Age of the audience, once more


The classical music audience has always been the age it is now. A lot of people still believe this. But — as regular readers here know — I’ve discovered that the myth isn’t true.


The audience used to be much younger. Source for this? Studies done in 1937, 1955, and the early 1960s, combined with statistics the National Endowment has been compiling since 1982. I’ve never seen any data — any at all — that supports the myth.

Of course I’ve posted on this subject before, here and here.

But now I’ve gotten something new. In the second of those posts, I quoted a book on marketing, which talked about the 1955 study I mentioned above. That study was done by the Minneapolis Symphony (now the Minnesota Orchestra), and found that their 1955 audience had a median age of 33, which was about the median age of the general population back then. Now, of course, the orchestra audience is much older, with a median age around 50% higher than the population at large.

And now — thanks to generous help from the Minnesota Orchestra’s director of public relations and their archivist — I have that study. It’s amazing to read, providing (as a friend of mine said) a window into another era, a time very different from ours. The median age number doesn’t appear anywhere. Instead, the study simply says that 54% of the orchestra’s audience in 1955 was younger than 35. Which of course is consistent with the number quoted for the median age.)

So who were these people? Students, professionals, housewives, and businessmen. (I think “businessmen” is the right expression, since people in business back then were predominantly men.) Students, believe it or not, made up 23% of the audience, though they were older than you might think: more than half lay in an age range between 21 and 35. But just in case anyone thought it was only the students that made the audience so young, the study points out that the largest occupational group in the audience were the professionals –doctors, lawyers, professors, engineers, and the like — and that they, too, were young. 52% of them were under 35.

So it really was a young audience. It was so young, in fact, that the study — conducted by a professional polling firm in Minneapolis — offers one simple suggestion, in case the orchestra wants to sell more tickets. It should advertise in college newspapers! (Similarly, the authors of the early ’60s study I’ve read – in which the median age of the entire performing arts audience was found to be 38 — speculate about what they think is an important question:

Why people stop going to performing arts events as they grow older. Of course that’s exactly the opposite of what we see today.) The housewives and businessmen in the Minnesota audience were older than the students and professionals. A third of them, approximately, were over 50. But of course that means that two-thirds were under 50, which of course makes them younger than comparable groups in today’s audience. (And around a third of the housewives and businessmen were under 35.)

One other finding seems important. Where did people of different ages sit? The answer is exactly what you’d expect. The older people (who presumably had more money) by and large sat in the orchestra seats, while the younger people (or most of them, anyway) sat in the balcony. Why is this important? Because sometimes you’ll see a photo showing the orchestra audience in bygone years, sitting in its seats for a concert, and the people in it look old. So now we know why that is. These photos are taken from the stage, and the people they most clearly show — the ones sitting in the front of the downstairs seats — are, on the average, the oldest people in the audience. The younger ones are invisible upstairs.

Source: “In-Concert Survey of the Audience Attending the November 11th Symphony Concert at Northrup Auditorium, University of Minnesota.” Conducted for the Orchestral Association of Minneapolis by Mid-Continent Surveys, of Minneapolis, and dated December 12, 1955. The Friday concerts at Northrup Auditorium were the orchestra’s regular subscription events. 1900 members of the audience filled out the surveys, which were supplemented by a random poll of Minneapolis residents (conducted by the local newspaper) and in-person interviews.

I can’t resist quoting one thing more. How, the study asks, could the orchestra expand its reach (beyond advertising in college newspapers)? The study makes two recommendations:

Modify the audience image toward reality — portray the audience for what it really is: Young, a cross-section of middle-income, middle-education groups, informally dressed, the kind of people who might live next door to almost anybody! The unhappy stuffed-shirt stereotype of the audience is a negative motivation for many. Attending the Symphony just once, a shift in press treatment of the Symphony audience, or a portrayal of the true audience through advertising can transform the Image to proper dimensions.

Capitalize on the conductors’ favorable image as a conductor, and create a more vivid Image of him as a personality, not merely by getting so many lines of newspaper space, but striking home a dramatic IKDEA that focusses audience perspective on the conductor as a captivating personality. Probably a few lines in St. Louis newspapers on Mr. Golschmann as poker player have successfully engendered a colorful personality for him.

[Vladimir Golschmann was the music director of the St. Louis Symphony. All emphasis, spelling, and capitalization, however quaint, is in the original.]

Here we might be talking about orchestras today! (Antal Dorati was the conductor, back then, of the Minneapolis orchestra, and one problem they had was that he wasn’t as popular as his predecessor Dmitri Mitropoulos had been.)

