What's Wrong With Classical Music?

May 31, 2012 at 04:25 AM · Richard Dare,CEO and Managing Director of the Brooklyn Philharmonic has written an article on "The Awfulness of Classical Music Explained" here:


The article discusses the history of classical music performance and audience behavior/reaction,the tradition of reverence and restrictions on behavior in the concert hall, and what and how that can be changed.

Replies (31)

May 31, 2012 at 03:39 AM ·

One would think from Dare's article that the rules for attending a classical concert were like the Book of Leviticus- a lot of whining about so few rules by comparison.

With regards to the reasoning behind one of the more common rules -the "no clapping between movements" rule- one should consider that most multi-movement pieces have both intra- and inter-movement logic, that the choice of different keys for different movements has meaning, that sometimes themes are shared movement-to-movement, or return at the end; that we need to perceive the mood changes from one movement to the next in an appropriate, undistracted flow, that the piece is a piece in its entirety and any inference through applause that each movement stands on its own is usually false. Many might cry foul if a radio station plays movements in isolation. There are some exceptions I have observed like the applause that typically follows the conclusion of the first movement of Tchaikowsky's Violin Concerto or his first piano concerto - it may be that the nature of the music creates such a thrill that cries out for acknowledgment and therefore the applause is understandable.

The other rule, of silence, is basically nothing more than common courtesy; audiences implicitly agree to control themselves for the benefit of others in a mutually shared experience; and if we come down hard on violators, it's because we have not held our own reactions in check just to have someone come in and ruin the occasion for ourselves and others.

I suspect that Dare is correct that many eighteenth and nineteenth century audiences were rude and disrespectful; but thank goodness, in time, civility prevailed. Why should we want to go back?

The "problem" with much classical music is that it demands a modicum of education (not necessarily musical education) and concentration not possessed by many in society where short-attention-span, everything-has-to-be-easy, lowest-common-denominator attitudes are (increasingly) the norm. Regrettably, I fear most people don't have what it takes to make that investment. This is as true for the sports world of dedicated marathon runners and those training for the Olympics as it is of musicians. The more you put into it and discover about it and experience it, the more you are likely to get out of it. I am not saying there aren't times when one prefers fast food to a meal that unfolds over several hours that took a day or more to prepare but the payback is almost always proportional to the investment. I likely will recall and experience that special meal in my memory for years to come more deeply and with greater appreciation and fondness than countless hasty repasts.

If I remember correctly wasn't there a song about the consequences of not giving of one's time and the quality of one's time- Harry Chapin's "Cat's in the Cradle"?

I fear this article was a bit of a vapid exercise in justifying ignorance, mediocrity, and lack of self-discipline!

May 31, 2012 at 04:46 AM · In a way, he has a point. When I lived in Brisbane I used to attend a lot of free concerts given by the Conservatorium of Music. The idea was to give their students experience in public performance. They charged one dollar for admission. The whole atmosphere was very relaxed and casual.

The State Museum nearby also used to arrange free concerts by guitarists and string quartets where the public would sit on the floor to listen. Again, this was a wonderfully relaxed atmosphere where people would come dressed as they were.

There should be more of this sort of thing to get people involved and find out what classical music is all about : It is all about the music !

May 31, 2012 at 11:00 AM · I don't know, to me this "debate" has a bit of a tempest in a teapot flavor. I've occasionally heard people clap between movements--it especially seems to happen at community and free performances where the audience is less experienced--and it doesn't bother me when it does. Or when it doesn't.

I also think there might be a little bit of an introvert/extrovert divide in views of this topic. If I'm moved by music (or another deep experience), I will be quiet, I won't whoop or spontaneously verbalize. In fact, I might rather wish to be left alone with my own thoughts and not have to express them aloud with words and chatter. It's called introversion, and it's hurtful to have that type of response called, defensively, "stuffy" or "overly formal" or worse, "dead." But by the same token it's also hurtful to assume that someone who does express themselves more audibly and extrovertedly is being "rude" or "disrespectful." It's just a personality difference, and one that could use a little less judgementalism on both sides.

