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Liz Lambson

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

December 21, 2012 at 6:51 PM

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 valued 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!


From Michael Pijoan
Posted on December 22, 2012 at 4:19 AM
First problem: "Classical Music" is a total misnomer. People are too eager to classify the known history of the music of western culture as "Classical Music". The music of the classical period is but a small slice of the grand scheme of what ignorant people overlook in the name of "Classical Music".
From Katherine Moller
Posted on December 22, 2012 at 1:08 PM
I personally love number 4, but understand it! I play baroque violin and fiddle. I know that people who do not love these styles the way I do find that all the pieces sound the same. To me much pop music sounds the same. It is simply because I do not enjoy it and am really only listening to the surface of the music. I am so driven by melody that the fact that the lyrics change in pop music is of little interest as the melody generally remains the same. As much as I think classical music is fascinating, I understand other people not liking it and wish them the best with the music they love!
From Corwin Slack
Posted on December 22, 2012 at 5:20 PM
Why not argue hat classical music is better than pop music? The lack of value judgement between good and bad is at the root of the crisis in classical music appreciation. If classical music isn't better there is no point to this blog.
From Rupert Kirby
Posted on December 22, 2012 at 6:47 PM
Finding it difficult to agree with the last comment. Better is a subjective judgement, and as such it is my opinion that no-one should make that judgement for me, nor should I for anyone else. I am myself eclectic in taste and have more of a leaning towards what is , as another comment above says, an erroneous label, "Classical"

Theoretically classical music begins with Haydn and finishes with early to mid Beethoven, much of it confined to the geographical area surrounding Vienna. I can get lost in baroque, particularly fugual work, (try Vivaldi Concerto Grosso in Dm) and appreciate the perfection of the Dark Bubble (Bach Double, but this is my own , subjective , opinion). I love the work of the Romantics, Brahms, for example,(Fourth Symphony!! Wow!) and even some of the more dissonant works associated with the twentieth century. However I am also passionate about folk performance, both of the traditional fiddle tunes of our small islands, (I'm from the UK) and of vocal sounds from maritime shanties, through ballads to the folk carols we're performing around the South West of England, many of which spread from village choir to choir long before the advent of radio and television.

Having said this I also find much to appreciate in the music of Pink Floyd, the Alan Parsons Project, selected works of Queen, what's not to like about Bohemian Rhapsody? I confess also to enjoying such music as Dolly Parton and Shania Twain, when in the right mood myself!

Music is obviously written for different purposes, but not neccesarily for different audiences. To say that would be prejudicial in our consideration of audiences as human beings. Not only that but it would also be limiting ourselves to identify with a preconcieved notion of what a particular audience likes, closing our minds to forms of music which if we gave it the chance would connect with some aspect of our being, maybe in surprising ways.

However , background music is one thing I find particularly hard to understand, with the exception of course of the amazing symphonic sounds written for film and drama, is that background, or is it woven into the foreground, as much a star of the show as the acting?

The more we open our minds, the more we can gain an understanding of the other human beings that share our planet, simplicity or complexity, ancient or modern, music is a timeless communication, which works forward as well as back!

From Liz Lambson
Posted on December 27, 2012 at 4:28 AM
Appreciate the comments!

See my post "Classical Music Genres of the Common Practice Period" (see link below) for further discussion on the use of the term "classical music." I personally believe it's okay that it refers to both the era between Baroque and Romantic as well as the overall genre of music. It's like calling all music played by the guitar "pop" when there are genres within "pop" like folk, rock, and (hey!) pop music.

http://www.violinist.com/blog/lizzylambson/201211/14128/

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