Why are Young People not Listening to Classical Music?

Mar 3, 2020 | Off the Hook Arts

Thought piece by Shelby Britt.

I grew up on classical music. Every night for years, my mom would turn on Mozart’s lullabies for me to fall asleep to.

Starting when I was six, I began taking piano lessons before moving to the violin, where I learned the theory behind music and how to play composers like Beethoven and Schubert.

I learned to appreciate classical music and loved hearing it played, but as I grew older, my love for composers like Bach, Tchaikovsky and Vivaldi began to fade.

According to The National Endowment for the arts, in 2008, only 8.8% of Americans had attended a classical music performance in the previous 12 months, compared to 11.6% a decade earlier.

Not only that, but only 3% of recordings sold in 2008 were classical and only 3% of concert tickets sold were for classical music.

Millennial and Gen Z’ers are listening to classical music at a much lower rate than the generations before. What caused a decline in classical appreciation?

Is classical music for “old” people?

Many people in my generation believe that classical music is for the old and elite. We often hear classical music played at our grandparent’s houses as they fall asleep in their recliners. How boring, right?

Even a quick Google search will reinforce this stigma. Search “Classical Music is for Old People” and hundreds of articles, reddit posts, and studies explaining the phenomenon will show up.

According to The Audience Agency’s report, “classical music audience is concentrated in middle and older age groups, with 42% in the age group 41 to 60 and 37% aged over 61.”

Music educator and performer Jason Heath discusses his experience with playing in different ensembles and how he perceives his audiences by explaining:

“I play concerts for all sorts of classical music ensembles, and no matter how “hip” or edgy” they are in their marketing, I see almost nothing but gray hair when I look out in the crowd. These gray-haired classical music lovers seem to continue to love classical music, but if you’re a teen and your mom and dad love something, chances are good that you’ll, if not outright hate it, at least think it’s pretty lame.”

Because classical music has an “older” audience, many people my age see this genere of music as uncool and outdated.

Attention Span

I recently attended a solo-pianist’s concert where he focused on works composed by Beethoven and Schubert.

The first composition the soloist played lasted over 20 minutes with four different movements. While the piece was beautiful (it was Beethoven after all), I found myself becoming restless and ready for a musical change.

Songs have increasingly become shorter and shorter. Ballads like the almost nine-minute November Rain or the eight-minute Stairway to Heaven are no longer being made, replaced by shorter songs of four minutes or less .

Today’s top hits are significantly shorter. The current number one song on the Billboard Top 100 is Roddy Richh’s The Box at just under four minutes with Future’s Life is Good featuring Drake at 3:57 minutes long.

According to Fortune,

“The average song length on the Billboard Hot 100 chart is now 20 seconds shorter than it was five years ago, clocking in at three minutes, 30 seconds.”

Our shortened attention spans mean that we find music boring after a certain amount of time.

Just think: how many times have you skipped a song before it ended?

I regularly skip songs after one-to-two minutes because I get bored and am ready for something new.

Because classical compositions are often on the longer side, many people in my generation are deterred from listening.

Classical Music is for the elite in society?

Another stigma that classical music encounters is that classical music is for the aristocracy.

Historically, composers would play for royalty, the politically powerful and the elite.

During the 1800’s, Almost every upper-middle class and aristocratic family opened their doors and welcomed musical guests at some point during these years to entertain friends and family.

Even though classical music has since been opened to the public, there is still a certain aura that classical music concerts emit.

There are rules and a certain ettiqute that one must follow when attending musical concerts.

Starting in the 20th century, clapping mid-piece was deemed unacceptable. Appluase between movements or parts became unacceptable as well. If someone broke these “rules,” other concertgoers would look down their noses at the rulebreakers.

Charlie Albright, a classical pianist, writes the following in an article for CNN:

“Coughing? Forbidden. Performers speaking from the stage? Discouraged. Improvisation in a concert? Rarely done and almost never taught in even the most prestigious classical music colleges and conservatories. With this stifling atmosphere of rules and “appropriateness,” it is no wonder that people (especially youth) are apprehensive and often uninterested in the whole idea of classical music. Somehow, classical music has become inaccessible and unwelcoming.”

This uptight and over-the-top professionalism of classical music concerts often discourages younger audiences from attending.

Is Classical Music Worth Reforming?

Should classical music enthusiasts try and market to a younger audience?

If classical music wants to market itself to millennial and Gen Z’ers, then a complete overhaul will need to take place.

Charlie Albright discusses why he believes a breakdown of the current way classical music is presented will be successful:

“It will make the artform more accessible, more entertaining, and more disinhibiting, allowing for all of us to share more emotion and passion through the music. It will welcome those of us who are interested yet apprehensive about making the leap to buy a ticket to a concert.”

By breaking down traditional rules of classical music, it will become more approachable and younger people will feel more inclined to try out a classical music concert.

Albright discuses that he often establishes a connection with his audience by sharing why he chooses what pieces, what inspires him and other personal topics. He claims that this approach is successful for him and others should try it.

However, not everyone believes that concerts should change their ways. Musician Jess Gillam believes that:

“One of the most exciting things about live performance is that it’s dangerous. Part of you is thinking: ‘Will they remember the whole thing? Can they hold that breath for any longer?’ but at the same time you’re hearing these people fill an entire room with sound. It’s sheer magic.”

While it is amazing that musicians can remember lengthy pieces and keep themselves from becoming winded, this is not a big enough draw for younger audiences.

Young people can go to any concert to see someone remembering dozens of songs. They can also observe the amount of energy it takes to get through a show. These things are not unique to classical music.

Another change that many are advocating is changing the name of classical music with some arguing that the term “classical” music in and of itself is a problem. “Classical” music is hard to define, especially when taking into consideration terms like “Contemporary Classical.”

Even though a rebranding of classical music is a good idea, no one has come up with a term that can adequately replace it.

Instead of focusing on a name change, leaders in classical music should focus on restructuring their concerts and pandering to the younger generation.

My peers care more about the experience than the name. If an orchestra put on an exciting and innovative performance, they would be way more likely to come back than if classical music only had a name change.

So, is classical music worth trying to save? I believe the answer is yes.

Classical music’s history is rich and vibrant. Composers like Beethoven should be remembered for persevering through health issues to create stunning compositions.

Classical music can still be appreciated today, but in order for its continual survival, fundamental changes must be made.