Magical thinking

I’ve talked before here on the lack of solid information — statistical data — on the current state of classical music. This hits in two ways. First, about some things (ticket sales to orchestra and chamber music concerts) there either isn’t any data at all, or else the data hasn’t been made public. And second, the data that does exist (for instance the NEA’s periodic surveys of the classical music audience, or my own work on the age of the audience in the past) doesn’t seem to circulate enough.

As an example, look at an eager essay by Karin Brookes in the July-August 2005 issue of Symphony magazine (the publication of the League of American Orchestras), titled “Rally The Troops: Music Education Advocates Mobilize To Ensure That No Arts Are Left Behind.” This is a better than average version of the standard argument for music education, or rather for the need of classical music organizations to support music education: Without it, we won’t have a future audience.

Many people firmly believe this. But as she makes her case, Brookes flies off into what I’ll call magical thinking, the wholesale invention — though done honestly, with good intentions — of reality. Here’s the place where she does this:

Audience motivation research conducted by the American Symphony Orchestra League [the former name, of course, of the League of American Orchestras] in 2001 found that the average concertgoer had significant experience with music before age fourteen, and that 75 percent of the current audience had an opportunity to study an instrument — even if it was just a few months on the trombone in sixth grade. Unlike reading, playing soccer, or eating fine food, an interest in classical music seems to go into a long period of latency in early adulthood, before emerging once again after years of breadwinning and child-rearing. But this generally happens only if the spark was kindled during the school-age years.

And the payoffs aren’t immediate, either; the National Endowment for the Arts 2002 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts found that the average age of classical concertgoers has held steady in the mid-50s for many years. The logical hypothesis that more music teachers in the schools will produce more people in the concert hall, unfortunately, would require decades of research to prove. Without decades to wait, orchestras have little choice but to advocate. orchestras have little choice but to advocate.

In passing, let’s note that this is fascinating logic. We can’t prove that music teachers in the school will generate our audience, but let’s use our precious resources of time, energy, and very likely money in a fight to get those teachers teaching. Suppose we’re wrong?

But let that go. What’s more fascinating — and really rather sad — is that, first, Brookes misstates the NEA’s data. I can’t imagine how she came to do this. Clearly she’d never seen the NEA document she mentions. Because what it says is very different, that the classical music audience (or, more strictly, people who reported in the 2000 census that they’d been to at least one classical performance) had a median age of 49, which was up from 45 in 1992 (and, as other NEA reports show, up from 40 in 1982).

(The 2002 NEA data is in a research note about findings in the 2002 Survey of Public Participation, and not in the main survey report.)

So this is like a game of telephone (or, in Britain, chinese whispers). The NEA puts out not just one report, but a whole series, and what they say apparently gets distorted in transmission. People — and there are many of them — who believe that the classical music audience was always the same age it is now also, apparently, might believe that the NEA has data that supports their belief.

But what fascinates me most of all, in Brookes’s piece, is this:

Unlike reading, playing soccer, or eating fine food, an interest in

classical music seems to go into a long period of latency in early

adulthood, before emerging once again after years of breadwinning and

child-rearing.

As far as I know, that’s 100% mythical. There’s no evidence for it. Yes, people might go to classical concerts more often as they get older, when they have more money and (because their kids are out of the house) more leisure. But the “latency period” never existed. Instead, as I’ve established here again and again (most recently in my post about the newest NEA data), the classical music audience used to be much younger. (See also my special page on evidence for this.) So the people in the age groups that now dominate the audience (middle-aged and over) started going when they were young, and kept on going as they aged.

There’s no evidence that they dropped out at any point. And one snapshot from the past makes the “latency” theory seem really silly. In 1966, the Twentieth Century Fund did a major study of the performing arts audience, and found it had a median age of 38, amazingly young compared to what we see now. That was true across all disciplines, including classical music. The authors of a book of the economics of the performing arts (also published by the Twentieth Century Fund) comment on this study, saying that the dominant fact of the audience is that it’s young — and then wondering why people stop going to performing arts events as they get older! Latency period? In 1966, at least, it clearly didn’t exist.

So why would someone smart and eager, like Karin Brookes, either make something like this up, or pass it on after finding the idea elsewhere? I can sympathize, actually. She doesn’t know that the classical music audience used to be young. As I’ve said, many people believe that.

So now, putting together everything she thinks is true, Brookes is faced with what seems like a contradiction. People who go to classical concerts were exposed to classical music when they were young. But they don’t go to concerts much until they’re older. How can we explain this? Maybe there’s a period of latency, a time (in youth and early middle age), when our interest in classical music lies dormant!

Sounds reasonable, doesn’t it? Until, that is, you learn what the truth really is.

(I’ve made this post to demonstrate the harm that comes — in debates about the future of classical music — from not having accurate data.)

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Comments

  1. says

    Also, the claim that “75 percent of the current audience had an opportunity to study an instrument” means absolutely nothing unless you have the same data on a population of non-audience members of the same socioeconomic status and with access to the same concerts the “audience” is going to.

