“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 So much of the industry is relying on hopelessly outdated concepts and archaic views.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.
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.