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on RedditEmail this to someone


  1. brett says

    Very interesting. One question: do you think students were older then because so many were ex-WWII and Korean War soldiers who’d gone to school on the GI Bill?

    That’s a good thought. Male students also might have entered college late, because of the military draft.

    I’m sure we can find out about this if we want to. There must be census data and newspaper articles about the student population in the 1950s.

  2. says

    Growing up in the 1960s, I remember there was great deal of emphasis on music in the schools. True, it took until the late 1970s for the administrations of these schools to include the music courses into the grades and averages of all subjects–which meant ‘no fooling around’ and treat music classes like an English honors class. All of my friends played something, piano, guitar, violin, flute, etc. However, I would be curious how the attendance of the under age 35 group changed from the 1950s to the late 1960s. As for today, the distractions of technology and other forms of popular culture and music have pulled many youngsters away from the concert hall–unless their parents were part of the generation that attended concerts and it became a natural ritual to attend concerts with their children today.

    Another point that might be too difficult to explore and unearth, would be to see how strong the music in the schools programs were when attendance was high at the symphony orchestra concerts. Did this, and does it still, play a significant role in how many young people have the desire and do indeed attend orchestra concerts?

    Hi, Jeffrey. I’m still looking for data. There’s a study that shows the audience in the early ’60s was a little older — median age 38 rather than early 30s — than it was in the ’50s and earlier. I hope to get some data from the ’70s in not too long, and I think we’ll see a steady aging of the audience from the mid-’50s onward. The NEA has documented steady aging from 1982 to 2002, and particularly noted that the number of people under 30 going to classical concerts fell in half between 1982 and 1997.

    Of course there was also less music education during this period. Or, to put it differently, in the ’50s and earlier there was much more music education than there is now. It’s very tempting to find a cause and effect relationship — and then to conclude that, wow, if we only restored classical music education in the schools, we’d have an audience again.

    I’m not sure of that, though. I think the cause and effect could just as well have worked the other way. Lots of people of all ages were going to classical concerts, so it seemed natural to teach classical music in the schools. More subtly, I think we might have had a kind of feedback loop. More people went to classical concerts, and classical music was far more central to our culture. So naturally it was taught in schools. That made people more easily accept it, so more people went to concerts…until the culture began to change, and classical music began to lose its central position. And so then another feedback loop was established. Classical music seemed less important, so it wasn’t taught in schools, and so it seemed less important. That’s where we are now, I think, and changing our present culture won’t be easy.
    I’ll have more to say about this in responses to other comments.

    The audience has been getting steadily older — as far as I know right now — ever since the 1950s. So I believe the proportion of younger people in the audience has been dropping ever since then. The NEA has data that shows the number of people under 30 going to classical concerts fell 50% from the ’80s to the mid-’90s.

  3. Erika Beatty says

    A thought: It’s also possible older audiences had more barriers to attending in the past, not less interest. Today’s seniors live longer, are more mobile and are more financially secure.

    Isn’t 50 the new 30?

    Hi, Erika. Good thought. To really understand what’s going on, we’d need some demographic analysis that’s above my pay grade.

    But I think — subject to correction by experts — that the increased longevity we’ve seen over time (and also the increased vigor of older people) isn’t enough to account for the change in the age distribution of the audience.

    In earlier decades, it wasn’t just that fewer older people went. There was more interest among younger people. There’s lots of anecdotal evidence for that, whether it’s people remembering what a hot date an orchestra concert was in the 1940s, or the stories about Geraldine Farrar’s teen fans at the Metropolitan Opera in the 1920s (the “Gerryflappers”).
    We should also remember that older people weren’t all that decrepit in the ’50s. The president of the US back then was Dwight Eisenhower, born in 1890. So in 1955, he was in his mid-60s. That didn’t seem surprising at the time. Maybe there weren’t as many people in their 70s living vigorous lives, but I don’t think there would be much problem with people in their 60s going out to concerts. My father was 54 in 1955 (my parents had me relatively late in their lives), and he was full of energy.

    Or we could look at numbers. In 2002, 33% of the classical music audience in the US was under 35, according to the National Endowment for the Arts. The NEA also reported a median age for the classical music audience of 49, which is surely too young, or at least too young if we want to look at major classical music events. Orchestras in that year had audiences older than that. Thus (because of methodological issues I won’t go into here) the classical audience was probably older than the NEA reports.

    Still, let’s use their figures. 33% of the classical audience was under 35. About the same percentage was over 55, and 15.5% was over 65.

    Let’s assume, as Erika suggests, that older people go to concerts more frequently now than they did in 1955. And, having made that assumption, let’s try removing some of 2002’s older people, to see what that would do to the proportion of people under 35. Well, if you completely remove everyone over 65, the proportion of people under 35 in the audience only goes up to 39%, quite a bit lower than the 54% reported in 1955.

