Classical music is easy

Many of us think classical music is difficult, inherently difficult. That complexities of form and musical process aren’t readily heard, without education in classical music, and that this is why people — so many of them —  don’t care to go to classical performances.

But a survey conducted in March by 60 Minutes and Vanity Fair suggests otherwise. You can read the results in the June issue of the magazine, the one with Marilyn Monroe on the cover. (Look for page 56.) More than 900 people all over the US were asked which type of music they found hardest to enjoy, heavy metal, hiphop, country, jazz, or classical. Metal, overall, was judged the most difficult.

And which was easiest? Classical music, ranked difficult by only a tiny percentage — under 10 percent — of people surveyed. The results, for all kinds of music, varied by age. Three percent of people 18 t0 29 found classical music difficult, as opposed to 8% of people 45 to 64. (A surprise. Most of us, i’d think, would have expected the tilt to go the opposite way, though the difference is so small it may even fall within the survey’s margin of error.)

I’ve put the full results below. Metal, you’ll note, was found hard to listen to by 40% of those 18 to 29, and 64% of those 65 and above. Which means people think it’s hugely harder to like than classical.

What does this mean? Well, first, as I’ve said, it pretty much blows up the idea that people don’t listen to classical music because it’s too complex. In fact, they find it agreeable.

But maybe it’s too agreeable? Too easy, too anodyne. That, I think, is something we’d better think about. If something is hard to dislike, then maybe it also is hard to like very much.

Of course I’m not saying that there aren’t people who love classical music. Obviously, there are. If there weren’t, this blog wouldn’t exist.

But out in the wild, outside the classical music womb, I’m guessing that people don’t care very much. Classical music is nice, sounds sweet and mellifluous. Sounds calm, as for years I’ve heard people say.

But these are weak positives. Not much to get people excited. Contrast metal. It’s violent, loud, over the top. Some people hate that. But those who love it, love it a lot. It’s music that almost demands you take a stand. Which means if you like it, you may well rush out to hear it. Or to buy recordings. You join its culture.

Classical music? Nice, but who cares?

But wait! Isn’t classical music profound? Some of it is. But if that was the face that classical music offered the world — if you couldn’t go near classical music without being hit, and hit hard, by its profundity — then wouldn’t its negatives rise? The profundity, from which there would be no escape, would just be too much for some people. Surely for more than the 10% who don’t like classical music now.

So if I’m right about this, here’s something to think about.

When we in classical music — in our PR and marketing — talk about how beautiful our music is, or how it’s immortal, or how popular our leading masterworks are, or how acclaimed our performers have been…when, in other words, anodyne stuff like this is all we can think of to say, then we’re digging our own graves. We’re just about guaranteeing that the new people we’d like to attract won’t find us worth caring about.

Whereas if we said (for instance) that our music might challenge them — and if we really meant it, if everything we told them and showed them conveyed the idea of challenge — then, sure, some people would be turned off. But others would be aroused. “What challenge is this? I’m going to check that out.”

Here are the survey results:

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


  1. says

    It seems like you may be reading too much into these numbers. Since this was conducted by a TV show and magazine, I imagine they just had little surveys stuck into the magazines meaning this only represents the opinions of Vanity Fair readers who like to fill out surveys. Kinda hard to come to any conclusions based on that. It also just lists “classical”. I’d wager that your average person thinks only of Beethoven and Mozart when they think of “classical” which is worlds away from the myriad of styles and time periods the genre really covers. How many Vanity Fair readers do you think have ever heard a classical piece composed in the last 50 years? Personally, unless the survey was shown to be done in an intelligent way, I’d chalk this up to being as reliable a compass as an internet forum survey.

    • says

      Sigh. In retrospect, 20-20 hindsight, aided by your comment, I realize now that I should have given more details about the survey. It’s certainly not a survey of Vanity Fair readers, especially since it was jointly conducted with Sixty Minutes. It was a reputable national survey. I don’t know which survey firm conducted it, but it involved more than 900 people, chosen at random nationally. I don’t know what the margin of error was.

      The survey also dealt with many things other than musical taste.

      But what I find most interesting is people forming conclusions about (1) the survey, and (2) what people mean by classical music. (See also the other comment that, as of Wednesday morning, has come in.) And then saying that “real” classical music of course is more varied, which is certainly true. Just as metal, for instance, is far more varied, musically deep, and in general more artistically interesting than the 40+ percent of people who don’t like it think.

