Why don’t more people appreciate classical music?

By January 24, 2020Other

It has puzzled me for a long time that more people are not attracted to ‘classical’ music — music that is an explicit art form, rather than simply a quick source of entertainment. When I last looked at this matter, the entire classical music genre, plus jazz and film scores, made up just five per cent of the music market. Classic FM, my radio station, has about three per cent of the radio audience. Pop (= popular) music of various times, seems to have all the rest. Music is now everywhere, in shops, shopping malls, buses, lifts, markets. There are buskers and pop-up choirs. Most of it is pop. I have searched around the web to find explanations, and what follows is my summary.

First, the market. There is without doubt a gigantic market pressure for pop music, which is supported by film and TV, by live appearances by the current sensations, male and female, and by groups imitating the legends of the past, like the Beatles. In comparison, art music has its limits. Wikipedia says that more than a thousand versions of Vivaldi’s ‘Four Seasons’ have been recorded, but we can’t bring Vivaldi back for a tour. Amadeus, the film that celebrated Mozart and demonified Salieri, was a box-office success, but there haven’t been many others in which a classical music hero or heroine has been the hit of the moment.

The trouble with laying all the cause to the market is that it doesn’t explain why pop music is so successful to begin with, at least in the short run. So we go to Cause #2: short attention span. Most pop music lasts for around three minutes. Queen’s ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, at nine minutes, is a notable exception, and it is a collection of shorter pieces, beautifully arranged and sung. The argument here is that those who like pop music have short attention spans, unlike those who like symphonies and concertos (which can run for an hour). I don’t much like this explanation, if only because it sets up an elite/pleb distinction that rather grates on me.

So I pass on to Cause#3, which is structure. A standard pop song consists of a short musical idea repeated a couple of times, then a second shorter idea as a contrast, then the return to the first subject. All of that is packed into three minutes. A standard symphony is forty minutes long, has four movements each with different subjects and different beats/speeds/dynamics. There’s a lot to take in at the first hearing.

Which leads to Cause #4, repetition. Once a pop song has become the flavour of the week, it is endlessly repeated on radio and television, downloaded and played again and again. It becomes, for those so addicted, an earworm. Symphonies, concertos and operas cannot be repeated in such a fashion. Having said that, I ought to add that people in Prague could be heard humming tunes from Mozart’s ‘Magic Flute’ even when they hadn’t been to see the opera themselves. The tunes were rapidly passed around the city. And Mozart was not writing high art: the Magic Flute is a mixture of everything and was the end of a series of fairy tales that had been staged in the Prague theatre. It is of course high art now.

I’ll offer Cause #5, which is an extension of earlier ones. You don’t need to do much hard work to enjoy a good pop song. You hear it, and three minutes later, you like it. You’ll hear it again, and like it again. Twenty years later, you won’t have heard it for a long time, but suddenly you do, you smile, and you remember. ‘You’ve lost that loving feeling’ is a good example for me. Any symphony requires some work on the listener’s part. You have to listen hard, concentrate and try to understand what is going on. You won’t hear it again at once, or that day, unless you are deliberately doing so, but the next time you hear it, you’ll hear not only what you remember, but bits you didn’t remember. Slowly the symphony will become a whole, and then you’ll hear a different recording, or go to a live performance. It has been reclothed, so to speak. The symphony is now in your mind, a possession. You will never lose it.

That does not mean that all symphonies are hard work. I first heard Bruckner’s 4thsymphony in Adelaide in the mid 1980s. The hair on my arms stood up as the first movement began. I was entranced. By the end of the symphony I was a Bruckner fan. Within a week I had my own CD. Within a month I had the entire Bruckner symphonic collection. Now it is his seventh symphony that is my favourite. The first long piece of music I heard was the Grieg Piano Concerto, in 1953, and from a series of 78 rpm records. I loved it at once, and it was the first record I bought the following year when I had some money, this time the third Decca LP with Clifford Curzon the pianist. Same with the Beethoven Fifth.