    So I doubt the increased vigor of older people in our time is enough to explain the high proportion of younger people in the audience 50 years ago. To get a 55% representation for people under 35 today, we’d have to remove so many older people that we end up with a picture that just isn’t plausible.

    Sorry if that got complicated! Here’s something much simpler, and it’s probably where I should have started. The audience in 1955 had just about the same median age as the general population. That is, speaking roughly, it just about reflected the general population in its age distribution. That’s not true today. Now the orchestra audience, from figures I’ve seen, is about 50% older than the population at large. So an increased number of older people can’t by itself explain the aging of the classical audience between 1955 and today. Today’s audience isn’t just older than the 1955 audience in absolute terms. It’s also older compared to the general population. As the NEA explicitly says in one of its reports, the classical music audience has aged more than the general population.

  4. Bonnie says

    It would be interesting to know the median age of the children of these audience members. I am not compelled to change my thoughts about classical music audiences based on these statistics. I still believe that people begin regularly attending classical music concerts when their children no longer require a babysitter. I am guessing that at age 33, these people had children in their early teens. 33 year olds now have infants and toddlers. I would also like to know the average work day hours in the years these studies were done. I am guessing that these people were not working 12 hours plus before getting to the concert hall. I am also guessing that there were not a whole lot of nightclubs in the years these studies were done, luring the students and 20-somethings away from the concert hall. I think time, effort and resources would be better spent on getting music into the classrooms of elementary age students than figuring out how to get a group of people who haven’t the time nor money to attend classical music concerts. We will get them in another 10 years.

    Good questions, Bonnie. I’m sure the US census for 1950 and 1960 has some numbers that might bear on this discussion. I’ve downloaded a giant document that may shed some light.

    But I also think you’re leaving out some other factors. Do you really think people 35 years old would go to concerts substantially more often now, if only they had older children? I think you’re ignoring giant cultural changes that happened between 1955 and now. I showed this study to a friend of mine who’s the marketing director of a major classical music institution, and who often says that child care is something classical music institutions have to think about offering. If there’s anyone — at least in my circle — who’s studied the question of what keeps people away from concerts, and to what extent the presence of children at home keeps people away, it’s him. And his reaction to the 1955 report was very simple: “It’s a different world,” he said. He didn’t think anything as simple as what you suggest, Bonnie, would be the cause of the change.

    Besides, as I’ve said elsewhere, there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence for active interest in classical music among younger people, in past decades.

    Which brings me to your point about getting music back into classrooms. A lot of people think that’s the answer. I don’t. For one thing, I object to teaching classical music, in preference to other kinds of music. The Juilliard graduate students don’t know jazz or blues, which is to say that they don’t know their own American musical heritage. Most of them have never heard the great jazz musicians, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Duke Ellington. Music education, in our era — and in our multicultural society — has to be far broader than classical music alone.

    And secondly, our culture has decisively changed, and even if we did institute classical music education on the scale that used to exist, it won’t have the effect it used to. Sometime in the past couple of months, the NY Times ran a story about the restoration of the Latin mass in Catholic churches around the US. This was possible because of a papal decree allowing Catholic dioceses to restore the Latin mass on their own authority, without special permission from the Vatican.

    The result surprised some people. Latin masses were reinstituted — and very few people went to them. And the Times story ended with a quote from a priest: “You can bring back the Latin mass, but you can’t bring back the culture it came from.” I think the same is true with classical music education. We can try teaching it, but students still will gravitate towards other kinds of music, because that’s the direction our culture has gone in — and because, for most people today, those other kinds of music offer much more satisfaction.

  5. says

    This is a great topic!

    I think the key to cultivating the younger audience lies not in marketing, but in early education and participation in music. I run the website, and the median age of our large and regular readership is 32 years old. Most of our readers play the violin or other instruments, and they are drawn to concerts because they understand the music deeply.

    Participation in classical music is what inspires the greatest love and devotion to it.

    Glad you like this discussion, Laurie.

    We have a paradox today. Fewer young people show an interest in classical music, at least as compared to past decades. (See some of the stats I quoted in my reponses to previous comments.) But still many young people study classical music! And, for that matter, become classical music professionals.
    The result, in my experience with both music students and young orchestra musicians, is that young people involved with classical music often find that they’re isolated, at least in their musical interests. Their friends love them, but don’t care much about their classical music involvement.

