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Catherine Manoukian


Why Do Teenagers Hate Classical Music?

My parents started taking me to classical concerts when I was about five years old. This was in 1986. Toddler me would sometimes look around the hall before the performance, or during intermission, and couldn’t help noticing the peculiar demographic of classical audiences: most of the heads were gray, and the average age was a sort of mid-middle age. When I look around a hall nowadays, a whole quarter of a century later, what I see is very much the same: a sea of gray heads, most of them belonging to persons in mid-middle age. Okay, so classical music attracts a particular age group - we all knew that. Why is this of any interest? Well, obviously, the mid-middle aged persons going to classical concerts now can’t be the same mid-middle aged persons who were going to them in 1986. Therefore: where did the mid-middle aged persons of today come from? Aren’t they just the thirty-somethings of the 80s? And what exactly were they doing in the 80s? Were they dancing away to Like a Virgin?

I was recently watching a 60 Minutes interview with Lady Gaga, a self-confessed student of fame, who has achieved everything that has eluded classical musicians since, roughly, 1848. It’s pretty uncontroversial that no classical musician could ever achieve that level of fame. Although it’s less obvious why this should be the case, there are certain standard theories, with one of the most popular being that it’s because younger people are the biggest consumers of music, and the young will never like classical music en masse.

Here are some commonly-accepted explanations for why: (1) Classical music is difficult to understand. Young people want easy entertainment. Ergo, young people find classical music unappealing. (2) There’s a “critical period” to learning the appreciation of classical music. If your elementary school didn’t make you play the clarinet and train you to recognize Pachelbel’s Canon, you’re pretty much a write-off.  (3) The young just aren’t aware of the existence of classical music. If they knew it, they’d love it. (Again, those elementary schools better blast that Canon every morning if they want the symphony musicians of tomorrow to have enough to eat.) (4) Classical music has dug its own grave by presenting a “stuffy”, elitist persona. We need more scantily-clad fashionista pianists, humble conductors with bed-head who shun the word “maestro” and give themselves cute nicknames, and, most importantly, we must move away from so much emphasis on “dead white men”.

I don’t think any of these explanations is adequate. Number (3) is simply false: classical music is everywhere in some form or other. You can find it in commercials, in movies (Amadeus won best picture!), on TV, sampled in pop music, playing in jewellery stores or bakeries, and being blasted out the occasional mobile phone – there really is no shortage of a basic exposure. I find (4) to be plain ridiculous: there have been endless (ad nauseum) experiments in both sexing-up and dumbing-down the art. What typically happens is some novelty act of “light” classical music in a pop-style package gets a cult following of a moderate crowd for, tops, a couple of years. It’s then quickly and easily forgotten, without having converted anyone to more mainstream classical music. (Also, conductors with bed-head ultimately survive with the same odds as those who insist on being called “maestro”.)

(2) and (1) are basically related, and, superficially, plausible. But that brings us back to the problem of the ever-replenished supply of mid-middle aged persons in our concert halls. If (2) were true, and there were a critical period for learning appreciation, classical music would have gone extinct as soon as the Mods, the Hippies, or - at the very least - the Hipsters grew up. Since it hasn’t gone extinct, is (1) the explanation? Is classical music just too “difficult” for the young? And does that mean that something happens to some people between 40 and 60, which suddenly makes them go out and buy a lot of Naxos CDs, with which they educate themselves in preparation for taking their places in our concert halls?

A change like this may in fact be happening, but I don’t think it has anything to do with the difficulty of understanding classical music: not all classical music is tone-rows, and it’s not that hard to leave a concert hall humming a Mozart melody. I think that, instead, the issue has something to do with the difficulty of making classical music. Here’s where Lady Gaga helps put things into perspective. In the 60 Minutes interview, she says that she sees herself in her fans. I think the relationship is actually reciprocal: her fans hear her say that, and see themselves in her. The demographic in question is teenagers and younger adults. These are people whose lives are not yet written, they’re not quite sure how those lives will be written, and very many of them still have “big dreams”, often involving celebrity. It’s never beyond the realm of possibility that they too can achieve what Lady Gaga has achieved. (The enormous success of American Idol, for example, turns entirely on their having such hopes.) Now, why can’t this kind of identification occur with classical musicians? Because this is where there is a critical period factor: a 16 year old can start a garage band and make it huge by 18, but no one ever touched a piano for the first time in high school and went on to play with the New York Philharmonic. Teenagers and young adults in the “normal” world cannot identify with classical musicians, because their lives have already followed a different trajectory.

So what’s going on with the mid-middle aged audiences? What changes? Well, most of them are by then established, more confident in their identities, and no longer entertain notions like becoming a rock star. They start to value other qualities in their entertainers – the specialization, the hard work, the refinement – they start to like classical music exactly because it’s difficult to make. They may not relate to the musicians in being able to make the music themselves, but they can relate to them very strongly in the identification of values and practices that are imperative for success in their own fields.

I am, of course, generalizing, as one must always do when discussing demographic trends: I’m sure there are plenty of teenagers with no interest in becoming rock stars and plenty of baby boomers who simply like Beethoven because it’s fun to trip to. There are, however, good indicators that there’s some truth to the generalization. So many of the tearful interviewees among Lady Gaga’s fans, for example, say something along the lines of being able to put themselves in her place, or being able to see her in their places. Conversely, one of the most common comments I get from audiences after concerts (and this is a tally of hundreds of performances over the course of eighteen years) is, “that was a [good, moving, exciting, etc.] performance; you must work so hard and have such dedication”. Very often, they add something like “do you have any advice for how I can get my [grandson, granddaughter] to work harder?”

The reason I find this question interesting is that those of us who make our livings producing and selling classical music are perpetually lamenting the shortage of audiences, but aren’t often doing all that much to figure out exactly what causes the shortage. Furthermore, whenever anyone does attempt something to help the problem, the strategies they use are devised in reference mainly to the above-stated ideas about what the causes of that problem are. For example, school outreach programs are informed by (1), (2), and (3). I’m not denying that these are extremely important and worthwhile programs. But, the way I see it, without a deeper diagnosis, they are fairly palliative treatment. Here’s an analogy: what we have, on our hands, is an immuno-compromised organism, with multiple infections, and what we’re doing is treating the infections one by one. This works, to an extent, in that the focussed antibiotics keep the infections from completely killing the organism. In an ideal scenario, however, wouldn’t it be preferable to cure that which is causing the immune system to be compromised in the first place? Shouldn’t we by trying to cure the most fundamental cause of the problems?

I’m neither an economist nor a sociologist, so I’ve unfortunately nothing to offer by way of a concrete strategy. I do, however, think that the fundamental issue here is one of how people relate to classical music and this is the disease that’s affecting the organism. That’s the lesson the tastes of the young versus the tastes of the mid-middle aged can teach us. What those of us who produce and sell classical music need to learn (something the pop industry learned a very long time ago) is that it’s vital to figure out what’s already important to people, what hopes or fears they have, and, especially, what they want the music they consume to do for them. Once we have done that, we need to explore whether the products we offer can do those things for them. And then, if we in fact can meet their needs, we need to let the consumers know exactly how. It seems that we have a ready-made connection with mid-middle aged persons based on the things they value, and their perception of classical music as exemplifying those things. What we can do to expand our audiences beyond that is think seriously about what other qualities and values and characteristics we have, and about who out there has a need for them. At the end of the day, it seems to be a very basic issue of figuring out where there are potential markets; yet, somehow, it’s a skill that has, until now, eluded us.

updated: 4 years ago