The inaccessibility of classical music is quite a heated topic these days, however much of the literature and discussion comes from classical musicians themselves, people who work in classical music, who grew up studying it and surrounded by the privilege of indoctrination.
This means it can be a bit difficult to see the wood through the trees. There often seems to be a lack of empathy and understanding for those people who didn’t study classical music and don’t necessarily listen to it.
So, what do ‘lay people’ think about classical music?
Well, after my hotly debated article a few weeks ago I asked my ‘non-classical’ friends what they thought.
Anton, 27, white, British, lives in London – didn’t study classical music growing up, didn’t listen to it, wasn’t surrounded by it.
Nina, 27, white, German, now living in Sweden – didn’t study classical music, didn’t grow up listening to it apart from her grandfather’s ancient Beethoven collection.
What was your school music experience and education like?
Anton: Musical education at a comprehensive school was a joke. The teacher talking about music – no-one noticed, not one cared, then it was ‘go and muck about on the keyboards’ Music, art, is treated frivolously, not like Maths and English, it’s not seen as important, just have a tinker If music, art, P.E. was treated in the right way it would be teaching people there’s more to it than surface level.
Nina: I just remember really boring classes at school. We never got to listen to a piece properly, the teacher would immediately take a piece apart, putting labels on things, analyzing it, picking it to shreds. We never got the chance to just enjoy it, unlike with all other music which you can analyse later if you want, maybe if you’re really into it.
What do you think about the language used to describe classical music?
Anton: It feels like being back in school exams (in school asking about tempos, key signatures. It’s not simply the language itself but the fact that description is an intrinsic part of the music. It’s like there’s a prerequisite of knowledge. It’s not like it’s not possible to learn about the basics but having to do so is like putting a restriction on it.
Nina: It’s so different, seems like it’s splitting itself from other genres, using a different vocabulary, often to describe the same things, like songs are arias, lyrics are libretto. Needing to look something up all the time just puts a barrier to understanding the music.
Do you think the language could be changed to make it more accessible?
Anton: I wouldn’t suggest that classical music dumbs itself or the language it uses down, but that it gives potential listeners the option to enjoy it in a different way. If you present it maybe in a thematic or conceptual way, the language used wouldn’t be all that relevant to the discussion.
Nina: Technically yes, the question is if the people in classical music industry want to make it easier. Seems like it’s only in Italian to keep it apart. If they advertise a concert, using all these specialist terms, someone like me, someone who doesn’t know what they mean, wlll be repelled by having to learn all these new terms just to listen to some music.
What comes to mind when you think of classical music?
Anton: Orchestras and concert halls. It’s a high form of music enjoyed by the middle and upper classes. Images of men in cravats and collars spring to mind.
Nina: Until I listened to your show, I imagined a white man in a powdered wig.
What do you feel like listening to classical music?
Anton: Feels like you have to work, being tested. Classical music sounds like it’s encoded, like there is a code to crack, something to unlock.
Nina: I would say there is a kind of barrier, higher expectations of what I should think, feel and do as opposed to just putting on some music to enjoy.
Have you ever been to a classical concert?
Anton: I went on holiday to Vienna, heard it was famous for classical music and Mozart so went to a classical music concert. I felt I had to get dressed up in smart clothes and when I got there everyone was wearing jeans and casual clothes.
Nina: Once, I heard Mozart’s Requiem at a Goth Festival, didn’t buy a ticket specifically for it it though. Everyone there seemed to be new to classical music too because everyone started clapping every time the music stopped. It got so bad the people had to turn around not to tell people to clap until the end. Very funny.
Do you think you had the expectation that classical music is posh and upper class?
Anton: Classical music is posh, like a secret society. Often the expectation is informed by your experiences within your own community so as I didn’t know anyone growing up who listened to it, I assume it’s not designed for us.
Nina: Yes, it seems like it’s only enjoyed by white, wealthy people, seems kind of sad. I think snobby people listen to classical music, not classical music is snobby.
What do you think the classical music industry can do to change this image?
Anton: In order to make something more accessible to other people, those people need to feel they have a stake in it. People shouldn’t feel like they have no right to listen to it. Classical music feels like a private club. I don’t have a membership, why should I sit round listening to it? You need someone dynamic, big figure like Brian Cox in science, making it appealing to others.
Nina: Stop focusing so much on 19th century composers, lift up the composers now. It would be much more interesting, listening to someone who we can identify with more. Also give us more variety on what is available to listen. The more variety there is, the more people might find more of classical music that they like. It could be a lot more popular for a lot more people.
What do you think of the names – Symphony No 1, String quartet No 2
A: That annoys me, where are the titles? How can you tell them apart? I know some pieces have titles. I remember hearing that piece Jupiter from The Planets, that’s a cool piece and has a title, I really remember that one.
Nina: The names don’t really tell me anything about the piece. It comes back to accessibility, all these names, it feels like you have to study music to understand it.
Do you think this lack of titles means you can’t tell pieces apart?
Anton: Yes, most of it isn’t recognisable, I might not be able to recognise the same piece after an hour. If I listened to it 50/60 times I might recognise it.
Nina: Yes, It’s a bit easy to mix them up when they’re all called practically the same thing.
Any final thoughts?
Anton: Upper class people who want classical music to be highly prestigious don’t actively discourage other people, they put it in a position so people will turn themselves away. It would be good to open the platform to a broader range of composers to be fairer to talented individuals who aren’t usually showcased but also to change to perceptions about classical music.
Nina: Through the Daffodil Perspective I’ve discovered that classical music is so much more than I thought it was, so much more interesting, a much broader range of music. Just in general the industry should get more variety. I thought it was such a narrow genre before I listened to The Daffodil Perspective. If the classical music industry played much more diverse music more people would find something in it, more people would find a niche of what they like. If the classical music industry want to get more people interested they need to change the language and marketing, if people don’t understand what classical music is about the industry are failing in their marketing. If we understood what a concert was about we would go and the classical music industry would get a lot more customers.
Elizabeth de Brito
Producer of The Daffodil Perspective, 1st ever gender balanced classical music show.