    As for participation in classical music inspiring love and devotion to it, maybe. But if you look at other musical genres, you find people getting interested without participating. All the people who got excited by bebop in the 1950s — a really complex, nonpopular genre — did so without playing it themselves. Likewise for world music today.
    And the growth of rock & roll in the ’50s, and above all the explosion of rock in the ’60s, seemed to create something that worked in exactly an opposite way from what you describe. First people learned to love the music, and then they started forming bands. You can say, if you like, that classical music is far more complex than rock, and that participation is necessary for an understanding of it. But that didn’t seem to be true in past decades, or past centuries.

  6. Dennis says

    Many of these studies I’ve seen about the decline in younger people attending classical music concerts seem to use comparisons from before the rock ‘n’ roll era. I wonder if the age of attendance for classical has risen simply because, unlike pre-rock ‘n’ roll era youngsters, people simply have more to choose from now. Pre-1950s or so, classical was practically the only game in town in terms of serious live musical entertainment.

    I’d look also at the effect the marketing of rock ‘n’ roll, pop, etc., has on people’s perceptions – i.e. making rock and pop alone seem “young and hip”, while classical is for old fogies. See Adorno’s “The Culture Industry” for more on the effects of mass marketing on culture.

    Dennis, I’m afraid that Adorno’s writing about popular culture is now something of an embarrassment among Adorno scholars. He was just plain wrong in a lot of what he said, and above all didn’t anticipate what started to happen in the 1960s, when popular culture really began to explode.
    Adorno’s model works far better, where popular music is concerned, in the 1930s, let’s say, when there was a huge pop music machine turning out songs almost under industrial conditions. Once rock & roll emerged, everything changed. People who don’t like rock (you might not be one of them, Dennis; I’m not making assumptions about you) often say that the big record companies made the music so popular by marketing it, or, more brutally, by forcing it down teenagers’ throats. But the truth is exactly the opposite. The big record companies — the entire culture industry — was completely unprepared for rock & roll. The music emerged overwhelmingly on tiny record labels, and the big companies stood around telling everyone that the craze would last at most a year.

    The history after that — after the mid-50s — is complicated. By 1957 or so, the big record labels had caught up with the trend, and started doing the kind of things Adorno described. But then in the ’60s there was a new explosion of new styles of rock, and once again the culture industry was left behind. If you read Fred Goodman’s book, “The Mansion on the Hill,” you’ll see how the big record companies had to run out and hire people who understood the new styles. Which they did all over again in the late 1980s, when alternative rock emerged.
    The history of rock actually shows a blindling succession of new styles, almost all of which were created by ordinary people, without help from the culture industry. That’s true of the folk music craze of the early ’60s, punk, metal, the electronic dance music of the ’80s and beyond, alternative rock, hiphop, you name it. As I saw firsthand when I worked as a pop music critic, the big record companies are forever playing catchup, often with hilarious results. (For instance: Slick record executives going to Hollywood clubs in the ;ate ’80s, trying to pretend that they liked the hairband music that had swept through the industry, all by itself.)

    So, yes, there are more things to do in our era, and also much more competition from popular culture. But that’s not because of anything Adorno described or understood. It’s because a new cultural wind started blowing — and started from the bottom up.

  7. Jay says

    There is one fact that could partially account for the 1955 findings. If I’m not mistaken, the orchestra at that time gave its subscription performances in Northrop Memorial Auditorium on the campus of the University of Minnesota– which even then had a very large student body. If the tickets were inexpensive there would have been a lot of young people in the neighborhood to take advantage of them. The orchestra subsequently built its own concert hall in downtown Minneapolis.

    I was only 12 years old in 1955 but it was my impression that the different generations still shared musical tastes. In the years that followed the audience became much more fragmented. My peers turned to rock and roll. I abandoned Your Hit Parade for classical music. My parents stuck with Lawrence Welk. Chacun à son goût.

    Jay, I thought the same thing when I started reading the study. Concerts at a university theater; more students.

    But then you look — as the authors of the study did — at the age figures for the professionals in the audience, and you see that they were young, too.

    You can also look at age data for other orchestras that didn’t play in college theaters. Studies from the ’30s and the early ’60s show a young audience, just as the Minnesota study does, and in fact the ’60s study shows a young audience throughout the performing arts. I don’t think performing in college theaters can alone account for that.

  8. Paul A. Alter says

    I’m wary about any data coming out of Minneapolis during the period of the survey.

    Northrup Hall seated 4500 butts, and rumors were that concerts by Mitropoulos/Minneapolis were sold out. That’s 4500 people attending classical music concerts. I believe that the orch gave only one concert per week, which may account for the large attendance. But Dimitri Mit was in solid with the students on campus and Young Turks in general, and they flocked to his concerts.