Nor was I just a classical buff. In the 1950s I wrote pop songs, played in pubs, set up a jazz trio and loved Dave Brubeck and Ahmad Jamahl. All music was my interest, and it is still so today.

So there it is. Why do most people not seem to enjoy classical music? There are several possible reasons, and they all make some sort of sense. I haven’t really said much about opera let alone ballet, and these are art forms that have solid, but relatively small, audiences. They possess a lot of beautiful music, and people may know some of it without knowing what it really is or where it comes from. And the cinema uses a lot of classical music too.

Finally, the audiences for classical music seem to be increasing, schools have music programs the like of which simply didn’t exist when I was a child, and there are conservatories in all the capital cities and in a number of large country towns. My guess is that the audiences for pop music have grown in similar proportion.

Join the discussion 19 Comments

  • Doug Hurst says:

    It’s a great question, Don. Liking classical music does not exclude all the other forms. Like you, I like the best of all forms and my ears prick up every time I hear Brubeck’s ‘take five’. It was so new, different and infectious it could well have ushered in a new music era if the simpler and noisier rock had not pushed it aside.

    That said, I now consider that the best of classical music is the best music for me – especially the great piano and violin pieces and the operatic arias almost everyone knows, even if they don’t know their origins. The Three Tenors were immensely popular for a reason – great singers singing great songs packed with emotion. Interestingly, their songs were mostly pre-1900 – the 20th century didn’t produce any Puccinis, Verdis, and such.

    For what it’s worth, I regard Beethoven as the greatest ever composer, but like bits and pieces from all over the classical range. I have no feeling for anything in today’s pop sphere and actively avoid most modern stuff as noisy rubbish, greatly inferior to what is now called The American Song Book. That is probably age related and does nothing to answer your question, so I will cease rambling.

  • Don, I’m surprised you haven’t mentioned t most important thing. It’s what pleases the ear.. The attributes of a damn good tune. It’s an empirical fact that the conventional notation, chords and intervals resonate with ear, quite literally. I couldn’t lay my hands on the research.
    While Rap music and modern stuff has a big following, it won’t last.

  • whyisitso says:

    My favourite symphony today is Dvorak’s Symphony No 9 (“From The New World”). Even though it’s of symphonic length, it sounds like pop music to me. I particularly like the Largo movement, which has been adapted as “Goin’ Home”.

    When I listen to this symphony it brings back memories I have of seeing Western movies as a child (I’m now 82). I suspect the background music of many of these old movies was from that symphony.

    It grates on me that classical music brings out the snobbishness from many of its devotees. I must confess to being fond of Johann Strauss and Franz Lehar, whose music is deemed below contempt by many “serious” classical devotees. This carries over to their contempt of Andre Rieu.

    Some so-called classical pieces come across like pop music. An example is Toselli’s Serenade. I love it.

  • Boxer says:

    It is an interesting question, and I can only see it from my perspective. I can identify with your feelings about your musical preferences Don, because I have the same feelings. But my tastes are very different from yours. Could it be that the common ground is our emotional response, and the genre of music is relatively minor issue?

    I have enjoyed many pieces of classical music on first hearing them, but my exposure since childhood has been relatively limited. Exposure and fashion are significant factors, so marketing is important, but not as important as you may think.

    The field of “pop” or “non-art” music, if you want to use those terms, is so rich and so wide, I have never made time to explore “high art” music. I am absorbed following leads from one artist to another just within my preferred fields of music.

    This does not mean I like all “non-art” music, most of it is trash, but I don’t think my tastes are better than other peoples’, they are just my tastes. I think ranking whole genres of music from high to low is a mistake, but I do it too. It seems to be a human trait.

    From my teens in the late 60s, my cohort stopped listening to the high-rotation pop music and followed what was pretentiously called “underground”. None of the radio stations played underground in Oz, so marketing in its most obvious form was ignored. There were even articles written about this at the time.

