its public, hypnotizing it with flashing, garish lighting (while at the same time covering up the mediocrity of the music) and accustoming it to bits of music no longer than 4 minutes.
    Is Beethoven of more lasting value than The Beatles? There’s no doubt of it in my mind but I don’t intend to preach to the unconverted.