    DM used to go to venues where pop music (jazz,swing) was played, sit on the floor, and buddy with the kids. My cousin, who was not always to be relied on, told me that, in DM’s honor, one group composed a song yclept “Beat Me Dimitri With a Beethoven Beat.” So they knew him and took a personal interest in him.

    So the Minneapolis concerts were skewed to young audiences by virtue of DM, and I believe the same thing was true — at first — in NY, when he moved to the NYPhil.

    I wonder if, perhaps, some of the young professionals attending the concerts were erstwhile students.

    As for music classes in schools. Those were the days when schools were designed to turn out well-rounded individuals. We took classes in art, music, literature, Latin, and all that good stuff. At that time, The Modern Library published a list of the 100 most influential books of all time, and a lot of people set out to read all 100 of them. (“Kirstin Lavransdatter” anyone?). The idea was to acquire some “culture,” and concert music was part of that.

    Itinerant salesmen use to go around peddling encyclopedias, and people bought them. It was an attempt to get culture.

    That’s what has changed. Nobody wants “culture” anymore. The in thing now is to watch football on TV, swill down carbonated beverages, and belch. That’s OK. I’ve got no argument with that. Except that it rules out culture. And the school systems no longer attempt to turn out well-rounded, cultured, individuals; they turn out workers. I do have an argument with that.


    Hi, Paul. Dorati was the music director when the survey was done. The survey notes that he was less of an attraction than DM was, but doesn’t say this affected the age of the people buying tickets.

    in any case, the survey data is consistent with data from other classical events, in other cities, in different years. So I’m willing to accept it, at least tentatively, as representative.

    I can add that prominent attendance by students comes up in two other instances I know about. A 1937 study of American orchestras talks about students and housewives being the primary occupational groups at two concerts surveyed, in Los Angeles and Grand Rapids.

    And “Middletown in Transition,” a classic sociological study of an anonymous mid-American city (it was actually Muncie, IN), talks about a concert series in the mid ’30s that was primarily attended by housewives and students.

  9. Rafael de Acha says

    Hello Greg! I warn you: my input into the discussion is highly anecdotal and loaded with ephemeral stuff.

    I was born and grew up in the Havana of the 1940’s and 1950’s and even saw the arrival of Castro at the start of 1960. Along with a few other people, I was by age 12 one of a group large enough in numbers to support a first-rank Havana Philharmonic, a world-class Ballet Nacional de Cuba, a Sociedad Pro Arte Musical at which concerts I heard everybody from Heifetz to Segovia to Menuhin to…you name it and on to a half dozen top-notch professional theatres and a plethora of other arts organizations – museums, galleries, outdoor drama, a fantastic opera season. Havana brimmed with artistic offerings BC and in the very common Castro era.

    Those among us who became culture vultures and the handful who ended up having careers in the arts, did so because we got the taste for the stuff of the life of the spirit at home, not in school. The priests and brothers in the school where I suffered my way through an agonizing few years of secondary education could not care less for the arts, by and large. My parents were lovers of the arts and my grandparents before them. And that, I believe, is where the whole process of building an audience for the arts begins, right at home, with the family gathered around the piano singing or listening to the NBC Symphony Orchestra concerts broadcast from NYC and re-broadcast in Cuba.

    In my wife’s life, that love for music began listening to Bernstein on TV and to the Ed Sullivan show that always had Roberta Peters or Robert Merrill on. That led to piano lessons and then flute in the marching band in a small college town in Southern Ohio. She’s had a forty-year long career as a professional singer and now as a professor at the University of Miami and, amazingly, it all began in a similar fashion to mine. And you could not get any two human beings father apart geographically than the two of us!

    By and large all the yah-dah-yah-dah about music education in the schools is not going to make the miracle happen. Not in our lifetime. I have been watching the whole thing of arts education going south for years, as funding dwindles by the million every time the school bored convene. Everybody ought to start thinking about educational strategies at home, so that the dumbing down of the audience does not continue ad infinitum. Once that day comes, we will begin to see a younger audience at arts events.

    Raf, your anecdotes are (as usual) worth ten of most peoples’ abstract analyses.

    What you’re saying adds up, I think, to a simple observation — the culture has changed. You and your wife (and me, too) grew up at a time and in places and in homes where classical music was all around us. Homes like ours were much more common back then, which figures — classical music itself was much more present everywhere we looked. Like network TV, as you pointed out.

    But I don’t know what action we could take to restore classical music to peoples’ homes. The culture has changed. The only way to deal with that, I believe, is to put classical music back into mainstream culture.

