So… It would seem that classical music is dead. That might seem like a bold claim. After all, people still listen to classical music all the time. It has it’s own stations on the radio. There are whole orchestras devoted to it. It’s the first thing people learn in most music classes. Many people dedicate their lives to playing and improving at classical music. All this is much more than is dedicated to say, jazz. I’m not saying jazz is dead am I? No, (well, maybe) but I am say that classical music is dead, or largely so.
Think about it: when was the last time a new piece of classical music gained notoriety? 1925? Before living memory? At least Bob Marley was still making music in the 70s. Folks may still play classical music, but for the most part, they’re playing music that is a century or two old. The new pieces which do get listened to are usually not “serious” music but rather movie scores and novelty pieces. What’s more, despite the fact that orchestras still exist and classical radio stations still get funding from the government, people no longer flood concert halls like they did in the 19th century. There’s no denying that while at one point in time classical music was embraced by the masses, with few exceptions, it’s largely regarded as a cultural relic today.
But enough of hammering in this point. Most people would concede that classical music has declined since the 19th century. What I am interested in is “why?” Why is classical music so niche today and why do so many people listen to popular music instead?1 Well, I have a theory.
Consider the time frame of classical music’s demise: It was going strong right up until the 1910s. At around that time, popular music began to take over. First you had jazz, the blues, but other forms would move in as well. It was around the 1910s that the last great composers started to die, and that their replacements failed to materialize. What we might ask is what happened in the 1910s that triggered the end of music as they knew it at the time?
The obvious culprit is World War One. Now, the war did signal the end of Romanticism and the rise of Modernism, which constituted a substantial stylistic break from older forms of music, but this isn’t the same thing as the destruction of classical music as a genre. In fact, there is a such thing as modernist classical music; it’s just horrible for the most part, and while that may be a cause for classical music’s decline it can’t be the only cause. After all, market forces being what they are, why didn’t composers react by making new classical music which wasn’t modernist or which was but has sufficient concessions to accessibility that normal people could listen to it?
So, I think there is another contributing cause here, and I think that it’s pretty obvious. What was the other big trend around the turn of the 20th century? It was the rise of technology and household appliances. More specifically, recorded sound and the radio were invented and gained widespread adoption around this time frame.
Now this might seem a little silly. How could radio and recorded sound possibly pose a threat to classical music? All they can do is make it more available, right? Well, I don’t think so. You see, classical music is largely a written medium. The central component of a piece of classical music is not the performance or the performer, but the composition. That is, unlike popular music, where there is very little if anything written down and performances are unique to each artist, or even unto themselves, classical music transcended performance and existed primarily on paper. When recorded sound happened, the performance was given a new permanence and popular music was freed of its limitations and paper ceased to be the advantage it once was.
Let me explain: before the advent of recorded sound, there was no way to preserve an individual musical performance. Originally, all music was essentially folk music. A single musician or group of musicians would compose a song and other musicians would hear the song and copy it, changing it slightly in the process. As such, musical tradition was malleable and songs would change over time. There was also no easy way of sharing performances between musicians save through more and more lossy performances and the influence of individual musicians was limited.
To alleviate these difficulties, written music was invented. Eventually, the concept of composition as distinct from performance also developed, so that one musician could compose a piece for an entire chorus of singers and not have to sing himself for them to perform correctly and for that piece to be shared between choirs and choruses all over the country. With that, standardization and stricter forms of music also developed, so that written music could get more mileage. The orchestra, which consisted of oh-so-many violins, and oh-so-many clarinets was formed so that any composer could write a symphony and know exactly what musical instruments would be available to play his piece. Solos, duets, quartets, all took standard forms which could perform any piece of music composed for a group of their composition. In addition, musical compositions took on on predictable structures so that they could be tailored to specific performances and easily learned by musicians. 19th century music was almost defined by an intense amount of structure formalism.
All this standardization in musical form, orchestral composition, and musical notation was built around one thing: The need for composers to write music independently from the actual performers of that very same music. This need in turn, arose from the impermanence of individual performances. However, with the invention of recorded sound and the radio, each performance was no longer impermanent nor was it localized. Individual performances themselves could be spread and all the standardization of classical music became obsolete. Thus, popular music which had previously been relatively disposable, could now be preserved and an individual performance could have all the reach of sonata my Mozart.2
And this is why people don’t write classical music anymore. There’s no need. The defining aspect of classical music was the standardization. This existed so that one could write the music and have it be performed the world over, just as one imagined it so that everyone could appreciate the author’s original work. Mozart as played by the Boston Philharmonic is not so different from Mozart played by the Prague Philharmonic. However, with recorded sound, one need never write music down for it to be experienced all over the world. One unique performance is enough.3 Classical music is technologically obsolete.
- We are ignoring, of course, that people have always listened to popular music. It just hasn’t had the prominence that it does now. ↩
- More so, in fact, because an individual orchestral performance is much more expensive than a performance by a popular music group. ↩
- This also leaves room for changes between performances taking on artistic significance. Hence why Mozart sounds the same no matter who play him but Eric Clapton’s I Shot the Sheriff and Bob Marley’s I Shot the Sheriff are very different. Personalization in music, which classical music avoided on principle, is now standard. ↩