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!

3 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!

  2. Thanks for this article. I’m genuinly split between believing that classical music is occupied by a middle class (I know huge generalization) wealthy minority, and the main (quite convincing) arguments written here by Liz. I just want to add a few comments to counter Liz’s position even though essentially I agree that classical music, or music in general, does not require money in order to do it.

    “anyone who takes music lessons is from a wealthy background”
    Private instrument tuition is really expensive. Families that pay for their children’s lessons, can only do it knowing that in most cases the money invested will not help their children support themselves in the future. As you said music graduates don’t earn much, and furthermore if you like music, but can’t afford the lessons (to learn to read sheet music at least) required to get into local ensembles/orchestras which are quite competitive, you have zero chance of entering what may be seen from the outside as an exclusive club of people who can/could afford the tuition. For children at school this means that entering a music college, probably the safest way of getting a job, at least part time as a teacher, is simply unavailable because their parents couldn’t afford the lessons, and their school didn’t provide free tuition for the instrument they wanted to learn. In effect children are being told to learn a type of European music history in their music classes by music teachers who were only able to enter their profession by paying for non-curricular music lessons. In other words instrument tuition is a luxury, a far more expensive than a Nintendo DS kind of luxury, and the people teaching it don’t represent their students.

    “It isn’t unusual for stereotypes about classical music and its listeners or performers to exist..”
    …but sadly these stereotypes are true in a lot of cases. How many gardeners, bricklayers, truck drivers do you know that play the violin in an orchestra? In the first two cases there was a real reason why their profession had an effect on their ability to play the violin – the effect long-term gardening and bricklaying will have on your hands – but in the case of a truck driver, it’s probably more about self-identity in the world of truck driving, and the classical vs pop/folk = rich vs working class kind of ideology. (By the way, my father, who paid for my violin lessons, was a gardener.) In my experience, though, of playing the violin in a number of amateur orchestras in the UK and Japan, is that the people in these orchestras are the types who have enough time to practice their instrument, and enough money to pay for membership fees, and consequently they are nearly all salary-job type people (teachers, professors, librarians, researchers, music teachers, office workers, doctors). A lot of the time, I have joined an orchestra and noticed I have nothing in common with everyone there. Not because they are Japanese (I live in Japan now), but because they all have professions with an office, a desk, and a wage every month.

    Another point is the price of tickets for large scale productions, such as orchestras and operas. I don’t really see much difference between prices for sports events and classical music, but certainly opera is an art form that you can’t enjoy live without paying quite a bit. Learning French, German, or Italian for classical opera, is another thing required to make the story and songs understandable. Unless you are using these language skills for work, they are another difficult skill, like playing a musical instrument, costing time and money. I guess basically what I’m saying is that opera is an expensive niche art form.

    Finally, I want to take on this point: “All classical music sounds the same.”
    Obviously no it doesn’t, there is incredible range because classical music spans several centuries, and a wide range of composers from around the world. However there is the phenomenon of 20th century music and the explosion of new timbres that came with recorded sound and electronic music. As an example compare the range of sounds in a contemporary pop track, lady Gaga or something, with a Beethoven symphony. There is a huge difference in the range of sounds. I’m not talking about the range of harmonies, transposition, counterpoint, large scale structures, but actual recorded sounds that have been filtered, modified, mixed and then distributed for stereo (antiphony in other words) speakers. I think a major factor that is putting people off from classical music is that 1) contemporary synthesizers and electronic instruments have a greater range of timbres compared to what was available to pre-twentieth century composers, and 2) contemporary pop music is designed for stereo, or other more complex speaker systems. Pre-20th century classical music was written for rooms (chamber music) or concert halls, pop music of today is designed for electronic reproduction, and so people have come to expect the same kind of dynamic and timbral sophistication. Pop music can have more impact because the volume of every single element has been put into the mix. I love classical music, but when listening to an orchestra, I’ll never get the kind of bass I would get from a dubstep track, and I’ll never get the same range of percussion I would get from an Aphex Twin track.

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