    And that, I think, isn’t as hard as it might seem. I disagree with you about culture being dumbed down. I think it’s a lot smarter now than it’s ever been. I think I’ve mentioned here before that I recently read “Middletown,” a classic sociological study of Muncie, IN in the 1920s. They had hardly any indigenous culture. They had the movies, they had their radios. Maybe there were some choirs. Later, in the 30s, they got a classical concert series.

    But nobody in Muncie was making their own culture, as so many people routinely do now. Now most cities that size have local bands, clubs, theater companies, art galleries. Above all, popular culture has gotten (over main years) smart and artistic — no, not necessarily the mainstream stuff, but the huge trove of indie/alternative work, which is where most younger people (including younger classical musicians) get a lot of their art these day.

    By comparison to this work, classical music, as presented by mainstream instituitons, looks a little dumb — stereotyped, repetitive, predictable, not in touch with contemporary life, not raising contemporary issues. Safe, coddled, bland. If it were more like the good things in popular culture, it would wake up with a bang, and interest many more people than it does now.

  10. Paul A. Alter says

    Yep, those were the glory days in Minn, with Dorati and the orchestra recording those hi-fi extravaganzas for Mercury records. (Oh, boy, listen to those cymbals!)

    Somebody once said of Dorati that “he conducts Haydn as if he knows Haydn is an important composer, but can’t figure out why.”

    What I was trying to say is that the younger audience in Minn may have been a carryover from the DM days.

    What you cite about audiences composed mainly of housewives and students is important. It says a lot. It says, for example, that there were housewives in those days; they seem to have gone the way of the two income family and the days of “self betterment.”

    It says, for example, that students could scare up a few bucks for tickets, unlike the situation with high-priced tickets these days.

    However, it also says that, possibly, the observation was based on afternoon concerts — the traditional Friday afternoon run throughs that served as (1) a dress rehearsal for the all-out effort on Saturday night, (2) a chance for the music reviewer to get published before the Saturday night concert, (3) a chance for the well-off “symphony widows” to attend the concerts during a time of day when it was safe and convenient for them to be out, (4) a chance for middle-class housewives to enjoy concert music because they could not possible drag their “tired businessmen” husbands to an evening concert (and, after the concert, to feel safe in taking the street car home), and (5) a chance for the odd ball students who needed to hear concert music to hear it and still go out on Saturday night like real people did.

    It ain’t the programs, it ain’t the music, it ain’t how we dress, and it ain’t none of that stuff. It is — and I hope I’m using the term correctly — the zeitgeist.

    These are anti-cultural times. Everything about us is designed to turn out consumers and employees. That’s how success is measure — there’s no success in being “well rounded.”

    Back then, Stromberg Carlson (they made higher-class radio-phonograph consoles) ran adverts about how listening to classical music helped young people develop and become statesmen and inventors and leaders in society and philanthropists and all that good stuff.

    Picture that today.


    Well, as I’ve said before here, I think contemporary culture is a lot better than you’re making it out to be. But it’s certainly different from the kind of culture you and I grew up with. It’s possible to have an involved, inspiring, educational cultural life, full of music that plays an important part in making you a statesman or leader — and none of that music will be classical.

    And I can understand why you’d think that the concert surveyed in MN might have been a Friday afternoon event. it wasn’tt, though. It was a regular evening subscription concert, picked for the survey precisely because it was typical of what the orchestra did.

  11. says

    “The Juilliard graduate students don’t know jazz or blues, which is to say that they don’t know their own American musical heritage.”

    It isn’t their heritage if they don’t want to inherit it. Why exactly does someone have a duty to study a particular variety of music just because it originated in the country his conservatory is in?

    Exactly my point!

    I make the remark you quote here in answer to people who want mandatory classical music education (re)introduced in American schools. My point is that classical music education alone doesn’t give anyone a fully rounded knowledge of music. I use my Juilliard students as examples. They know classical music reasonably well, but apart from the pop music all of them listen to, they don’t know anything about other kinds of great (and historically important) music that they wouldn’t normally come across in the course of their everyday lives. Maybe it’s a kind of special pleading to say that the music they don’t know is American music, and therefore part of their heritage — especially since jazz and blues have circulated worldwide, and have had worldwide influence.

    So then what’s the justification for forcing students to learn about classical music? Apart, of course, from the self-interest of the classical music business, which wants the schools to create future ticket-buyers. Well, somebody’s sure to say that classical music is (or ought to be) part of everybody’s cultural heritage. But in response I’ll just quote Christopher: “It isn’t their heritage if they don’t want to inherit it.” Which is exactly the point of view taken by many college students, who over the past decade or so have increasingly objected to being taught about classical music — without anything about other musical styles — in required core humanities courses. College music professors have had to retool their approach, teaching all forms of music. Students respond to this, from everything I’ve heard, and then are perfectly willing to learn about classical music, just as they’re perfectly willing to learn about other kinds of music they may not know, like African music, Japanese music, or jazz.

