The “classical” music problem

by Rob Tiller

    When I was a student at Oberlin College, I knew a good many people who loved “classical” music (that is, broadly, the art music that began in Europe in the late 16th century).   I assumed back then that this would always be the case.   The music itself had managed to endure for substantial periods (more than 200 years for Bach, more than 100 years for Brahms, more than 50 years for Bartok).  Within the western high art musical tradition, there were vast troves of riches – many sub-traditions,  many genres, and within those genres, many styles, and many many nuances.   It was, clearly, inexhaustible.  And when, as a student of that music, I penetrated some of its depths, I found it got richer and richer.  I assumed that, as I got older, this would continue, not just for me but for others, and I would encounter more and more people with this same passion. 

    As it turned out, I was partly right.  My own musical tastes have broadened in terms of geography, periods, and genre (e.g. salsa, jazz, techno, hip hop, etc.), but I continue to find the western tradition a source of inspiration and happiness.  In fact, in recent years, I’ve found myself even more susceptible to its power – more prone to get goosebumps or misty eyes from a great performance.  I was wrong, though, in assuming that I’d gradually find more people who cared about this music.  There are a few, and I treasure them, but only a few. 

    I am sorry this is so.  This is not because I dislike being in a minority.  Great music itself counteracts loneliness by connecting us — to other listeners, contemporary performers, and prior generations of musicians and audiences.  There’s human communion that’s inherent in intentional listening. 

      What bothers me is the loss of so much potential joy. So many people would be enriched by making this music a part of their lives.  This musical tradition has caught and preserved in written form a comprehensive catalog of thought and emotion.  Not only does it give joy and meaning to individual lives, but it embodies an important part of what it means to be human. 

      Our schools for the most part have given up on broad based music education, and the commercial “classical” world has not done well in inviting in those without a basic grounding.  The customs of the ordinary American symphony orchestra – the dress, the silence, and ritualized clapping at specific intervals (and nowhere else) – are far from inviting to the uninitiated.   

     What is to be done?  Well, more listening, of course, but also more thinking and talking.  I highly recommend Benjamin Zander’s Ted Talks video   It is a great introduction to the subject and explains  in about 15 minutes why this music matters.  Hint:  it’s about our deepest feelings.