      The survey gives at least a small idea of what people _think_ classical music is. And even if the people surveyed might not have contact with classical music in its higher (so to speak) manifestations, their perceptions are generally similar to what’s reported in surveys of the orchestra audience. Orchestra-goers, the large majority of them, love orchestral concerts because the music inspires them. i don’t have any of these results in front of me as I’m writing this, but the comments are not entirely unlike what people who like New Age music say. You don’t have concertgoers saying that they like profundity or challenge. In fact, in one revealing comment in a survey of orchestra subscribers, around 40% of those who also went to the theater regularly said that they didn’t like plays with unpleasant subjects.

      So the classical music world — in its main public presence, not as I or commenters here may think of it — is pretty much constructed around an unchallenging experience. Which is exactly what programs tend to reflect, and what the marketing and publicity materials put out by classical music institutions speak to. I’m not going to blame anyone for this, but it’s pretty clearly true, whether Andrea Bocelli exists or not. And it seems equally obvious that the smooth, unchallenging face of classical music — as people encounter it in the world (for instance on classical radio) — is going to turn off people who are energized by the more lively, more layered, more complex, and certainly harder-sounding sounds encountered in our culture outside classical music.

  2. says

    This is the “classical music as smooth jazz” effect, fueled by CDs like “Bach for Breakfast”, not to mention Andrea Bocelli, et al. I currently find myself in an office environment where multiple people gently stream classical music radio throughout the work day in their cubicles. In high school and college, friends regularly asked me to make them classical music “study mixes” (i.e. Eine kleine Nachtmusik), and I had fun blasting them with some Bartok and Shostakovich instead.

    I think this idea that a significantly larger number of people “listen” to classical music than attend concerts is reflected in the NEA’s last public participation survey. You say: “If something is hard to dislike, then maybe it also is hard to like very much.” I think for people only encountering the most sterile classical music on the radio and relaxation CDs, that could very well be true.

    • says

      See my reply to the next comment. Of course this is how people think of classical music, but the easy-listening classical CDs you mention don’t create that impression. They follow from it. If you — a marketer for a record company — know that even orchestra audiences treat classical music at least to some extent as a kind of easy listening, that they don’t like musical challenges, then of course you’re going to release recordings that sound as comforting as possible. You figure that people new to classical music will want that even more than the existing audience does.

      Notice how this doesn’t happen with metal. Nobody releases anthologies of metal for beginners, metal that isn’t loud or violent. That’s because the genre doesn’t need converts. And because people coming to it for the first time are just as likely to be attracted by really out-there music — violently dark and edgy — than by mainstream classics like Judas Priest, where a surge toward easily understood power is one of the main things going on.

      The hope for changing this lies in a younger audience that’s completely used to edgy sounds and edgy artistic concepts in general, from the pop music they hear. They’re going to want classical music that’s varied, touch, layered, complex. Because it’s what they’re used to elsewhere. When the classical world starts programming with these people in mind, we’ll see change. And then classical music’s negatives, in polls like the one I described, will go up. Which will be a good thing.

      • Sarah says

        Yep – “easy to enjoy” can mean so many things. I find classical music “easy to enjoy”. I also find it extremely complex as I learn about it and really listen to it. I’m hoping that this younger audience materializes.

        It’s when Jackie Evancho and Katherine Jenkins are labeled “classical” that I want to barf.

      • says

        Wonderful blog. Your responses are wonderful too. I really think that companies who market for ‘classical’ music could do well to take advantage of this ‘niche’ style type of consumer. If the darker and edgier classical music were better marketed with the same financial advantages of more mainstream music, we would see more new coverts. People who don’t know that this music exists.

        • says

          Thanks, Daniel. As I’m going to say in a future post, our culture has gotten more complex, more ambiguous, darker, more layered than the culture represented by most of the classical masterworks. So that people steeped in film noir — as all of us are, to some extent, since “noir” is a word in common use to describe things that are dark and ambiguous — may find the culture of the classical concert hall a little simplistic. And certainly not contemporary. So it may be (and, I’ve seen, really is) easy to get a contemporary audience from outside classical music to accept darker and edgier classical pieces. The darkness and edge seem natural.

  3. Rach says

    Where do people check for classic rock, Andy Williams, swing, etc.? By process of elimination: classical.

    Just last week a new friend said her mother didn’t like Top 40 like mine, she liked classical (with a bit of attitude). Interested, I asked for an example. “Moon River” was her response. Another friend, verrrry privileged, said this week, in the context of classical music, that she’d gone to hear George Winston play … that she loved him.

