We talk a lot about the age of the classical music audience.

Generally people now assume it’s always been (or at least for generations has

been) more or less what it is now, 50 and up. That’s what Allan Kozinn said it’s been in the essay we’re debating on one of

my comments

pages, and I can’t blame him. After all, this is what everyone says.

But is there any data to support this common view? I’ve

never seen any. And in fact I’ve seen data that opposes it. Some years ago, I

found a 1940 book that reports the results of a 1937 study of American

orchestras. This study wasn’t much concerned with the audience (its focus was

finance), but it did survey the people at concerts in two cities, Los Angeles and Grand

Rapids, MI.

And the result? It’s a shock! The

audience was young — median age 27 in Grand

Rapids, 33 in LA. In LA (but not in Grand Rapids),

subscribers were older than single-ticket buyers, with a median age of 38,

which of course is older 33, but nowhere near as old as the subscription

audience now.

Can we believe this data? It’s hard to say. It’s pretty

fragmentary (surveys in just two cities, at an unstated number of concerts, though

with more than 1900 replies; no further data on the methodology used, though in

the book where I found this, there’s at least an appendix where we can read the

questions that the surveys asked). But on the other hand, it’s the only data

I’ve ever seen from this far back, and the authors of the book, in writing about

it, show no sign of surprise. Surely, if they’d been as amazed as we’re likely

to be, they would have said something.

And now I’ve found data that appears to corroborate that

1937 study. From 1963 to 1965, people at the 20th Century Fund did a study of

the performing arts. They made a point of studying the audience, and passed out

questionnaires, according to a book about their work, at 153 performances

(orchestra, theater, opera, dance, chamber music, and “free open-air” events)

in 20 cities. They got nearly 30,000 usable replies.

And how old was this audience? Median age 38! Again a shock. Of course, we have to wonder what the

breakdown was among the various performing arts, and at this point I have to

say that I haven’t seen the full study report (which was published in a book in

1966), but only a single chapter from it, reprinted in a 1973 book about

American orchestras. But that chapter does say that — even though the orchestra

audience has a greater percentage of people over 60 — “the audiences from art

form to art form are very similar

[the book’s emphasis]. They all show a median age in the middle 30’s.” The orchestra audience, then, really did seem to have a median age of 38.

And again this information is reported without any sign of

surprise. What does surprise the authors is the percentage of women in the arts

audience; it’s smaller than they expected, only 48%. (In

1937, more than 70% of the orchestral audience surveyed in the two cities was


So what does this mean? First, it means we don’t know our

history. Nobody I’ve talked to in the orchestra world had ever heard of the 1937,

and I’m betting they also don’t know about the later one, since if they did, they

wouldn’t be saying that the audience was always as old as it is now. (And I

should add that I came across these studies only by chance. I was browsing

through the Juilliard library, looking for books on other subjects, and came

across these two volumes, one a few years ago, the other just today.)

Second, these data fragments suggest that our history might

not at all be what we think it is. The classical music world, as I’m beginning

to think, is in the midst of a very long-range shift, which we won’t fully

understand until we learn a lot more about how things used to be.


Margery Grant and Herman B. Hettinger, America‘s Symphony Orchestras And

How They Are Supported. New York:

W. W. Norton & Company, 1940, pp. 226ff, 301ff.

George Seltzer, The Professional Symphony Orchestra in the United States. Metuchen, NJ:

The Scarecrow Press, 1975, pp. 240ff.

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  1. says

    Does that mean as well that classical music audiency gets older and phases out?

    Yes, there’s evidence for that in data from the National Endowment for the Arts. They started surveying the age of the classical music audience in 1982. Since that time, the audience has gotten notably older. It’s aging faster than the general population. And the number of younger people in the audience has dropped off very notably. The statistics make it look like there’s a single group of people, born in the same generation, who make up the bulk of the classical music audience. As they get older, there of course are fewer and fewer of them still buying tickets. And they’re not being replaced by any equally large number of younger people.

  2. Ethnomusicologist says

    You may also want to take a look at this source for the mid-20th century symphony orchestra:

    Mueller, John. 1951. The American Symphony Orchestra: A Social History of Musical Taste. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

    I looked through my notes and did not find any information specifically on the age of the audience, but I didn’t take notes on the whole book when I used it.

    Thanks. I’ll make a note of that book. Should be interesting even if it doesn’t say anything about the age of the audience.