    To be played on commercial pop radio stations was a negative globally; Alvin Lee, a legendary British blues guitarist, commented that to be played on commercial radio was insulting to him. Many famous musicians; Hendrix, Clapton, Duane Allman, Wakeman, a long list of now household names arose during this era. The Woodstock music festival, to name one of very many, was underground music. Woodstock was very wide-ranging in its content, attracted 100s of thousands of people to one event, despite being so badly organised it was declared a national disaster while in progress.

    The first radio station to play underground in Oz was Double J, the precursor to Triple J within the ABC. We were elated when JJ started in the early-mid-70s, and moving back to Perth in the late 70s, leaving it behind, was the end of listening to music on the radio. Until JJ went national, and for a couple of decades, that was all we listened to. It has since degenerated into “pop” music, so my prejudices remain intact.

    Popular music is much wider than you may appreciate, and likewise I have little appreciation of the depth and breadth of “art” music. There are many pieces of “prog rock”, blues and various forms of metal that extend for over 10 minutes; old favourites like “Mountain Jam” and “Whipping Post” took one or two sides of the old vinyl LPs. Many still bring on strong emotional responses after decades of listening.

    It’s all just our different perspectives.

  • Peter Black says:


    I guess I count myself fortunate that I grew up in a household full of classical music, and some handy musicians within the family to ‘knock out a tune’. However, my tastes are eclectic and I enjoy most music [classical, blues, jazz, pop, etc.], but I draw the line at rap crap. Rap is one part of the line-up that simply doesn’t make sense to me. And, I am equally amazed it has lasted for as long as it has. Maybe the next generation still feel they can ‘rebel’ by following that type of ‘music’.

    • Boxer says:

      Hit the nail on the head Peter about rebelling; to quote someone whose name I have lost, “rock music is whatever your parents don’t like”. We have to strike out and differentiate ourselves from our parents so that we have our own identities.

      I was amused by our two kids who went through their late teens during the grunge rock era. I liked a significant part of this genre and still listen to selected bits of it, but it made it hard on our kids. Eventually they added techo music to their listening, and at this point they shook me off. It was their rock n roll moment.

      Now our granddaughter is listening to some of the old 60s and 70s underground. I will try to keep my head down so that I don’t bump her off such an impeccable line of cultural pursuits. 🙂

  • Tony Tea says:

    There is not a work in the whole of music to match Mozart’s four main operas: Cosi, Magic Flute, Don Gio and Figaro. That popular music is more widely listened to and drooled over (mostly by children and imbeciles) is a damning comment on civilization.

    • Tony Tea says:

      Nevertheless, 1% of popular music is fantastic. Check out the wonderful movie Thunder Soul, which is about how a music teacher in the 1970s turned a school band at an underprivileged school into an international hit. Think Mr Holland’s Opus Does Funkadelic.

  • Boxer says:

    So a little test for those of you who love classical music and wonder what popular music could possibly be about. (disclaimer: I like a wide range of rock and blues, but for life of me, simply cannot fathom modern jazz, at all, not even a little bit. Like listening to someone grinding steel. We are more alike than you think)

    Look up the lyrics for a song called “Hurt” originally released by Nine Inch Nails. Do not listen to any of the NIN versions. Only one of their versions is worth your time, and I cannot find it again(!)
    Now look up the Johnny Cash (yes the country and western guy) version on YouTube. Watch and listen to the Cash rendition. It’s only short, about 5 minutes, so all this will only take a little time. Cash’s voice and skill, advanced age and his inclusion of his wife in the vision is important, so you should watch while you listen.

    If you don’t have lump in your throat by the end of it, part of you is broken. If you cry, welcome to the club.