Either way, I feel like saying to this article's author: get over it.

The one aspect where I do agree with the author is when he complains about byzantine ticketing procedures. If it's difficult/expensive/etc. to just get into the show, and you're expected to show "respect" by being reverential even towards the administrative procedures--as if you should believe that classical music's very nature casts a magical aura on even the most mundane queueing experience and processing fee transaction-- then that's a bit much.

May 31, 2012 at 12:01 PM · First of all, this article and controversy is NOT about "classical music." It is about the social conventions and expectations surrounding the performance of classical music.

Need it be pointed out that there is just as much rigid social convention at a rock concert? Don't tell me you can't predict the audience's behavior. The screaming, the clapping, the foot stomping, the singing along with the lyrics - all that "spontaneous interruption" can be just as ritualized, just as rigidly enforced, and (obviously) just as distracting from the music itself. Do you know what the people sitting around you at a rock concert will think of you if just sit there and introspectively listen to the music without jumping around to show how much you are "into it"?

May 31, 2012 at 12:30 PM · While it doesn't answer the OP's question, I can't help but think about what I thought was the most ideal performance I'd ever heard. It was at the Franz Liszt Academy in Budapest. Sandor Vegh was returning to Budapest to perform for the first time in several decades. This was back in 1994.

Hungarian television was there to mark the historic event. There was a palpable buzz before the concert from the entire audience like a sporting event.

Vegh was conducting an orchestra from I believe Vienna. The audience clapped enthusiastically for him, and clapped hardest when the pieces were especially well played. They almost didn't clap when the violinist in the Symphonie Concertante came out for a bow - he had tried to rush Vegh, apparently didn't like the tempo. But Vegh grabbed his hand, and the hand of the violist and raised them up. Then of course the audience applauded wildly. [Although he did raise the hand of the violist just a touch higher.]

Multiple curtain calls occurred in measure to what the audience liked. There were young people in their 20's and there were older people there. There was a significant 30 - 40 year old contingent.

I often wish all performances could be like that, or at least close. It's not every day that Sandor Vegh comes back to Budapest, but it's wonderful when an audience is really educated, and is listened intently. There was no clapping between movements.

May 31, 2012 at 12:52 PM · Hi,

I do agree with some of the things in the article. My experience shows that classical music is not the problem, but the setting and the musicians' attitude.

Clapping between movements: this is a modern thing. You can hear recordings from live concerts even in the 1940s where audiences clap after the first movement. And in the 19th century especially at the premiere of a work, it was considered not good for the music if the audience didn't applaud. Let us remember that the audience cheered so much after the scherzo at the premiere of Brahms' 4th Symphony that the movement was repeated on the spot.

So where am I going with this: I think that the misplaced ego and pretentiousness need to go in the classical world and the music needs to be the focus. If the audience is motivated to react positively after one movement in the performance, why stop them? After all, that is why we are there. And smiling a little (this especially goes to orchestra musicians'...) to show that we like what we do and are happy to be there to do it wouldn't hurt at all.

My own two cents...


May 31, 2012 at 01:27 PM · Christian,

While there wasn't clapping between movements at the Sandor Vegh concert in Budapest, I am in general agreement with you that some accomodation needs to be made for today's audiences. I'm not opposed to clapping in-between movements - I think it can be a nice compliment for the performer (although the performer might also find it annoying!).


May 31, 2012 at 01:34 PM · Here's an idea for an article:

"The Awfulness of Businessmen Who Know Nothing About Music and Should Not Be On the Board of a Symphony"

Every genre has its customs and rituals, and popular music is no different. As a teen at a Van Halen (and lots of otherss) concert in the 80s, I remember the moronic waving of lighters. Woo Hoo.