    I haven’t read this blog yet. I am fairly certain conclusions are drawn on numbers I suspect reflect this type of categorizing.

  4. says

    Wait, wait, wait. People were given five niche genres and asked which they thought was hardest to enjoy, classical music is considered to be not hard, and you think this is A) a problem and B) classical music promoters should try to promote that genre as if it’s the one people *most* difficult to enjoy? “Like” and “enjoy” are very different concepts: Something I enjoy I’ll leave on or won’t complain about, but something I like I’m actively going to seek out.

    What this study really says is that if style X comes on at a party, I’m X% likely to leave, and no one should think this correlates to dedicated fandom. So, someone is 40% likely to walk out on a heavy metal song, but only 3% likely to if a classical what-have-you is played. That’s actually *good* news. “Least Difficult to Enjoy” isn’t “Most Loved,” but it’s not certainly not a death knell. I’m sure the metal crowd revels in being the most difficult, and insular, but I don’t think that’s a smart idea for classical to pursue. Bunker mentalities are only good for bunker manufacturers.

    • says

      Hi, Marc,

      If I’d said any of that, I’d be happy to debate you. But since I didn’t say it, I’m a little at a loss about how to reply. Other than to say that I had a lot of experience with, and friends in, the metal crowd back in the late ’80s, and I didn’t notice them delighting in any insularity. Instead, when I interviewed Metallica for a mainstream newspaper, they were thrilled, though astonished. It hadn’t happened to them before. And when the Grammys established a metal award, people who loved metal — along with the metal bands themselves — were thrilled.

      • says

        I’m at a loss, myself, at how you can believe you don’t see the survey shows a problem to be fixed, given that you call for classical-music marketers to alter the way they promote their events because of it. I grant there’s always room for improvement in how we do business, but a survey that says people don’t find your genre difficult isn’t a reason to. If they *do* find it difficult, and you *are* trying to appeal to a broad group of people, then it’s a definite call for changing things up.

  5. says

    I am curious to know how “hard” vs. “easy” were defined. Did the readers/survey respondents all share the same understanding of these terms? Were some people perceiving the word “hard” to mean unpleasant, as opposed to complex, and the word “easy” to mean pleasant or enjoyable, as opposed to lacking challenge? If the genres of music were judged in terms of pleasantness, wouldn’t this drastically alter the interpretation of the results? That being said, I love classical music and would hope that others find classical music to be enjoyable and challenging!

    I am a graduate student with a background in symphony performance and music education. I am currently studying arts management at American University and very interested in gauging and understanding the perceived value of and interest in symphony orchestras and classical music in society. I have read several of your blog posts and would love to continue the conversation on these topics. Thank you!

    – Catherine

    • says

      Hi, Catherine,

      I think we should just take the survey at face value. When people are asked about classical music, they generally have a favorable response, saying they find it easy to listen to. Finding out why they say that would take another survey. But the basic information is interesting to have. And, I would have thought (before reading the comments) not very controversial. Hiphop and metal fans wouldn’t be surprised to know that many people (especially in older age groups) don’t like these genres. They’d find that natural.

      Behind this, I have to say, is a reality inside the pop world, which is that people take for granted that genres appeal to various demographics, and that no genre is universal. But we in classical music think, or want to think, that classical music has universal validity, and should be enjoyed by everyone. So we get a little amazed, I think — and even angry, sometimes — when someone treats classical music the way other genres are treated, and reports basic facts about how it’s received in the world. It should hardly be a surprise that a genre hardly anyone dislikes very much might also be considered bland.

      I’m glad you find my blog interesting, and I’d be happy to continue the conversation.

  6. says

    Thanks for a thought-provoking post, Greg. The trick is to make classical music exciting and important enough so that people will want to leave their homes and go to a concert in order to experience something vital. I am putting my hopes on the next generation of young musicians and composers who are experimenting with making this music compelling to their audiences.

    • says

      : ) I am hoping for this too! I am very interested in learning about how my generation really perceives classical music and how arts organizations and artists can innovate and adapt to draw the attention of Millenials, building an audience for the future. Your thoughts and comments are welcome!