  • Aert Driessen says:

    Don, my taste for music is binary — country/western-old time (FM 96.7 Queanbeyan) and classic, which I’m now hearing by random selection. My car radio used to be locked into ABC (AM) but since that station went woke with climate change and other issues, I locked it into ABC FM (all classical, including very interesting backgrounds on composers and conductors). That said, I’m not in the car all that often these days and so I’m hearing more country/western because my household radios are locked into 96.7 FM. I’m with Doug, I think Beethoven is one of the best. He stirs my soul.

  • Bryan Roberts says:

    I would just note that people only spend money on items they like, and millions of records by classical singers and musicians have been sold, so the poor reputation of classical music and opera may not reflect the opinion of the wider population There would be few people who were unaware of Pavarotti and the Three Tenors, whose records were world-wide best sellers. In addition, attendance at any opera will set you back three figure sums, and you are only rarely going to see Fleming or Netrebko ($800 to see the latter live in Vienna) singing your favourite arias. Opera stars don’t come cheap.

    Apart from that, there is individual preference. For myself, I deviate from the classical in having liked, at various times, the Beatles, Chick Corea, King Crimson, Keith Jarrett, and even Grimes. The economics of taste – ye pays yer money and ye takes yer choice.

  • Peter E says:

    Why do we listen? We want something that brings us joy. As Maurice Chevalier sang: ‘just to see and hear you brings joy I never knew, and to be so near you thrills me through and through.’ So the whole world finds joy in the vast range of music out there. If I chance upon one of those popular singing competitions I’ll listen for a time and note the emotion that such songs and over the top performances can evoke. I often happen upon FM radio and if there is anything melodic and catching on I’ll hear it through. Over the years I’ve heard my share of symphonies, operas and ballets and the best of them have brought me joy. In some, the fat little tenor trying to woo the bosomy Carmen towering over him will find my mind wandering. In the old days as a student I’d wander the junk shops and find marvellous old 78 records with authentic American blues voices singing about ‘back water rising, people screaming and cannot see..’ and magic performances by the black bands of south Chicago like King Oliver or more obscure performers like Tommy Ladnier. The 32 bar popular song, when well written and performed brings me joy. These were designed to tell a little story in three minutes. I think of Bing Crosby crooning that ‘it was a lucky April shower, and a most convenient door; I found a million-dollar baby, in a five and ten cent store. The shower lasted for an hour. I hung around for three or four, around the million-dollar baby, in the five and ten cent store. She was selling China, but when she rolled those eyes, I kept buying China, until the crowd got wise. Incidentally, if you should run into a shower, step inside my cottage door, and meet the million-dollar baby from the five and ten cent store.’ There is wit, humour,a pleasant baritone with small orchestra and a lilting tune. What’s not to like? I guess we all have our favourites over time. For me the popular song transformed by the jazz greats like Bix, Louis or Billie Holiday and backed by superb musicians on trombone, clarinet, saxophone, piano, guitar, bass and drums will do. I’ll always wait to read the list of music performed in a movie and I’ll always be prepared to take out a couple of hours to see a movie. I’ll probably judge going to hear a symphony as a less compelling use of time.

  • Kneel says:

    “Why do we listen?”

    I think it’s down to three things:
    1) the intrinsic math of the pitch and tempo tugs at our unconscious as it tries to intuit patterns and structure.
    2) listening to well written and well performed music is a highly emotional experience.
    3) music, like smell, is a powerful, if unconscious, recaller of memories and experiences.
    So it is appealing to both the logical part and the emotional part of your brain at different levels, and is tied to your own personal history – that’s a powerful and insidious combination, making it a hard “habit” to kick.
    That may also answer the pop vs classical question – the 3 minute pop song allows a finer recall, temporally.

  • BB says:

    I used to think that classical music was dying and very few people wanted to listen to it anymore but I am wrong. It has moved but where to? Listen to this https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kamaAp8NyNw
    it has become entwined into the overall media of a movie and it is inspiring and something that plays with the human emotion in the same way. But as well? Certainly it does not require as much attention. It affects those who watch and washes over them without being wholly aware of what has affected their experience. I think that is where the modern composer of worth works these days. There are modern composers they try to recreate musical works in the mould of Mozart, Bach, Tchaikovsky et cetera but they fail in my opinion it is something that cannot be repeated. For instance Skulthorpe, I run when I hear that name.

