The Inaccessibility of Classical Music Part 2: Interview with classical novices

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.

  

 

 

 

The real reasons classical music is inaccessible and 10 easy ways to solve them immediately

“I’d like to get into it but I don’t know anything about classical music”

Every classical composer, musician, fan, conductor has heard those words or something similar dozens of times.

Recently cellist Steven Isserlis tweeted:

“It always frustrates me to hear people say that they don’t go to concerts because they don’t know enough about classical music.”

I posted a long thread response on Twitter which I’ll expand on here.

Instead of getting frustrated with people who think they need to understand classical music, we should be asking ourselves why do they think that in the 1st place? What is it about our industry which makes people feel excluded?

There is increased discussion about classical music myths but that is the wrong approach. It’s victim blaming, saying all people need to appreciate classical music is an open mind, open ears, open heart. What this dangerous idea implies is that classical music is already accessible and easily consumable, it’s the responsibility of the listener to bring themselves to classical music instead of the other way around.

The classical music industry is seriously at fault, blinded by centuries of pretentious, rich, privileged, white male superiority.  So much of the industry is relying on hopelessly outdated concepts and archaic views. If we want to reach new audiences we need to change, not make the listener change. It’s not their responsibility to do the emotional and physical labour, it’s up to us. Luckily there are several easy ways to do this immediately, so here are 10 problems with classical music along with the instant solutions.

1. Stop using technical language in classical music literature

The program notes, articles, reviews are mostly written from an academic viewpoint for other academics and people that have studied classical music.

“Self revealing pathos…This work seems more to be about avoiding darkness by underplaying the tonic minor key as much as possible.” Quote from London Symphony Orchestra Programme Note December 2019

There is no way the average person on the street knows what any of that means, that is language only people who have studied classical music can understand. Anyone else, forget it.

Write using emotive language with no technical terms. It’s not hard. All music is about communicating emotions and feelings – heartbreak, anger, lust, magic, death, sadness, joy, sex. These are universal human experiences. It’s not difficult.

The Daffodil Perspective uses no technical language at all, every show is written for everyone to understand. It uses simple emotive language to talk about pieces, language that everyone knows and understands.

2. Stop using pretentious language

Not just technical language but so much of classical music writing is so pretentious and poncey.

“its broad sweeps of diatonic parallel chords…..Phrygian-inflected sighing motifs”

From Presto Music’s description of Vaughan Williams Pastoral Symphony 10th January 2020

So same goes for this, it just sounds like a lot of guff and fluff.

The Daffodil Perspective uses no pretentious, posh and complicated language. Just simple, expressive adjectives to describe the music.

3. Stop using the word libretto to mean lyrics

Every other genre of music on the planet uses the word ‘lyrics’ to describe the words that accompany music. Yet, classical music still insists on using the Italian word ‘libretto’ to mean opera lyrics. Operas are just sung through musicals. That’s it – just like Les Miserables and Rent. It makes no sense to use a separate word when all the words in opera are song lyrics. Using different words just compounds the idea of exclusivity and inaccessibility.

Also I’m just going to say it – arias are just songs, that’s it.

From now on The Daffodil Perspective will always use the word lyrics when talking about opera.

4. Stop using Italian in piece descriptions.

This one I’m prepared to admit is a bit more complicated and requires more effort to change.

The practise of using Italian is so archaic and outdated. The problem is some of it is useful to classical musicians but some of it is really quite pointless and completely unhelpful to non-classical musicians and makes classical music completely unfathomable.

Let’s start with the piece descriptions and speed markings (tempo). We use Italian words to describe the different speeds – Largo, Andante, Moderato, Allegro etc but they have equivalents in every other language. Large just means slowly, Allegro just means quickly. It makes no sense to learn specific language when we have perfectly good words in English (and French, Swahili, Hindi etc) to tell us how to play.

More problematic is when we use the descriptions in the piece titles themselves. These descriptions are what every listener sees when reading the titles on websites, books and in programme notes.  When they see a bunch of incomprehensible words it makes them less likely to be interested. Who the hell knows or cares what Scherzo means? I certainly don’t and the average person on the street doesn’t either, To non academics and non seasoned classical fans it means nothing. But say playfully, jokey, we know what that means.

Also it doesn’t help us understand classical music. These words are saying whether the music is fast, slow, etc. It’s giving really important information, giving us a clue to what the piece might sound like and if we might want to listen. If we don’t understand what the clues say then we won’t know what it might sound like and don’t know whether we want to listen. Sometimes we want to listen to fast, frenetic music and sometimes we want some chilled vibes, if we scrapped this use of outdated language it would make it easier for us all.