  7. Carlos Fischer says

    Personally, I’ve never thought that people don’t listen to CM because it is too complex. I don’t think that this particular poll will help to understand why most of people don’t care about CM . Anyway , a deeper survey to figure it out why people don’t care about CM would be helpful ( Is there any?). Also, i must say that Greg has a point : Heavy metal has the highest rejection level but this doesn’t mean that its audience isn’t engaged and surely heavy metal audience regenerates itself with current heavy metal stuff. People’s perceptions(and reasons) on heavy metal are much the same why some people love it and why some people hate it or dislike it : Loudness, hard guitar playing , “violent” letters, propulsive music etc. And Classical? who dares to reject the notion or meaning of the word Classical? Who dares to reject Bach, Beethoven or Mozart? It doesn’t matter whether the people surveyed only recognizes CM through the opening motif of Beethoven’s 5th; the fact is that despite its highest level of acceptance, most of the people that didn’t reject classical don’t listen to it and don’t care about it. Answers for this i know all commentators here have many. Many of us know that CM has easy and difficult ; profound and light ; calm and violent ; consonant and dissonant music but most of the people are stuck in Für Elise or worse! people goes for Bocelli, Il Divo; André Rieu …it is not people’s blame; Classical has been losing its engaging power despite its exceptional and varied repertory.

  8. says

    Greg, I think you’re way off on this. The question was simple: “Which of the following types of music do you find the HARDEST TO ENJOY?” “Enjoy” is a pretty generic descriptor. It doesn’t have a lot to do with intellect (complicated music) or whether the music is profound or not. Somebody just just enjoys the stuff. To read any further is to try to read the minds of 976 poll respondents. Actually, the ‘poll’ (see below) results seemed pretty predictable. A larger number of people find music that is incredibly loud, repetitive and unrelenting “harder to enjoy”. No big miracles there.

    Your attempts to read into this some larger, deeper statement about challenging audiences seem to have no connection to what I looked at in my copy of Vanity Fair. I just saw a page of rather shallow ‘poll’ questions like “Which city do you like living in best: New York or LA”.

    I have three degrees in music, have conducted professionally and taught music at the college/university level. And after years of reflection, I have come to see that the current decline of interest in classical music (if you can call it that) can be traced back to a number of significent (and in some cases, intersecting) trends in the twentieth century which I won’t go into here, not because too many people aren’t being challenged with music more engaging than Pachelbel’s Kanon.

    The opposite of “Hardest To Enjoy” is “Easiest to enjoy”. You conflated that phrase to “Easy”, but I don’t think — especially in a silly page of eleven polls — the people who dreamed up this question were not anywhere near that. My little four year old’s ears ‘enjoyed’ some pretty profound, complicated music back then in the 1940s, but it was all on a direct level: I ‘enjoyed’ what I was hearing! No more, no less. I think that’s what this poll was asking.

    (Regarding the polls, Vanity Fair described the poll as conducted by the “CBS News interviewing facility” (no caps on the last two words). Apparently this poll, if you can call it that, was NOT conducted by the “CBS News Polling Unit” (Caps shown as on the CBS News Polls Web page), which is a legitimate polling organization, but not the outfit that conducted this thing. I have done some work with polling companies in the past, and these so-called ‘polls’ and the way they word the questions are so unscientific as to be laughable.)

    • says

      Glad you looked at Vanity Fair, and of course I agree that this poll doesn’t get at deep meaning or difficult questions. But I don’t think it has to be scientific in any way to be meaningful.

      I’m realizing that there’s a difference here — between, let’s say, your response to the poll and mine — that goes back to differences in the way people in pop and classical music think. In pop music, it’s taken for granted that musical genres appeal to different kinds of people, to people with different lifestyles and ethnicities. So then nobody’s surprised when people attracted to one kind of music don’t like certain other kinds. And also it’s not surprising or controversial to assume that something that’s widely popular smoothes out the differences between people, losing in the process so much of the diversity — which I see when I walk down the street in any major city — that makes life worth living.

      In classical music, we tend to assume that classical music is or should be universal, that it ought to speak to everyone. So it seems outrageous to treat it by the rules that might apply to other genres. Even though they in fact apply — if salsa, let’s say, is the music of Spanish-speaking people largely from Puerto Rico, who largely live on the East Coast, then classical music just as obviously is the music of a certain group of older, upscale whites.

      When the two cultures come together, the result can be mutual incomprehension. Classical music people are greatly bothered — as the responses to my post show — by someone drawing a conclusion that would seem obvious in the pop world. And people from outside the classical world can react with utter disbelief to some assumptions common in classical music. Try talking to a business executive or management consultant about orchestras, for instance, and see how astonished they are by any assumption that classical music can be treated as if it was, or could be, a universal taste. Or at least that it can be treated that way without courting financial disaster.

