Something good about classical music

Here’s something that seemed obvious, once it occurred to me. But I’d never thought of it before: classical music might be better for the environment than pop, because it (probably) has a lower carbon footprint. Or, more simply, it seems to use less electricity.

This came to me when I was reading British press comment last month on the Live Earth event, comprising concerts in many countries, which were designed to draw attention to global warming. The British press (or at least the Guardian and the Independent, the two papers I read over there) pointed out the implicit irony, which of course is that pop and rock performances are amplified, and thus use electricity in mammoth amounts, which means they themselves contribute (maybe in no small way) to the problem Live Earth was supposed to do something about.

Compare classical music. It’s largely unamplified. So an orchestra concert uses less electricity than an arena rock show; a chamber concert uses less than a band playing in a club; and a violinist, practicing all day, uses less electricity than someone playing the electric guitar.

But I did qualify this in my first paragraph (“probably,” “seems to”). Why? Because there are still some calculations to be done. I can’t do them myself, but I have some idea what they are. Take, for instance, the contrast between an orchestra concert and an arena rock show.

I’m sure an orchestra concert uses less electricity. But there are many more orchestra concerts, plus large opera performances, in New York each year than arena rock shows (and on top of that, the classical halls are often used during the day for rehearsals). So maybe the carbon footprint starts to even out. I’m sure that’s true in any city with an orchestra that plays year-round (or close to that).

And how about travel? Classical singers, instrumental soloists, and conductors travel constantly. (So do many classical music artist managers, and administrators.) Jet flights have a huge carbon footprint. Pop stars don’t travel nearly as much. They go on major tours, but only (as a rule) for a small part of each year. Many of them, maybe most, don’t even tour every year.

So the bottom line might be hard to calculate. But here’s one way that pop music is ahead of classical music on this issue — pop music, at least, is aware of it, and a few bands buy carbon offsets whenever they tour. I’ve asked the American Symphony Orchestra League whether any large American orchestra has ever done that, or thought of doing it, and I’ll be curious to know what the answer is.

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  1. says

    a friend and I were talking about that very subject the other day, as we were attending Solarfest ( a music/energy/education festival in Vermont that is completely powered by solar and other alternative energy. two days of good music and workshops, and I believe this year, they were putting power back into the grid. cool.

  2. BP says

    Carbon offsets are bunk. First of all, even if the offestting effect were real, it would not be possible to offset any significant fraction of the greenhouse gases emmitted in the developed world by planting trees, collecting methane, capping-and-trading, etc. It is “working” in the short term because so few people want to offset their carbon.

    More to the point, the market is totally unregulated so the actual benefits of carbon offsets are dubious, to put it mildly.

    What happened to the discussion about the merits about pop music as music? That could be interesting.

    I was expecting a comment like this. BP will be happy to know, I’m sure, that there was a scandal in Britain during July, about large corporations (by coincidence, BP, the oil company, was one of them) that claim carbon offsets they don’t deserve.

    What to do about climate change is a gigantic issue, to put it mildly. Carbon offsets are at least well-meaning. A journey of a million miles (to revise the old saying upward) starts with whatever steps anyone can manage. The consciousness of climate change is a lot higher now than it was last year, and from what I thought I saw, is notably higher in Britain than in the US. So the issue might not only be whether carbon offsets (by themselves) can reverse global warming. It might also be whether the issue keeps getting raised. From that point of view, while we look for a global solution (which won’t be easy at all), it helps for the moment if people in good faith try to do things. And then it’s interesting to see who these people might be.

    As for the debate on the artistic merit of pop music, bring it on. BP, why don’t you start? I’ll just remind everyone of the ground rules. If anyone wants to say that pop music isn’t worthy artistically, they have to do it with detailed reference to specific songs and albums by pop music artists widely recognized as serious. I’m really not interested in rhetoric, vast generalities, or ungrounded assertions.