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.