      This poll asked a simple question, and got a simple answer. An answer that fits perfectly into a larger context I acquired in my years in the pop music world. Doesn’t matter if the poll is or isn’t scientific. Raise THAT question with the NEA, whose surveys do attempt to probe into deeper matters, from which detailed policy conclusions can be drawn.

      • says

        I guess we part ways when you put people into groups like “pop music people” and “classical music people”. I resist classifying people that way because most of the people in my world have diverse musical tastes. Speaking for myself, I ‘enjoy’ (there’s that word again) Elliott Carter and Esperanza Spalding and Charlie Parker and Harry Partch. And yes, Mozart, Bach, Jelly Roll Morton, Jean Goldkette, and Igor Stravinsky. And most of my friends are like that, so I think they would — like me — have a hard time thinking of themselves as part of one or another distinct group. Yes, salsa will likely appeal to a certain crowd, as with hip-hop, etc. And the same with so-called different types of ‘classical music’. But people like Frank Zappa and others in the pop sphere along with a like number of classical musicians have cited their interest in music of very many different styles and genres, so it’s really hard for me to think that way.

        As I said earlier, I think that the current position of classical music is the result of a series of very obvious trends and developments that, over last 125 years or so, moved the genre toward where it sits today. Is music’s influence as a force in society diminished from where it was? Yes, I definitely think so. Is that bad? Not necessarily. Is it ever going to evaporate from the culture? Nope. Will it evolve and reposition itself. That’s already been happening for a while now.

        • says

          I wasn’t writing with any precision, and I apologize. I might have said something like “classical music professionals,” and “pop music professionals.”

          But I will say this, John. Of course I know that people cross over in their musical tastes. But I’ve been a music professional for, God help me, going on 40 years. I’ve worked in both pop and classical music. Beyond that, I’ve had friends and colleagues who, regardless of how their tastes might cross over, identify more with one side than another.

          And the difference I cited absolutely applies, in virtually every case. An informed person whose musical taste is largely pop reacts to genres and their social positioning exactly as I said. While people whose taste is largely oriented toward classical music almost always think of classical music as universal. Does your experience differ? I’d love to hear about it.

          • says

            Greg, of course I would agree that we all have decided preferences. I’m just not convinced that this has a lot to do with the present position of classical music at this particular point in time, or how we can create some kind of magic bullet social movement that will start winning more converts to one genre or another. As I said, I see numerous, specific and identifiable trends in the twentieth century, some musical trends, others not, some covered in your book drafts, more than a few others not which has placed ‘classical’ music where it sits at this point in time. I had these feelings for several years now. And recently, after reading Alex Ross’s “The Rest is Noise” I’ve begun to see this even more clearly. Today, in a spare moment, I happened to read chapter six on Erich Leinsdorf’s posthumous volume “Erich Leinsdorf on Music” where even he was in touch with some of these things Ross talks about. Some really prescient stuff from a quite unlikely source.

            But getting to your final question of me, I don’t try to guess at what I think one or another group of people thinks. It’s seems obvious to me that real answers are a lot more complex and granular than what I think some people think. I don’t think that artificially dividing people into easily classifiable groups (a la David Brooks) and then attributing certain characteristics to them based on my own experience gives me any particular unique insight into the current position of classical music in this or any other society, or necessarily how I might go about changing that on any large scale.

            So is classical music universal? I dunno. I’m not sure what “Universal” means. Bernstein in his Norton Lectures seems to argue for a certain universality in tonality, though not necessarily classical music, per se. LIke you, I’ve been involved in music for over forty years on some kind of level and I’ve never thought of it as universal. After all, whose universal are we talking about? Western classical music? Eastern classical music? Javanese classical music? Let’s keep in mind that while European music evolved over the last thousand years, other cultures had their own cultural traditions and music histories. And even though China and Japan (to name two nations) seem kind of crazy about western classical music these days, and we aren’t necessarily bathing ourselves in their musical traditions in anything approaching the same intensity, I still wouldn’t necessarily call that some kind of argument for the universality of Bach. And I definitely wouldn’t try to divine some kind of answer to that question in trying to find an answer for saving western classical music. I think Schubert and Shostakovitch and Vivaldi are probably just where they should be. Will they vanish from the firmament because they’re not at the top of the cultural hit parade? Nah! Did Shakespeare, Michaelangelo, Ben Jonson, Voltaire and those guys disappear after they were no longer at the cultural forefront? Nope. Would it be nice to find new audiences for the form we love? It always was nice in the past and it’s nice today, and it’s helpful to find out about places where some of that is going on. Will it change things a lot for classical music’s current state. I don’t think so.