Some contemporary composers are doing it differently. Eleanor Alberga’s String Quartet No 1, the 3rd movement is called Frantically Driven Yet Playful which is great. No complicated translation needed with this, anyone could see this on a programme and immediately get a sense of what the music is about. Same with Jonathan Dove – His Orchestral piece Gaia Theory – the 3 movements are called Lively, Very Spacious and Dancing. Anyone could read this and be interested.

And as for the thousands of dead composers. Just pointing out that they’re dead and don’t care what happens. Does it really matter if we translate all the Italian into English? The music stays the same.

Like I said this one requires more effort to correct but still it’s pretty simple to stop using Italian in piece descriptions and a lightning fast way to immediately make all classical music more comprehensible.

5. Stop disparaging other music genres

Classical music fans and musicians are more to blame for this than fans of every other genre. There’s so much trashing of pop music music all over the place, it comes from legitimate institutions as well as listeners. Just look at this meme that did the rounds in September last year.

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There were a large number of people who supported this meme, this stupid idea that classical music is all depth and pop music is all showy and superficial. Lots of people disagreed with this meme but the fact that a statement like this can gain wide support today says more about the classical music industry. Even Classic FM got the wrong end of the carrot while trying to disprove the meme.

Why listen to classical music when the current classical listeners just disparage the other music genres you like?

6. Stop raising classical music further up by saying it’s the greatest music.

On the opposite end of the spectrum stop pretending classical music is the greatest music ever. Classical music is no better, no more important, no greater than any other genre of music. All music is wondrous and special to those who enjoy it. Classical music is awesome. It is, but so is jazz, pop, grime, calypso and pretty much everything else that’s ever been created. I know because I listen to all music (and I do mean all). Stop pretending classical music is somehow better. It isn’t and just makes you seem like a snobby idiot.

7. Stop disparaging people who do create accessible music

Still the same vein but separate point. Some musicians do make classical music more accessible and easy to listen. Andre Rieu is a brilliant example of this, his music is bought  in the thousands by ordinary people, not usually classical fans and it’s fantastic, melodic, easy to listen to and just fun.

Yet just last week someone on a Facebook classical music group posted:

‘I think of all the thousands of people enjoying the music of Andre Rieu and think about how sad and deeply confused these people are.’

Some people will chalk this up to internet trolls but these are ordinary people on the internet saying these things. Their opinions are often supported by many others, ignore it at our peril.

Why trash Andre Rieu. He’s doing a brilliant job and actually more classical musicians should be following his lead. He makes classical, orchestral music fun and relatable.

If we want to make classical music more accessible we need to support people who actually do it.

8. Stop trashing classical music that uses melody.

Music that uses melody is the most accessible and easy to listen to. Just think of the popularity of Star Wars, Eliza Aria (that Lloyds advert), Also Sprach Zaruthstra (Theme from 2001 Space Odyssey). Most other genres of music are based on melody and we know ordinary people like melodic classical music. Think of the Nutcracker, Clair de Lune, Fur Elise, Ride of the Valkyries, all very popular.

So, play more melodic music, market it for non-classical audiences and stop disparaging music that uses melody a lot. No-one’s winning any favours by being mean about music that people actually like.

9. Stop only playing music by dead, white men.

Britain is made up of 50% men and 50% women plus 15% people are not white. In London the proportion of non-white people is much higher. The classical music industry on the other hand plays 98% men and maybe 0.1% music by black and minority ethnic composers.

The current music played by the classical music industry does not reflect the general population. Society isn’t just made up of old white men, why should classical music only be written by old white men?

The Daffodil Perspective plays 50% female composers on every show and between 8 and 16% music by black and minority ethnic composers on every show (this is going to be consistently 16% going forward). The proportion of composers is an accurate reflection of our society.

This is one of the most simple to do. There is so much amazing music by women and BME composers from throughout the history of classical music. And it’s really easy to find and incorporate. I know this because I’ve been doing it for over a year. (See the complete 1st year stats here

10. Get off your complacent high horse and do the work

This is the overriding reason why classical music is so inaccessible.  Not enough people are actually doing the work needed to create change. The classical music industry is so completely stagnant and complacent on its ridiculous pedestal.

Just the fact that we talk about classical music novices and the uninitiated. It’s like a cult, worshipping at the altar of genius white male superiority. We need to knock classical music off its pedestal, bring it down to earth.  I’ve not even expanded on the horrific sexism, racism, the slut shaming in practically all historical operas and so many other problems with the classical music industry today.

I’ve had numerous conversations with individuals and organisations over the past year who refuse to admit the problems and refuse to do the work needed.

So, there you have it. 10 of the reasons why classical music is inaccessible and the 10 easy ways to solve them immediately.

There is a lot of work to be done, The Daffodil Perspective is doing it, making the radical changes that need to be made.

Elizabeth de Brito

Producer and founder of The Daffodil Perspective, the 1st ever gender balanced classical music show, broadcasting every fortnight on Mixcloud.