Age of the audience

age blogConventional wisdom: the classical music audience has always been the age it is now. Here’s evidence that it used to be much younger.

How young the audience was in 1937:

Results of an audience study, showing a median age around 30 (from Margaret Grant and Herman S. Hettinger, America’s Symphony Orchestras and How They Are Supported. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1940)

How young the audience was in 1955:

Excerpts from an audience study by the Minneapolis Symphony (now the Minnesota Orchestra), showing that half their audience was younger than 35 (from “In-Concert Survey of the Audience Attending the November 11th Symphony Concert at Northrup Auditorium, University of Minnesota”; survey conducted for the Orchestral Association of Minneapolis by Mid-Continent Surveys, December 12,1955

Age of the audience once more” (post from this blog, 12/18/07): A fuller description of the 1955 Minnesota study, with some comments on it.

Age of the audience in the 1960s:

Results of a major foundation study: the median age was 38, for all the performing arts, and the authors ask why older people stop going to performing arts events (!) (from William J. Baumol and William G. Bowen, Performing Arts: The Economic Dilemma. New York:

NEA studies, showing the audience getting older since the 1980s:

Richard A. Peterson, Pamela C. Hull, and Roger M. Kern, “Age and Arts Participation, 1982-1997

Age and Arts Participation With a Focus on the Baby Boomers” (executive summary; shows a dramatic drop between 1982 and 1997 in the proportion of younger people at classical concerts)

The Arts and Civic Engagement” (shows a steady decline in classical music attendance by younger people between 1982 and 2002)

A blog post about audience age: 

Important data” (11/24/06) Features a graph that vividly shows the aging of the classical audience between 1992 and 2002, taken from NEA data. You’ll see that the largest age group in 1992 was between 35 and 44, and that the largest age group in 2002 was between 45 and 54 — the same people, in other words, continuing to dominate the audience as they age, and not being replaced.

 Anecdotal evidence (in progress):

A famous passage from E.M Forster’s 1904 novel Howard’s End, describing a family and friends (all but one are in their teens or 20s) at a performance of Beethoven’s Fifth. They all know the music. One of the teens follows a score. Forster never says their comfort at the concert is remarkable, so it must have been the norm back then.


College students at the Boston Pops, in the 1930s and earlier. They snakedanced through the streets to get to concerts. And demanded the Academic Festival Overture.  (From Grant and Hettinger, cited above.)


On her blog, Hilary Hahn talked about a film from the ’50s, in which college students run to an impromptu Heifetz performance.  (This was staged for the film, I’m sure, but wouldn’t have been staged if it hadn’t been plausible at the time the film was made. (Hilary’s blog post unfortunately isn’t on her website anymore.)


Opera singers once had teenage fans. Most famous were the “Gerryflappers” at the Metropolitan Opera, screaming teenage and 20-something fans of diva Geraldine Farrar. They’re brought to life in an unforgettable 1922 New York Times story, about Farrar’s farewell performance and the wild scene afterward:

The flapper claque, as ardent a group of worshippers as ever paid tribute to their idol, wept and shouted at their Gerry, strung banners across the orchestra pit over the heads of the audience and flapped generally and unrestrainedly. After the last curtain they flocked to the street, and with them this time were many older men and women, Farrar fans. Fortieth Street was filled between Broadway and Eighth Avenue, and traffic policemen gave up all attempt to keep a lane through lt. Ecstatic debutantes and “sub-debs” [girls 18 and under] perched on fire escapes with bouquets and strings of ribbon, ready to shower their idol when she appeared. [“Hail Farrar Queen As She Sings Adieu.” New York Times, April 23, 1922]

Though that’s just the start:

The notorious “Gerry-flappers” who waited every night at the stage door of the Met for Geraldine Farrar in the teens and twenties, casting flowers and love notes in her direction when she emerged, exemplify this more humble yet fanatical kind of fan devotion; so too those impassioned student girls who signed on as supers for a performance of [Meyerbeer’s] Dinorah with the Italian soprano Galli-Curci in 1918, so that they might steal glimpses of their heroine at close range from behind the scenery. [Terry Castle, The Apparitional Lesbian: Female Homosexuality and Modern Culture. New York: Columbia University Press, 1995, p. 206]

According to a 1940 story in Time magazine, Lily Pons, the 1940s coloratura star at the Met had organized groups of young female fans, modeled on the Gerryflappers. [“Triller in Uniform,” Time, December 30, 1940]

Movie moments:

Tippi Hedren in Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963).

She looks like she’s in her 20s, and when she visits an ordinary middle class family, she sits down at their piano to play the Debussy First Arabesque. Nobody says, “Wow, you play classical music.” It’s all portrayed as perfectly normal.

Vincent Price in Laura (1944).