          • says

            John, I hope we meet someday. We could have an enriching conversation.

            I think the spread of western classical music to Asia (and also the intensity with which some young Palestinians embrace it) comes from something I otherwise complain about — its lack of overt content. Combined, of course, with great prestige, and a sense of timeless profundity. Young Palestinians, living in the midst of some of the world’s most fraught politics — from which there’s virtually no escape — embrace classical music because it gets universal respect, and is utterly noncontroversial. It’s a way for them to leapfrog their painful situation, and join the larger world.

            Japan and China — in China, there’s a certain amount, maybe a large amount, of aspiration in the vogue for classical music. (Which is dwarfed a hundred times by the vogue for western and western-style pop, but that’s another story.) That is, people with new money, even relatively modest upper middleclass money, want their children to learn classical music. And some of the kids, of course, love it. Meanwhile, Chinese orchestras perform very little, not every touring orchestra from the west gets a large audience, and Chinese cities (as of a couple of years ago, when I got a firsthand report) have opera houses, but no opera companies to perform in them.

            In Japan, western music of all sorts is popular. You find (or at least used to find) bars where nothing but blues is played, with the bands doing letter-perfect versions of famous blues record. A Japanese salsa band toured the US, and discovered, to their amazement, that salsa was dance music. They’d learned their music by rote from recordings, and had no idea how salsa functioned in its natural habitat.

            I’m not saying that Japanese classical musicians simply imitate what they hear in the west. (In fact, that’s a racist idea that’s been around for a while, and is truly offensive.) They’re no different from western classical musicians, playing from written scores. They certainly don’t take, let’s say, a Karajan performance, and do exactly what the Berlin Philharmonic did.

            But the relative popularity of classical music (relative compared to the US) is partly due to the Japanese penchant for imitating the west. And then, worldwide, there’s an element of western hegemony. Japanese music hasn’t swept the world? Well, neither have kimonos as formal dress for women. Western culture has — obviously — come to dominate, worldwide. Though in music (we should never forget this) the dominance shows up most powerfully in pop. The spread of western classical music to any country you might name (even Venezuela) is tiny, compared to the spread of western and western-style pop.

          • says

            I’m in Washington more than NYC, so let’s add that to our city list. And I’m in Santa Fe at times (family in the area). Not _too_ far from Denver. Would love to be in your city though. I have happy memories of many business and personal visits.

    • says

      We get to DC occasionally (love it there) and make it to Santa Fe a few times a year, too. Will let you know ahead of time. Who knows, this might actually happen.

    • Mark Lindeman says

      I’m ridiculously late to the party, but for the record — the questions are what they are, but the survey was professionally conducted. It was indeed fielded by the CBS News Election and Survey Unit (the CBS press release that says so is at It’s a random-digit dialing survey, including both land lines and cell phones. (For what it’s worth, the margin of error is plus-or-minus three points.)

      I see nothing inherently wrong with, or “unscientific” about, the questions, although we can all wish that the survey was deeper. As a member of the American Association for Public Opinion Research, I would feel bad about not making these points, as tangential as they are to the future of classical music!

  9. says

    This survey makes sense to me. I’ve taught a variety of general education level music courses, mostly at community colleges, for 15 years. Based on what students write and how they converse about music, non-musician listeners consciously attend to, in order of salience, lyrics, timbre, rhythm, style, supplementary attributes such as images, videos and artist biography, and, at the bottom of the list, melody and harmony. If a typical listener is most sensitive to timbre, it makes sense that metal stands out as problematic more than classical music (pre-1950, of course!). Classical music is hard to listen to if we are concerned with following pitch issues over time, but these are not high in the list of musical concerns of my typical student. Note that I am not saying my students are unsophisticated listeners; item #4 in my list is style, a meta-category that students regularly perceive and talk about. (Student: “That song mixes in a little bit of reggae style to it.” Professor Me: “Yes, it does. Can you say why?” Student: “…” [quotes a bit of 4’33”].) The next step for a survey is to distinguish between “hardest to enjoy” v. “hardest to tolerate as background music.” The results I predict would be very similar.

  10. Keren Nicol says

    Thanks for a provoking post Greg.

    At last year’s Arts Marketing Association Conference in the UK last year, one of the speakers asked the delegates to show their companies’ identity on a set of opposing personality traits. When asked whether their companies were ‘specialised’ or ‘holistic’, I was one of less than 20 marketers who felt my company, a small string orchestra that commissions a lot of new ‘classical ‘ music offered a focused product in which we are experts, that is challenging, and that might not be for everyone.