    My first experience of classical music was when my brother joined a record club which posted records on a monthly basis. I must have been about 14 or 15 and listened to much of it. One in particular took my attention Beethoven’s “Fidelio” an opera for me to surpass all operas I have ever heard and this was a sound recording. It still surpasses any modern version of it even though the modern versions are video. The conductor was Klemperer. First performed a bit more than 200 years ago. Beethoven a victim of lead poisoning produced works even when he was deaf and still brilliant. I particularly enjoy the Emperor concerto. Classical music is not good to be background music it is something that needs to be listened to and that takes time. You cannot listen to it while driving and give it justice the dynamic range is just far too much and the cost of a performance is large because of the number of performers that are necessary. You write of the normal of popular music but what piece of popular music has 70 to 80 performers? I do not think the classics will die there will always be enough who want to listen that ours is a world where we are time poor.

    I regret how little I listen these days seems there is always something else to do. Before I was 20 I was a subscriber to the concerts at the Sydney town Hall and later on in life a subscriber for many years to the Canberra Symphony Orchestra. I even went for two nights to concerts in Vienna, the arm of the leg have regrown. Finally when I retired I saw a live performance of Fidelio at the Sydney opera house in 2009. $250 each and it was an experience I will never forget.

    Writing this makes me realise that I cannot really express my emotional involvement with classical music there is far more that I feel about all of it. The operas, concertos and symphonies.

  • John Wilden says:

    Great article Don and what a wonderful lot of comments.My mum was a great pianist and Dad loved classical music so all six kids learnt to appreciate
    all types of music. My wife and I loved Trad,and attended many Jazz festivals.I think James Morrison is the best all round musician I have ever heard.Never heard
    a missed note from him! Don’t like modern Jazz or rap. Good dance music was appreciated by most of my generation as dancing was our main entertainment.
    Thanks Don.

  • Mike Burke says:

    Like others here, I grew up in a family of classical pianists. My father and I were the black sheep. I like all sorts of music except the modern rap cancer. However, I think Don’s list of reasons probably all apply to some people at some times. However, he comes closest with his comments about attention spans, but I think the time aspect of that is the crucial factor that limits classical music’s ‘listenership’, more than anything else. To enjoy complex classical music one needs spare time, and that’s a rare commodity in this modern world.

    My own enjoyment of classical or other complex music such as the more sophisticated jazz forms was destroyed by rapidly developing profound deafness. Eventually, 50s and 60s era pop and country and western music were all I could actually hear until bilateral cochlear implants gave me my life back with a reasonable, but still far from perfect, ability to enjoy more complex musical forms. Like Doug Hurst, (hi Doug!) my discovery of Brubeck’s Take Five was a significant way point in my musical “journey”. It still resonates whenever it turns up.

    But except for those steeped from early childhood in the classical genre, I think musical appreciation develops with age and exposure. But without the more general availability of that essential spare time, classical music is always going to be limited to a relatively wealthy audience.

  • Bryan Roberts says:

    I would also like to note that although Don claims to ‘listen’ to ABCFM from dawn to dusk, I would bet that he is aware of almost none of it. It is just background noise, unless there is something to which he is particularly attuned. It’s just another version of supermarket music. No-one waits in Coles for a song to finish, and I would bet that no-one stops cleaning the kitchen to listen to Bruckner.

    I have made the point before, that society has lost the ability to be pragmatic, to face facts as they are, rather than as they expect (hope) they should be.

  • Ian MacCulloch says:

    I am always fascinated by what is not played on the classical composers’ catalogues such as Beethoven and the Choral Fantasy and many of Vivaldi’s works that we never hear.

  • whyisitso says:

    What is classical and what is pop? For example is Ravel’s Bolero classical or pop?

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