He’s a playboy evidently in his early 30s (precisely his age at the time). A murder is commited. Price’s alibi is that is that he was at a concert. “What was the program?” asks the tough detective. “Brahms’s First and Beethoven’s Ninth,” says Price. (Did they really play programs like that then?) This trips him up, because, the detective says, there was a last-minute change, and the orchestra played Sibelius instead. Price gets off by saying he was so tired that he fell asleep, and didn’t notice what was being played. Which makes no sense, but for me the main thing is that nobody thinks it’s unusual for so young a man to go to a classical concert. It comes off simply as something an upper class idler in New York was likely to do.

Kirk Douglas, in a 1949 comedy, A Letter to Three Wives. 

He gives a party for his wife’s business associates, and — to demonstrate his new sound system — plays a new-fangled long playing record of the Brahms Second Piano Concerto. All of it. His guests sit and listen, as if this was the most normal thing in the world. Douglas was 33 when he made this film, and if anything looks younger. Classical music certainly doesn’t come off as an older person’s taste!

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  1. says

    The aging of audiences for classical music can be traced here in America to the way it was presented via Radio, Television and Recordings. We have to go back to the year 1937 when the NBC Symphony was formed for Arturo Toacanini. David Sarnoff the head of NBC was a very shrewd business man who contracted the world famous conductor to direct a most unusual symphony orchestra. One which was not a non-profit organization run by a board of directors, rather it was a corporate entity sponsored by NBC. Concerts were free and open to the public in their specially built state of the art studio, namely Studio 8H in the RCA Building in NYC. The NBC symphony was funded by sponsors who paid for the air time during which the symphony was broadcasting. As an added bonus, when people heard the broadcasts they could then purchase recordings of the NBC Symphony which were released on RCA Victor records which was owned by NBC. The National Broadcasting Company purchased the Victor Talking Machine Co. in the late 1920’s and renamed it RCA Victor. The combination of broadcasts over a very large radio network and eventually television network, plus the sale of records made the NBC Symphony quite profitable for Sarnoff’s enterprise.

    When Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic presented the “Young People’s Concerts” they were attractive not only to young people, but also their parents. They were presented as live televised concerts presented first at Carnegie Hall and then later at Philharmoinc Hall in Lincoln Center. The audience attending the performances comprised only a tiny part of the actual audience because these concerts were televised throughout the CBS television network. Lenny was a hot property for CBS and was able to capitalize on his exposure as CBS was recording him with the New York Philharmonic on Columbia Records which was then owned by CBS. A very neat profitable venture.

    By 1954 we had entered the age of Television and the NBC Symphony was a product of the radio era. There were 10 concerts presented on NBC Television starting in 1948 and went to about 1952. It appears that the sight of 100 men playing in a symphony did not make for very exciting television in an era when audiences were being fed soap operas, variety shows, quiz shows, cowboy westerns, etc. Finding sponsors for the NBC Symphony in the 1950’s was difficult and in addition to Toscanini’s ill health, Sarnoff decided to disband the NBC Symphony. NBC’s commitment to classical music ended at this point. The orchestra tried to exist as an independent ensemble named “The Symphony of The Air” it was not successful.

    When Bernstein resigned as conductor of the New York Philharmonic, the era of the Young People’s Concerts ended. An attempt was made to have them continue under Michael Tilson Thomas, but that proved to be unsuccessful. This ended CBS’s commitment to classical music. Columbia Records kept the Bernstein recordings in their catalog because the continued to be good sellers.

    At the time when both Toscanini and Bernstein were engaged by the major broadcasting entities, those entities were eager to have them aboard as they were profitable. Some years ago in an interview with Kurt Masur, he stated that in the 30’s 40’s and 50’s major broadcasting networks gladly paid big bucks to underwrite these programs. Today a producer would have to pay the networks the big bucks to present this type of programming.

    Today we would not see a situation as with Toscanini and NBC, because NBC no longer owns RCA Victor and we would not see the situation as with Bernstein and CBS as CBS no longer owns Columbia Records. The Broadcast to Recordings era has past.

    When these concerts disappeared from peoples radio and TV sets, we started to loose the first generation of future classical music audiences. The majority of the audiences for this type of concert are those who grew up with those great performances.

    We need to get classical music back on the major networks not just on PBS if we are going to have future generations going to concert halls.

    Ira Kraemer

  2. Paul says

    As comprehensive as you were above, Ira, you passed over a few “whys”…everything happens for a reason, after all.

    Television wasn’t kind to the NBC Symphony because it is a visual, and at that time, small-screen medium. It lives on intimacy and closeup. Soaps, quizzes, Westerns and the like all worked with small groups of performers – in addition to carrying over program formats from radio days, some of which drew bigger ratings than classical all along.