    Excellent point, Galen. You and I are thinking alike, since I’ve brought up something very similar about a recent Chorus America study.

  2. says

    The better argument for music education in schools is that music changes the brain and facilitates learning and creativity, bringing people who could be otherwise allowed to slip through the cracks, to stay in school and become solid members of society, rather than becoming prison fodder.

    Witness the success of the program in VEnezuela, Brazil, and now beginning in the uSA: El Sistema.

    Or look at the success with changing the course of auditory processing difficulties obtained by Tomatis-style training with filtered music.

  3. Yvonne says

    The statement “an interest in classical music seems to go into a long period of latency in early adulthood” really does seem ridiculous when taken literally.

    But, as Christiana commented on your post before last, there are people for whom the interest has been continuously present since youth but who know the opportunities (time and money) to attend concerts won’t really present themselves until after the bread-winning and child-rearing. And Christiana is 35.

    My guess is that this is what the Symphony writer was driving at with her not very well-expressed claim.

    Yes, I’m sure she had that in mind. But the extent of this has never been studied, as far as I know. And the problem certainly didn’t exist in past generations, when the audience was so much younger.

  4. says

    I am in agreeance with the previous comment from Yvonne. I believe Ms. Brookes is drawing the wrong conclusions based on the evidence. Indeed, wishful thinking.

    No one denies that music education is important, but to the extent it affects patronage of the arts later in life, the connections are not as clear as Ms. Brookes believes. The more realistic answer is the one posed above by Yvonne whereby it is a matter of “life’s circumstances” that contribute to an older average age of concertgoer.

  5. Eric Lin says

    Yvonne and Zack,

    I still think using “life’s circumstances” as an explanation is unsatisfying. Remember, Christiana’s situation, while not necessarily atypical, is only an anecdotal account, thus not particularly explanatory, especially in the face of other contradicting anecdotal evidence.

    The average age at say, a Sigur Ros or Dirty Projectors’ concert is much younger. So youngish parents now have time to go to those concerts but not the Juilliard String Quartet? Ticket prices are also not a satisfying explanation; a Radiohead concert will easily sell in the several hundreds of dollars–easily surpassingly even Met opera ticket prices (with the exception of top level seats at really desirable events like Galas, Ring Cycles, or shows where Domingo is singing the title role).

    So the kids prevent all parents from going to classical concerts until they’re old enough, but not to other cultural events? I call BS. There’s got to be a better explanation.

    Note: Christiana, if you’re reading this, I’m not saying that you’re making things up. I’m certain that you are 1000% genuine with your concerns, but I just find that using your personal anecdote to generalize about a larger, systemic issue is problematic at best.

  6. says

    Good points, Eric. I think I see the situation a little differently now. Younger parents are willing to spend money on performing arts, just not OUR KIND of performing arts, but pop culture performing arts instead. How do we make classical music and opera pop culture again?

  7. Yvonne says

    …So youngish parents now have time to go to [Sigur Ros or Dirty Projectors’ concerts but not the Juilliard String Quartet? Ticket prices are also not a satisfying explanation; a Radiohead concert will easily sell in the several hundreds of dollars–easily surpassingly even Met opera ticket prices…

    So the kids prevent all parents from going to classical concerts until they’re old enough, but not to other cultural events? I call BS. There’s got to be a better explanation.

    I think, Eric, that what you haven’t taken into account is this: for many people who have an interest in classical music (let’s say it was developed in youth, but it might have been acquired later) the live concert is one of the primary means of experiencing the art form. Yes, we enjoy recordings and broadcasts, but the concert is the thing. For someone like this, if you consider yourself a concert-goer you want to go to many concerts, or at least you want to go to concerts pretty regularly.

    Compare that with someone who is a big fan of Radiohead. That person’s appetite is met first and foremost by recordings and radio/tv. And let’s say that person lives in Cleveland. So they had a chance to hear Radiohead in August 2008. That’s it. In the grander scheme of things, the money and time they spend pursuing that particular musical interest via live performance is minimal, compared to the classical music lover whose interest brings a desire to attend concerts regularly.

    I think of one of my sisters (a working parent of two), who isn’t particularly into classical music at all. But she’d probably attend one big “expensive” pop or rock event every year or two, depending on who was touring to her city. It would be big deal in the calendar. (Whoever said younger generations won’t plan ahead? Think again.) She can make time and budget for that because it’s one thing in the year. But ask her to attend 10 or more such concerts a year as a classical music subscriber might and that would be too much of an ask (even if the tickets were relatively cheaper as classical concerts tend to be).

    Sure classical music is music and so is Radiohead et al. But, at least at the moment, the whole means of following and enjoying and getting to know classical music is vastly different to the way you’d follow, enjoy and get to know most pop music.

    This, of course, is an important element underlying much of what Greg writes about. We’re looking at a genre that operates in very different ways at all levels, sometimes logically and to our benefit, sometimes to our disadvantage. Yes, it’s all “music”, but the cultures are totally different.

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