    So I’d say we should take this approach in elementary and high schools as well. If we’re going to require music classes, let’s teach all kinds of music. So that we don’t produce citizens with as unbalanced a knowledge of music as my Juilliard students have.

  12. robert berger says

    I don’t think there

    is anything wrong with

    having kids take a

    course on Classical

    music,but it would

    require first rate

    teaching that would

    bring the subject vividly

    to life.If taught badly,

    it can turn kids off

    to Classical music for

    life.And I think it would

    be better to have kids take courses like this

    in later grades;it has

    usually been done in earlier grades when

    the kids are not yet

    intellectually sophisticated enough.

  13. Paul A. Alter says

    Yes, Raf, I remember the Havana Philharmonic. I even had a recording, a long while back, of the Havana Phil conducted by Massimo Freccia, but I can’t remember what they were playing.

    And I pretty much agree with your observations, even though my experience varies widely from yours. (Just for one example, my mother disapproved of my listening to classical music and tried to discourage it.)

    But the fact that what was true for me and what was true for you is so different but, nevertheless, ended up with similar results, emphasizes what a complex matter the development of the love of music is.

    And I am not badmouthing the culture today. People today are greatly more informed, with broader areas of knowledge, than at any time in the past. But the culture today does not encourage consumption of concert music.

    There is one simple way to change that culture and rebuild concert audiences: We need to find some person who can do for music what Oprah is doing for reading.

    There will still be other actions that need to be taken, but that one leader — by himself or herself — would make one hell of a difference.


  14. Jerome Langguth says

    Dear Greg,

    Once again, you have a very interesting discussion going here. With regard to orchestras “extending their reach” to find a younger audience, I think that you may have hit on a problem with the way this is usually done when you distinguish between a “smart” non-mainstream contemporary culture and a (not so smart?) mainstream. It seems to me that many of the “pitches” to the young coming from the classical music world are missing a large segment of the population because they shy away from programs that are really risky and inventive, assuming perhaps that such music would appeal to only a few marginal souls. But, as you suggested, a great many young people are gravitating towards the “alternative” margins. Your idea for a Stockhausen tribute, for example, will probably not be taken up by many orchestras (I hope I am wrong). But this kind of event might actually have some widespread appeal with the young. Fans of numerous niche genres like experimental rock (including Radiohead), electronica, free jazz, and avant-funk revere Stockhausen, even if the classical music world has not been paying attention. So it might actually turn out that a series of Stockhausen related events would generate exactly the sense of excitement and relevance that you are looking for. Just a thought.


    Jay, I’m sure you’re right. Especially since something like this has been done successfully. The London Sinfonietta did some programs in collaboration with the pop label Warp, pairing composers like Xennakis with advanced kinds of dance muisc, and other kinds of alternative pop. The results, I’ve heard, were spectacular — a thousand people in their 20s cheering for Xennakis.

    And why not? A band like Radiohead, or a dance-music guy like Aphex Twin — they’re closer in many ways to contemporary classical music than to any other musical style.

    Mainstream classical music organizations tend not to know much about the younger audience they’re trying to reach. And so they don’t reach that audience nearly as well as they might. But then to reach that audience in a big way, they’d have to change their own idea of what music is. Eventually they’ll do that — when most of their top staff and their musicians are from the generation we currently call “young.”

  15. Paul A. Alter says

    In a recent issue of “Symphony,” ASOL published an article about its efforts to have music courses included in school curricula. I wrote to ask them precisely what they meant by music education. I have, of course, not yet heard from them. Of course.

    According to Josiah Royce, “education is learning to use the tools that the race has found indispensable.” So, primary grades teach us the tools — reading, writing, and arithmetic. Then, in later grades, and college, we learn how to apply these tools appropriately in situations where they are needed.

    When we talk about music education, what — precisely — are we talking about? If the purpose is to teach it as a tool to be used, how do we intend it should be used?

    “Training” differs from education. You train to an objective: “Upon completion of this course, the trainee will

    perform [a designated task].”

    Before the development of mechanical means of reproducing music, being able to perform music was a mark of the “well rounded” individual. So, students received what we would today define as musical TRAINING. That’s the way it was when I was in Junior High and High School, where I got a passing grade in chorus if I promised to sit in the back of the room, do my homework, and NOT sing.

    But I NEVER encountered any music education. I cannot long for the return of that which never was.