    It’s really stayed with me, and I often wonder how these colleagues manage to find messages and products with universal appeal.

    Speaking honestly, though, I’m not sure that I’m always brave enough to be really explicit in my marketing that ours might well be a challenging experience for a lot of people , though nonetheless rewarding for that. Perhaps I’ll return to your post for a bit of courage!

    • says

      Thanks, Karen. Glad to know I’m connecting here with someone who’s in the trenches, doing the Lord’s work. doing something far more challenging than writing commentary!

      Here’s a story that might give you courage. Some years ago, I worked with the Pittsburgh Symphony, doing various things. One was to lead post-concert discussions with members of the audience. One weekend there was a greatly challenging program, conducted by David Robertson. The first half was atonal — Schoenberg’s Survivor from Warsaw, and Berio’s Stanze (his last work, a piece about the Holocaust, and not easy to listen to for reasons that went far beyond atonality).

      To my delight, David came to one of the discussions. I’d heard him conduct the concert, at which he spoke at some length to the audience, about the Berio piece. He proved (as I think anyone who knows him will agree) very easy to talk to. So I made a suggestion about what he might tell the audience the next night. He might, I suggested, try saying “You might not like this piece.”

      The next night, he did exactly that. And I’d swear that an almost audible sigh of relief went through the hall. The audience, it seemed clear (especially after hearing their baffled and sometimes hostile comments at the discussion the night before), felt acknowledged.

      The applause for the Berio was far warmer that night than it had been the night before. I’ll grant that one reason for that might have been the orchestra, which now knew the piece better. (It’s fascinating, and very useful, to hear an orchestra over a full subscription weekend, as they repeatedly play a contemporary piece they haven’t known before. The performance gets audibly better, often in ways that matter a lot — more coherent, more communicative.)

      But I also think the audience was more willing to give the piece a chance. If David could take a step in their direction, and acknowledge that they might not like the music, they were willing to take a step toward him, and listen more sympathetically. A win-win for everyone.

      • K. L. Strandberg says

        Is Schoenberg’s *A Survival from Warsaw* “atonal”? I thought it was a 12-tone work. There is a difference, particularly in terms of Schoenberg’s personal development and style, even if the two types of composition sometimes sound quite similar.

        • says

          A term often used for non-12 tone atonal pieces is “free atonal.” But I’ve always seen atonal used as a general term for all chromatically dissonant non-tonal music. Twelve-tone music is ia subset of that — one kind of atonal music.

  11. Ken Nielsen says

    I don’t find the survey results difficult to accept.
    More interesting are the reactions of some of the commenters here, which I must say , are similar to remarks made by friends who are serious classical music lovers.
    It does seem that some want their music to be difficult and complex and not easily approachable for a newcomer.
    Programme notes often support this – explaining carefully aspects of the music that an audience member really does not need to understand in order to enjoy it. Similarly statements to the effect that applause between movements is not appropriate.
    All these things tend to exclude or at least make uncomfortable the neophyte.
    And these are among the reasons why audiences are getting older and are not being replenished fast enough by younger people.
    Which I think is the burden of much of what Greg is saying here.

    • says

      Hi, Ken,

      I think our classical music world has gone in two bad directions at once. On one hand, we’ve gone all scholarly, not just in the background (as happens with pop music, where the explosion of scholarship, both musical and historical, has been a huge development in the last generation). But in the foreground, in program notes, and in programming. That can turn off newcomers, and even make long-time concertgoers feel passive, as if they had no right to an opinion about music, since the criteria for judgment are so clearly beyond their understanding.

      And then, at the same time, we’ve gone all fuzzy, brainless, greeting card-like. With all the talk about beautiful, immortal, inspiring masterworks, and acclaimed, virtuosic performers. What’s missing is the middleground, something that pop critics (not to mention book critics, movie critics, TV critics, theater critics, and so many others) get perfectly: The reasons why anyone should care, the real human and cultural issues raised by any music we’re thinking about.

      This is a sign of trouble, that we so often don’t engage our music in any direct, comprehensible, communicative way.

      • Annabelle Clippinger says

        What we really need, Greg, is a reality TV show called: Virtuoso! Where they trace how many lessons, hours of practice, rehearsals and performances– and how many instruments have to be purchased to create a Joshua Bell or Yo-Yo Ma. Maybe that would be the hook for the average person. Or in addition to teen moms, it could be teen classical musicians.