The general reasoning for how or why the concertgoing experience should be changed (besides the general principle that we should just make them like rock concerts because that's what people are used to) goes something like this:

"I'm an individual, and I really need to express myself and my individual individuality. I yearn to be different.

I"m going to get a tatoo!"

May 31, 2012 at 04:38 PM · Every one has different priorities and different likes and wants.

First of all...basing your perception of an art form/venue on the person selling the tickets...is just odd...

While it's pleasant to have a friendly ticket-seller... does it really matter? I've had some really odd/rude ticket sellers at the local movie theatre...but they didn't colour my enjoyment of the movie...

Secondly - there is something inherently 'stuffy' about a classical music concert as it stands...a stereotype that occurs often enough to keep that perception alive for non-fans.

It doesn't have to be that way though...a funny, entertaining host (be it one of the musicians, the conductor, someone else entirely) can set the mood/tone for the entire performance and make it fun. Every one I know...classical music fans or not...really appreciate knowing something about the piece/composer they're about to hear...

Plus, that helps with the 'education' point made about listening to classical music. You get educated (at least a little) just by attending...don't even have to read the program notes! :D

Personally, I like a quiet audience. I go to live performances primarily to hear the music. Other people go to live music to socialize. The music just isnt the priority for them. My first 'pop' concert? I was appalled because people were talking, drinking, making noise throughout the entire performance...and one guy apparently had no idea who the performer even was!

Culture shock for me, lol.

I also like dressing 'up' a bit to go out. I don't need to wear blue jeans and a worn-out t-shirt everywhere I go in order to be comfortable. So I like the implied formality of a classical performance...but there are many classical venues you can still wear jeans to...just not to the most formal of formal performances.

But I do agree that not every classical concert needs be automatically considered stuffy...even formal doesn't need to be stuffy...the industry needs to work on that. If they can make a little formality 'fun' vs. stuffy...then we make the event more desirable.

I think there's an odd backlash out there...despite the interest in fashion...that one shouldn't have to dress up or engage in any formalities at any event...that that expectation somehow automatically makes the event exclusive, upper-crust, old, stuffy, whatever you want to call it. I see the same trend at weddings...young girls dressed in jeans, t's and flip-flops.

May 31, 2012 at 05:04 PM · Is anyone else tired of the classical-music-is-over/awful/dead/on-life-support type books and articles? It can't just be me who finds them so tiresome. Especially since pretty much every single writer says pretty much the exact same thing...and then they act like they're the first ones to ever say it. It just seems so lazy. Maybe I'm just irritable and easily annoyed, I dunno.

May 31, 2012 at 06:31 PM · The author seemed particularly non-plussed by his guide's boosterish behavior, and was reacting against it. Fair enough, but then why did he think he needed to bring along a guide in the first place?

I wonder if the article would have been different if he'd just gone to the concert by himself or with a friend or family member like a normal person.

May 31, 2012 at 06:38 PM · Emily, may I join the "irritable and easily annoyed" club?

One reason I rarely go to movies is annoyance with the constant talking, texting on a well-lit phone screen, etc. It destroys the drama, tension, and trajectory of the movie. Same thing at the symphony. May I please be left in peace with my own thoughts?

I guess, for people like the author of this screed, if you can't go in oversize shorts and gym shoes, scratching yourself at will and sucking on a half-gallon paper cup of soda, it just isn't worth getting dressed and leaving the house.

I don't go to a concert to express myself (unless I'm on the stage.) I go to experience, beauty, power, passion, technical excellence, sometimes, on a really good day, transcendence. I don't need some a$$hat talking, texting, or shouting at the performers through that. If you have the manners and attention span of a toddler, I'm sure Barney the purple dinosaur is coming to a venue near you.

That's my rant for the morning.

May 31, 2012 at 06:57 PM · Why is it that people think Classical = formal and stuffy and boring, rock = fun, loud, and easygoing? I don't see one person hooting during Yes's "You and I" performance, which is set up as movements.