    Although I would dearly love to see all forms of music survive and flourish, but trying to do too much at once would only result in accomplishing nothing at all. So I have established one strictly defined goal, which is that symphony orchestras survive and continue to give concerts. Properly designed musical education would be a positive factor in reaching that goal. But it will be decades before that could happen. In the meantime, efforts need to be directed toward what will work here and now.


  16. says

    Very interesting discussion. I would venture to guess that every major orchestra in the country (and a good number of the smaller ones) make a concerted effort to expose classical music to younger audiences through outreach programs. Performances at schools, special “kinder konzerts” at the hall, residencies and visits by the musicians and conductor themselves – these sorts of programs are standard operating procedure at today’s symphony orchestra.

    My criticism of these activities is that they seem to stop at the elementary school level. Orchestras go to so much effort to introduce themselves to young children and not enough to cultivate them as they get older. It’s really a missed opportunity. The little ones don’t have the choice or the disposable income to attend performances outside of these programs like teenagers could.

    I would think that implementing programs for teenagers that instill the habit of going to the symphony as a leisure activity would do more to cultivate younger audiences than taking a bus-load of 8-year olds to Orchestra Hall for a concert.

    I’m glad to report that the Minnesota Orchestra is following its own advice. Osmo Vanska is very open to being the “celebrity” face of the Orchestra and people have really been taken with him. The Orchestra has also performed the occasional concert in street clothes thereby making themselves and the music more accessible to a less formal audience. They also work closely with the University of Minnesota to provide services to music students there. I don’t know if they advertise in the local college newspapers, but they might.

    Thanks, Wendy. i’ve observed a lot of this, taken part in some of it, and talked to many others who’ve been involved.

    And, sadly, I have to say that I’m not overly impressed. The problems orchestras run into, when they do all this, are many. Often there’s no followthrough — they do something successful, then don’t follow up, and do something else. Or there’s no strategic plan, no idea of where a new initiative is supposed to go, or even how to measure its success.

    Beyond all this, I’ve often found that orchestras don’t have a clear idea of what their prospective young audience is like. There’s been a huge culture change, and younger people — just for instance — don’t respond uncritically to the idea of beauty. They want more than that; they want brains, and a point of view. But orchestras still sell classical music by stressing how beautiful it is. This is just one small example.

    As far as I know, the American orchestra that best succeeds in reaching a young audience is Red, An Orchestra in Cleveland. They seem to get 1000 younger people to each of their concerts, many of them wearing Red (because the group has successfully branded itself). I don’t know any mainstream orchestra that’s doing as well, but I’d love to hear of one.

  17. Gayle Heatherington says

    Fascinating topic and insightful discussions! The orchestra for which I am the Executive Director is starting a new innovative program designed to bring young parents back to the concert hall and also to give their children a wonderful experience with live classical music in the hope that they will become life-long concert goers. You may read about the program at

    I will keep you posted as to its success.

    Gayle, good luck with this.

    I think the biggest conceptual jump, for the classical music world, is to understand the cultural changes that have taken place. The audience didn’t get older just by chance. The culture changed, and classical music for the most part didn’t, so younger people over the years took less and less interest in it. Mere exposure might not be enough to bring them in. Classical music has to change its own culture, in my view. Which is a long discussion, and maybe a controversial one.

  18. Missy says

    Great discussion. I would like to see other audience survey info from these eras, just to be sure that the MN experience was not unique to that locale.

    Another poster’s mention of Ed Sullivan illustrates my point…there was a time in the U.S. when classical music was treated as stylish and sophisticated, yet something the ordinary person would like if he gave it a chance.

    I think this mindset was the result of exposure to the arts on TV (Sullivan, Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts) and on the radio (NBC Symphony), and also as the result of a higher number of people here being European immigrants (classical being more popular then in Europe), or having living parents or grandparents who were European immigrants. Those folks of that era seemed to be raised to consider classical music to be an example of refinement, of good taste, and of class.

    This is not to say that Americans of several generations didn’t or couldn’t like classical music…or that immigrants from other parts of the world didn’t or couldn’t. I’m just saying that the respect that Europeans of other generations had for classical helped them wish that their kids would listen to it.

    Remember when families had records, and how most of them belonged to the parents? Even parents who didn’t like classical best had a few classical records in their collection.

    Hi, Missy. There are other studies. One in 1937, done as part of a wider study of American orchestras, and a very large one in the ’60s, by a major foundation, covering all the performing arts. Plus many studies in the ’70s, and data supplied by the NEA on the age of the audience from 1982 to the present. All these studies show the same thing — an audience that used to be in its 30s, and at some point around 1960 (at a guess) started growing older.