What Happened to Classical Music?

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.

Killed Mozart

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.

  1. We are ignoring, of course, that people have always listened to popular music. It just hasn’t had the prominence that it does now. 
  2. More so, in fact, because an individual orchestral performance is much more expensive than a performance by a popular music group. 
  3. 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. 

Last update: 6/11/2011

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