A rock lover would get irked if a classical concert goer screamed in the middle of Bohemian Rhapsody, and then said "... but you guys always scream in concerts. Isn't that what we're supposed to do?". It's a courtesy not to break the performers' concentration. Good grief.

June 1, 2012 at 10:52 AM · Although I wouldn't particularly be keen on people being encouraged to shout during classical performances, I think there is something to be said for Richard Dare's original article. I think it is true that there is a certain stigma attached to the genre, and that it is deterring some people from entering this world. The rituals, the rules, the expectation that you need to know how many movements a piece contains, etc. are indeed hard to navigate through if you're a first-timer, and I think anything that will make the experience more relaxing, accessible and lively would contribute to popularise classical music, and that surely is a good thing.

June 3, 2012 at 01:13 AM · I've never been denied admission to the local symphony for showing up in jeans and a sweat shirt. If you do not want the audience to clap between movements, then for goodness sake, indicate that in the program. "The concerto, while divided into three movements, is played as a single piece. Please hold your applause until the conclusion of the finale." Anyone who finds this too patronizing is the one who needs to get over it.

June 3, 2012 at 01:36 AM · It seems to me that there is a difference between respectful decorum that is appropriate to the occasion, and meaningless ritualistic behavior that has no purpose beyond being a ritual.

The famous music critic, Donald Francis Tovey, pointed out in one of his essays that the one, long bassoon note (it is the bassoon, isn't it?) at the end of the 1st movement of the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto is actually a highly significant musical bridge to the second movement, and that the typical audience reaction of applauding after the 1st movement obscures this important note. Therefore, asking the audience not to applaud between the movements of this concerto is indeed appropriate and isn't just a meaningless ritual.

I would assume, however, that it would be difficult to find an analogous rational to caution an audience with every other piece of classical music.



June 3, 2012 at 03:11 AM · Well and there are symphonies where the gap between the movements is meant to be very short or none at all (attacca). I once saw a conductor wave his hands frantically backward at the audience to get them to stop clapping because they were ruining some horn solo or such.

These days, too, at concerts and recitals where there are likely to be children in the audience (matinees or "family-friendly" events) I think it's useful to have some polite instructions in the program such as "children should not hold concert programs" (because invariably they fold / crinkle them loudly). Again one attending a concert really should know these things but it's helpful to everyone's enjoyment if the audience can be properly instructed.

June 3, 2012 at 04:41 AM · Perhaps the issue is more the image of classical music. If orchestras and soloists stopped worrying about protocol and the audience focussed on just having a good time than worrying about some imagined musical superiority there'd be bigger, more lively audiences.

As much as I would sooner get teeth pulled than go to an Andre Rieu concert, he has much larger fan base than most orchestras/soloists because he just encourages his audience to have a good time, and he and his crew seem to have a good time on stage too! Isn't that what music is supposed to be about?

June 3, 2012 at 03:39 PM · An orchestra I was in several years ago played William Tell for a high school audience. They seemed to enjoy it- they clapped *almost* to the rhythm throughout the entire thing. The problem was that their musical education had been so poor that they didn't know how bad we were playing. I'm not even sure we finished together. Boisterous audiences = distracted players = bad performance. None of us knows what those 19th Century performances described by the article's author sounded like, but I can't imagine they were particularly good.

I also think it's a little presumptuous for an author who knows nothing about classical music and who has only been to ONE concert in his whole life to tell us what's wrong with classical music. If that's what we're doing, next time I go to a football game, I'll have lots of things to say.

The other issue the author raises is 'the rules.' Maybe it's because I've been going to classical concerts since I was five, but the rules don't seem very confusing to me. Wear something nice, don't bother the people around you, clap when the song is over. What's so hard about that?

June 3, 2012 at 06:36 PM · Paul: Add to that: Children should not be eating chips/crisps during a performance...the crinkling and the open-mouthed munching can drown out the concert entirely for those sitting nearby...