    Why is it the Symphony of the Air didn’t do well without Toscanini, or the Young People’s Concerts without Bernstein? The answer: strong personalities. The public comes to expect and want them, and “without them it’s just not the same.” Even a lot of well-versed classical listeners feel this way. Now, we shouldn’t cave in to the cult of fame, but we shouldn’t pretend it’s not a factor either.

    I don’t have any ready answers to what might be done (or might have been done in earlier eras), but a bit of analytical thinking here and there wouldn’t go amiss.

    It’s a rare perspective in a field of specialists and super-specialists, though. As a part-time musician, sometimes I really feel for the music community. It’s really not taught or trained to see itself in context, either in the arts or in society. Too much of that analysis and you lose focus as an artist; too little and you are helpless to understand the world you live in.

    Very well said, Paul. I think you’ve got the balance just right.

    • Legin Buddha says

      Any perusal of the comments made on classical music blogs will run into no end of discussions on how to bring life back into the genres, whether of symphony or of opera. The more of these threads one reads, the more one finds that the range of solutions are disparate with each addressing a relatively small part of the whole [problem].
      These attempts to gain new followers are often undermined by some unavoidable realities. There are the many competing options of the digital-cyber age, cultural globalization, a Eurocentric genre that is old and aging, music which by definition never varies, and music in which self-expression and creativity are seen as impudence. With these contexts, classical is destined to have a difficult time of it.
      On top of this, is the culture of hubris which does not escape the detection of potential new fans. This not so subtle conceit goes a long way in effectively deterring the hoped for attraction. The classical culture has to learn the difference between ‘better’ and ‘different’.

  3. Christina Rusnak says

    Well, in 1904 (the reference to Howard’s End), the average lifespan was still under 50; 25 was middle aged! Also, musical literacy was part of society’s expectation of education.

    I’m not convinced recordings are to blame. In the 1940’s and 1950’s (according to my elders) young people anticipated classical record releases the way we anticipate U2’s new release on iTunes today.

    How can we as composers and musicians create excitement for the breadth of creation we call classical music?

    I have no answers except that we carry forward what we deem important, and that participation begets appreciation, not the other way around. Bernstein engaged his young audiences; he created an exciting experience. Just putting high school students in a MA class and expecting them to suddenly to love classical music isn’t going to happen.

    It takes small steps over and over and over. I began dragging my son to classical music concerts at 4, and to Shakespeare when he was 5. Too young? No way. Of course he didn’t understand, but the ear is a very sensitive instrument. I recently got a composition commission because my son attended a chamber concert in the small rural town where he works. How cool is that!! He’s paying it forward–he dragged half the town’s 20-somethings with him (all five of them).

    These are complicated issues, and life in the past wasn’t the same as it is now, but it’s really not accurate to say that 25 was middleaged in 1904. Life expectancy might have been under 50, but those figures are skewed by deaths early in life. Once you got into young adulthood, you found people of all ages surrounding you, as Forster’s novel shows. As does anything you’ll read from the past — Jane Austen, Dickens, Shakespeare. People 25 years old acted young, just as 25 year-olds do now. So their interest in classical music was young people’s interest.

    (Technical aside: life expectancy figures will tell you something about the average lifespan, but this is one of the many cases in which averages are misleading. A median lifespan would be much more helpful to know.)

    Don’t be mislead by life expectancy stats. A life expectancy of under 50 doesn’t mean that the average

  4. Nicky Garfield says

    Greg, can you explain why the BBC Proms seems to buck the trend, year after year when it comes to younger audiences? I don’t see evidence of it in other London venues and I wonder where all these young people are the rest of the year. Does the continued success of the Proms tell us anything useful?


    Hi, Nicky. Nice to see you here.

    I’m sure the success of the proms, with a young audience, tells us something useful. I’d tend to credit Roger Wright, the genius at the BBC who currently runs them. And I know that this year he hired my friend Peter Gregson, a young cellist, to create things on the Proms website that younger people (Peter’s own age) would respond to. Apparently with gigantic success. So that’s one quick lesson. Bring in people of the age you want to reach, and listen to them when they tell you what to do.

    But I’m sure there’s more, and I wish I knew the story.

  5. jessica clerk says

    Most interesting posts. Haven’t read the entire background in Greg’s notes, but as an opera fan, the graying of the audience is something I’m deeply concerned with. Don’t know if this has been covered, so be patient if it has.

    Lack of storytelling in music for a visual generation brought up on text and stories in film. I know smart kids with M.A.’s who cannot follow the plot of a complex film (The Good Sheperd, egs.)let alone sit still for a concert or a play. Many college kids just don’t read or listen to classical music. We need bridge pieces and thematic evenings;I’ve read of young people going to concerts of anime music….

    Classical music is a museum and it is time to blow the dust off the mummy cases. I enjoyed my first baseball game after learning that the Big Unit (Randy Johnson) was an opera fan. (I’d love to know what operas he listened to! Attila? Macbeth? Bluebeard’s Castle? Perhaps Randy could do some spots. For Bang on a Can. At Halloween….)