        Or maybe we just need better classical music critics and marketers who aren’t using the old pap, and programmers who aren’t recycling the old chestnuts over and over. I remember I saw the Mendelssohn violin concerto played twice in one season by two different soloists. I almost hate that piece now, and it is certainly not horrible.

  12. Annabelle Clippinger says

    I enjoy program notes and really love most classical music but some if sounds like Metal to me (though I actually would love to see orchestra musicians toss their hair!) For example. I have a really hard time listening to passages with very loud uses of the brass. It is my biggest turn-off in classical music. No matter how beautifully the strings are playing, you cannot hear anything coming from the string section at all. I know this is the conductor’s prerogative, but I feel like I need Advil after that. It is my equivalent of having attended a loud Metal concert from the survey. I also very much dislike radical extremes of dynamics. If the orchestra completely explodes and then becomes so quiet that all you can hear are strings wavering sub-audibly, then you have greatly offended my intelligence as a classical music listener.

    So I would say that even though some people may have ideas of classical music being soothing or something along those lines, there are certainly some radical exceptions to those notions. It is not all some distorted version of the Four seasons while you wait for your party on a Verizon phone call.

  13. says

    Fantastic post and comments! I’m glad to see a survey like this pop up in a magazine like Vanity Fair, though it is somewhat leading in it’s initial question as well as the visual layout. “Which of the following types of music do you find the hardest to enjoy?” seems like a strange way to pose a question about music, and implies that music’s true value is for light listening. I tend to agree with you about the “weak positives” pitfall, and that certainly we need to be thinking about the excitement of the challenge/stimulation of classical music rather than it’s “calming” qualities.

    Furthermore, it’s not particularly helpful to see classical music at the bottom of a survey listing- regardless of the fact that it may be the lowest number, denoting how few people find classical music difficult to listen to…Seems like we’re pretty deep into double/triple-negative subconscious here. Wouldn’t it be clearer to put classical music at the top, finding it the easiest type of music to listen to? But no; interestingly, it is relegated to the bottom, with every other type of music above it. Perhaps this is indicative of the general dismissal of classical music in the context of all other forms of popular music in America, or perhaps I’m reading WAY too far into this, but it seems like the editorial choice of wording and how to visually present this survey reveals something more interesting than the survey itself.

  14. says

    Carlos writes: “Who dares to reject Bach, Beethoven or Mozart?”

    I’d just like to point out that this is almost certainly not part of most people’s thinking about classical music, any more than it would make sense for a devoted Hindu to declare of the world in general, “Who dares to reject Sri Ramakrishna or Swami Vivekananda?”

    I think the following article, which I came across a few weeks ago, might be pertinent to this. It laments the low quality and great commercial success of contemporary pop as opposed to the great masters…but some in classical music (present company excepted naturally) might be surprised by who the great masters are:

    • Carlos Fischer says

      Eric…thanks for your comment.

      I think you didn’t understand my hyperbolic assertion nor its context : Who dares to……?

      This is one- among many others- reason why people didn’t reject classical music. I can tell you for sure that a great part of the people surveyed have heard – at least once- something about Bach and/or Beethoven and/or Mozart and/or Classical music ; even if this people never really listened to any piece of music from these composers and/or any classical music at all . However, the association THESE SORT OF ICONIC COMPOSERS AND CLASSICAL MUSIC HAVE WITH GREAT MUSIC, EDUCATED MUSIC, ART MUSIC OR GENIUS and so forth might has been present when they answered the survey ; so, how to reject the collective notions of high art, education or genius? On the other hand, even if a great part of the people surveyed never heard to talk about classical music or any composer at all , surely they won’t find classical the hardest ( and nor the easiest) music to enjoy because it is an unknown “thing”. This is why i DON’T REJECT Sri Ramakrishna or Swami Vivekananda…I’ve never heard of them !

  15. Lawrence Abernathy says

    I have not read the rest of the commentators, and probably will not as I see some value in the survey. Greg, one thing that struck me when reading your initial article was that when I approach any of my friends and peers about their enjoyment of classical music, I usually get the answer “it’s nice, but I have to be in the right mood.” I feel that this data supports this view.

  16. says

    This is why people love Transiberian Orchestra versions of classical music but would never listened to the original as played by any traditional orchestra. Maybe the way forward is to combine metal and classical like this:

    • richard says

      Maybe, but it seems cheesy to me, kind of like the disco tune that came out years ago that used the opening of the Beethoven’s 5th. For me, this is just ear candy, like those insufferable 3 tenors schlock. But hey, I’m just an unreformed modernist who doesn’t listen to what most folks consider to be “classical” music.