June 3, 2012 at 10:50 PM · Grab the bag of chips then give the parents dirty looks when the kid starts to cry.

June 4, 2012 at 12:30 PM · It's the trombone player who shouldn't be eating the chips.

June 4, 2012 at 03:03 PM · Or you can take a candy out of your pocket and open the crinkly-crackly plastic as slowly as humanly possible thinking that will make it quieter which it won't.

I think if you look at smaller/regional symphony orchestras that have been successful, you will see that a strong effort is being made to reassure concertgoers that not all of the events (or even any of them) are stuffy, formal affairs, and there will be an attempt to incorporate other musical genres within the broader classical sphere. The "problem" is being solved by those with the most necessity, as usual.

June 4, 2012 at 05:15 PM · And what about the person opening that wrapper because it encases a cough drop and in order to stop their coughing, which is disturbing those around them, they have to make more noise opening the wrapper- oh, the choices and the dilemmas.

June 4, 2012 at 05:30 PM · Yeah, the worst is when the audience applauds between the Development and the Recapitulation sections in sonata form.

Or, worst of all, they applaud during a Brahms symphony every time he changes key.

Even worse than that, some people in the audience have the temerity, the gall, the bad taste, the complete rudeness to applaud during John Cage's 4'33". How can you possibly appreciate or even hear the the piece when it's interrupted like that?

June 5, 2012 at 02:11 AM · But Sander, isn't any sound (including applause in the middle of that piece) part of the chance element in the music? Wouldn't Cage approve of this random event in his music? Now, if his perorations on mushrooms were interrupted that might be cause for concern.....

June 5, 2012 at 12:52 PM · Sorry, interruptions of any kind are an insult to the composer and the performer. If Mr. Cage was truly interested in random noise, why didn't he go to Congress?

June 5, 2012 at 06:11 PM · What should be allowed at a symphony performance in my opinion:

Spontaneous applause between movements (save the obligatory applause for the end of the piece)

Tapping along with rousing numbers

Gasps of enjoyment/surprise/excitement

Restrained weeping

Swaying to a waltz

Forward leaning in eager anticipation

Snuggling with one's honey

Sighs of pleasure

Dozing off (provide one doesn't snore)

Startled Cries when warranted (1812 etc)

Laughter in response the music

All manners of clothing (within the law, obviously)

Of course, the irony is that the stodgy subscription holders who look askance at the above behaviors are guilty of some of the most distracting and annoying behavior:

Wearing strong perfume/cologne

Ever so slowly unwrapping lozenges

Violently diving into their programs to check the name of that section leader/piece/composer. . .

Ahem, ahem, achchem, hch, herrrrrk

Nose whistling

Using ones program as a fan, usually waving it out of time to the music

Whispering too loudly into ones husband's hearing aid

Shuffle, shift, shuffle, shift, wave at your influential friend in the first balcony until they see you

etc, etc, etc. . .

June 7, 2012 at 09:55 PM · It seems like there is a direct correlation between killing school music programs and dying orchestras. If more people demanded strings programs in elementary, junior high and high school, maybe we would have more adults who listened to classical concerts.

June 7, 2012 at 09:55 PM · What people fail to understand is that in order to have an audience, they must have the education to understand the art form in a meaningful way.

I don't teach orchestral music to students in school because I think they're all going to end up playing in an orchestra as a career. I educate them in the art form because some day in the future, they will be members of an informed audience that sees the importance of music as part of a life and culture, and not just a boost to standardized test scores.

You can't do anything about your current audience. Be glad they're in the concert hall!

June 8, 2012 at 06:28 PM · I pretty much agree Ronald Mutchnik's post way back near the top of this topic.

As far as the issue of clothing - I personally like dressing up to go to a concert. It makes a concert feel special and not just another part of my ordinary day. Also, I feel I am honoring the occasion and the performers by dressing nicely.

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