Stereotypes & Misconceptions Part I: Classical Music is for Rich People

What kinds of people listen to classical music?  Photo by Caitlin Doe.

What kinds of people listen to classical music?
Photo by Caitlin Doe

Some strange kind of stigma has become associated with classical music, and I want to get to the bottom of it. It isn’t unusual for stereotypes about classical music and its listeners or performers to exist; after all, there are similarly plenty of opinions out there about Twilight-loving teenagers, Bronies, Trekkies, band geeks, and people who wear sandals with socks.

It’s nothing new, then, to assume that all classical music and its listeners can be stuffed snugly in a box tied up with music-note-printed ribbon and mailed to Austria. But for a brief moment, I’d like to debunk some myths about classical music.

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1. Classical music is for rich people.
I can see how this myth originated; in the 18th century the wealthy nobility were the patrons and commissioners of classical music, opera, and live performance. Watch a Jane Austen movie and you’ll see how playing the piano forte was as a mark of refinement.

Today, however, I will take this opportunity to inform you of some heartbreaking, but fairly well-known news: a great number of artists and musicians live in poverty. Even centuries ago they did. Music majors are among the ranks of graduates who receive the lowest starting salaries out of college. While the society at large believes in the great value of music and the arts, this is not proportionally reflected in the funding of the arts.

There definitely still remains the association of classical music with those who drink tea with their pinkies raised, or the nobility of the old aristocratic patrons. But, with the introduction of mass media and the internet, classical music is now accessible to listeners from all backgrounds around the globe.

2. Anyone who takes music lessons comes from a wealthy background.
Where people invest their money is a reflection of their values. Yes, weekly private lessons can add up as a monthly or annual expense, so are often quickly crossed off the budget when things are tight. And with the recent recession, as many families simplify their spending, it’s understandable that lessons often fall by the wayside.

However, there are so many affordable and even free opportunities to provide both children and adults with exposure to classical music. Many public schools offer orchestra programs with instruments students can use for free. Quality violins purchased online are more affordable and accessible than ever. Community centers and programs often sponsor free concerts, workshops, and even individual music lessons and scholarships for interested students.

In essence, where there’s a will, there’s a way. Be sure to take advantages of the wonderful resources that are available!

3. Music without lyrics is boring.
Yes, one might assume that because a piece of music isn’t accompanied by dramatic lyrics, fog machines, neon costumes, plastic surgery, and loud flashing lights that it must be boring. But classical musicians will tell you just the opposite.

While pop and folk music are often written with the same three chords and simple rhymes, I would almost argue that because pop music is “boring” in it’s composition, it’s easier to listen to. (Note: I am in no way arguing that classical music is “better” than pop music; the two simply serve different purposes and audiences.)

Unlike most pop music, classical music is composed with the richest of harmonic variations, the widest array of instrumentation, multiple melodies in one piece, and an incredible range of motion, tempos, and dynamics within a single composition. I believe that this is the reason why classical concert-goers sit silently while viewing and listening to a live orchestra; there are so many nuances in the music requiring focus and concentration to absorb. This is the opposite of boring–in fact, it’s both captivating and stimulating for the mind!

4. All classical music sounds the same.
I don’t even know where to begin with this one. [Utterly ridiculous? Anyone?] To say that all classical music sounds the same is like saying all Asians look the same. There is so much variation and personality provided by individuals within a culture and pieces within a genre of music. Listen to Stravinky’s Rite of Spring and Ralph Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending to hear a vast contrast.

5. Classical music is great for atmospheric background music.
I recently had a horribly memorable experience sitting through extremely loud, staticy rendition of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons being forced down my ear canal while waiting on hold. Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t think classical music sounds its best from the receiver of a telephone.

As far as other background music goes, I absolutely 100% support the use of live classical music performed incidentally at receptions, parties, and other gatherings. Likewise, some classical music is wonderfully appropriate to play over the speakers in a store or restaurant. But again, I reference point number four. With the wrong set list, you may have guests or customers nodding off in their seats or running for the doors as Medea’s Meditation and Dance of Vengeance by Samuel Barber blares down from above.

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To be continued!

2 thoughts on “Stereotypes & Misconceptions Part I: Classical Music is for Rich People”

  1. Thank you so much for this article! I need to email this to everyone I know, literally. As a serious viola student in a small town, the only other place I ever encounter people my age with appreciation for classical music is PYP, and of course rehearsals are only twice a week. People often find it shocking that I like classical music, and I have to explain these exact points all the time. (So it’s not surprising for teenagers to like rap with misogynist lyrics and risqué music videos but it’s scandalous for a girl to actually like Mahler?) I really hope more people read this. Thanks!

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