    Do we really expect a generation raised on complex interactive video games and The Lord of the Rings to sit still for Hansel and Gretel? What new pieces have been specifically written to draw a young audience in? New operas and new thematic compositions and eclectic evenings are needed to serve as bridge experiences.

    For reasons I can’t understand, operatic ideas are flourishing everywhere except in the opera house and the concert hall. In case no one has noticed, there seems to be a youthful rebellion and powerful fascination with the neo-Gothic and fantastic. If there is a Blakean romantic and Gothic sensibility then let’s appeal to it by programs of parts of Symphonie Fantastique, bits of Nyman, David Lang, The Incredible String Band…. Portman, the Decembrists, Bach. The battle on the ice from Nevsky…. for better or worse, this generation has received whatever snippets of musical knowledge it has from film. Let’s admit that point and start to use it to connect. It is late and I apologize for not rewriting this more coherently. Most likely the same points have been made before. My seven dollars and twenty cents…. Keep fighting the good fight, Greg.

    Thanks, Jessica. This has been an ongoing discussion, here and elsewhere — the listening/video habits of younger people — but no reason you shouldn’t add your own thoughts. Which really do add something!

    I’m more sanguine about the visual generation paying attention simply to music. I’ve seen, as I keep saying here, thousands of them at a few new music events in New York. Listening, and not squirming.

    But this should be the subject of serious research, which nobody (as far as I know) has done.

    On this point I strongly agree: “Do we really expect a generation raised on complex interactive video games and The Lord of the Rings to sit still for Hansel and Gretel?” No way! There are some things in the classical repertoire that, in the future, may just fade away.

  6. BobG. says

    I have been a music lover all my life. But now even to me it seems strange that one must decide in advance to go a concert, choose a program to hear, buy a ticket in advance, and then arrange to spend an evening sitting quietly for two hours in a concert hall with nothing to do but listen (that is, without something to watch, and without something to play with, like a computer mouse; and without something to eat!). People just don’t sit still, quietly listening any more.

    Also, in the past there was a kind of social snobbery associated with classical music–going to a concert was a way of asserting your social standing or aspiration. Greg mentions movies in which a character is on familiar terms with music, but what about the standard trope of the bored businessman forced to go to the opera by his pushy wife? That was fairly common in movies too. High art, when it turned up in popular culture, was usually there for the kicking.

  7. Sonya says


    I’m not sure if anyone is still reading this post but I thought I’d add in my two cents.

    Paul has a really important point:

    “As a part-time musician, sometimes I really feel for the music community. It’s really not taught or trained to see itself in context, either in the arts or in society. Too much of that analysis and you lose focus as an artist; too little and you are helpless to understand the world you live in.”

    There is too much blame by the classical community on the demise of society, programming and everything else but themselves. It’s not that young people don’t know how to sit still anymore, and it has little to do with how much coverage NBC gave classical music sometime ago, but a great deal to do with the training of classical musicians.

    We train in a cloistered environment. We are taught that classical music is superior and that outside influences be damned. How are we expect to understand how classical music fits in to our complex society and culture if we don’t study “in context.” Our study, for the most part, is geared towards the expectation that audiences are still in the 19th century.

    I teach at a prominent university where students are encouraged to take classes from different areas in order to enlarge their field of vision and to have a better grasp of how to problem solve and work with others once they are out of school. The classical musicians are the only students who do not take advantage of this…the excuse is that they are busy practicing. Now, how many of you, once out of school, learnt how to reduce practice time and be more productive? Why wasn’t this encouraged in school?

    In terms of the post WWII decrease in audiences, there was a great deal going on, culturally, that classical musicians seem to be resistant to acknowledge. There was a new youth culture that had never existed before, who wanted to assert themselves for the first time. There were several different types of music genres available that had never been available before. There was a cultural move towards safety, science, forgetting and fun. And there was a dogma in universities and concert halls to follow the strands of the European avant-garde – Webern serialism – which alienated traditional and new audiences alike.

    I do feel, however, that some of the younger generations have cottoned on to this and are now reaching for a different future (thanks Greg!). But we need to stop our stubbornness that society has somehow failed us.

    Incidentally, as a member of the greater “British Empire” I can attest that the English have a much better idea of classical music in context then Americans. The Proms have been on top of things for years.

  8. Panskeptic says

    They stripped Music Appreciation out of the public schools. When budgets got squeezed and taxpayers yelped at paying anything at all, classical music was the first thing to go.

    In some places bands for football games survived, and in some schools rock music was taught merely to reinforce what the kids already knew from outside, but there was no will to teach unfamiliar, old, European music.

    And without early exposure, there can’t be lifelong love.