Classical music for [insert present participle]

In today’s Times, the columnist Melanie Philips wrote about the supposed calming effects of a police initiative to pump classical music into a troubled housing estate. It’s behind a paywall, but nearly everything you need to know is contained is this one dreary sentence:

Many studies have found that listening to classical music has beneficial effects on the brain and behaviour.

We are then told that Baroque music is particularly calming due to its ‘characteristic pattern of 60 beats per minute’. Huh? Maybe a largo or adagio movement would be, but most Baroque music is much faster than that. And how is a tempo a ‘pattern’? You just know that a paragraph beginning with ‘many studies have found’ will invariably end with such nonsense.

(She displays greater musical ignorance still when describing Philip Glass, Messiaen and Stockhausen as ‘rarefied composers’ whose ‘signature motifs’ are ‘dissonance, alienation and rebellion’. Messiaen — alienation and rebellion? Philip Glass — dissonance?!)

I have no doubt she is trying to help promote classical music, but this kind of scientism, besides being misleading, makes classical music seem incredibly boring. Anyone who loves classical does not find it calming or relaxing. We don’t generally, as YouTube ceaselessly suggests, listen to it for help ‘studying’. I am made ecstatic listening to Monteverdi’s Vespers. And there’s no way I can listen to Bach’s Chaconne in D Minor without single-minded intensity. 

Classical music isn’t some kind of self-help toolbox or a real-life soma. Yet one of the few times classical music makes the headlines (apart from those articles by its wearisome obituarists) is when a ‘study’ has shown how ‘useful’ it is. It will make your baby smarter (see the ‘Mozart effect’) or pacify a drunken customer — what a mundane technocracy we live in.

Oftentimes, classical music’s utility is an ironic symptom of its own near-death. Novelist Philip Hensher in an Independent article:

A couple of years ago, I arranged to meet a friend at Vauxhall Tube station. I was there a few minutes early. In the ticket hall, there was a pleasant and familiar sound. Surprisingly, London Underground seemed to have decided to play Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony over the tannoys.

There’s probably no noise which gives me more pleasure than the first two bars of Beethoven 7, and I listened in the grimy surroundings with enjoyment and a little surprise. What had caused this outbreak of civilisation?

I was being naïve. At the time, criminological theorists had discovered that there was no noise which would disperse people more quickly than classical music. Beethoven 7 was being played, not because it would give innocent pleasure to passers-by, but because people, on the whole, could be relied upon to loathe it.

Any would-be ne’er-do-wells are running away from a putrid corpse. Hardly an advertisement for classical music.

It would be wonderful to read an opinion piece in a national newspaper about the inherent worth of classical music, and how it’s a great shame that so many people are numb to its beauty. Instead, we get a piece promoting this numbness as a virtue — a useful social pacifier.

What’s wrong with an older audience?

We’re all familiar by now with the problem of ageing audiences in classical music, and the endless calls to modernise and bring in the young, which generally means dismantling concert conventions. We must go to young people because they’ll never come to us, we’re told. And we’re to do this by indulging their attention deficit, their penchant for noise, their love for the casual and their suspicion of the formal and the reverent. Okay, but if you do that, this young person will never go to any of your concerts.

All that said, I can understand the alarmists’ concerns. Who doesn’t wince at statistics like this:


Longer term statistics are much, much worse. One report has the average age of French classical music audiences slipping from 36 to 61 over thirty years. In Australia, the largest proportion of classical music concert-goers are those aged 65-74. Greg Sandow lists studies showing a median age of 30 in 1937, then an average of 35 in 1955, moving on to 38 in the 1960s, at which point some alarms were already being sounded. Sandow has also collated longer term NEA data to show that, yes, this trend is obvious, historically unique, and shows no sign of stopping.

But why is this thought to be self-evidently bad? Today’s copy of The Times reports that violinist Nicola Benedetti ‘has expressed outrage at suggestions that organisers of symphony concerts should focus on attracting younger crowds, at the expense of older devotees.’ She suggested that older audiences are better at focusing and concentrating on the music, as well as noting that symphony performances are ‘suited to an atmosphere of formality and respectful attentiveness’.

It is somewhat outrageous that this even gets to be phrased in terms of a pernicious generation gap. The old are simply custodians of what they love, certainly not to the exclusion of the young. They really aren’t the problem — quite the contrary. Classical music has been made less welcome in modern society, whether by market forces or radical cultural change — or both. If we could simply improve, or in many cases (re)introduce, serious classical music education in state schools, and give classical music some much needed social capital, the sense of crisis would quickly fade.

There’s another, more sensitive topic. Younger generations are less white, and those of other ethnicities are even less likely to listen to classical music (with the obvious exception of East Asians, who make one less pessimistic about the future of classical music). Many people celebrate this. Desert Island Discs is, for those outside Britain, a radio programme where guests, from celebrities to politicians to academics, choose the pieces they would take with them to a desert island. When the programme begun in the early 1940s, 58% of the playlist was classical. Now it’s 21%. The Guardian had an article celebrating that the show now ‘features more diverse range of cultures and musical choices’. Of course, there are many of minority ethnicity who do choose classical music, but the historical constituency for classical music is in relative decline. And regardless of ethnicity, intelligent, fairly well-off people — those most likely to have an interest in classical music — are not exactly having the numbers of children they once would have. Which makes me think classical music is just a victim of general cultural decline.

I can think of few better musical accompaniments to this post than William Byrd’s Ye Sacred Music, written as an elegy for his friend and mentor, Thomas Tallis. ‘Tallis is dead, and Music dies.’

‘Our descent into utter barbarism’

You’ve got to love the comment section over at Slipped Disc. One of today’s posts is titled, ‘To the jerk who shushed me in mid-concert’. Lebrecht tells of an audience member who shushed him for quietly opening the programme mid-performance, only for said audience member to later yawn carelessly, in an act of bold hypocrisy. Lebrecht asks, ‘What perplexes me is why jerks like this go to concerts, or half-concerts. Is it only for the dubious satisfaction of shushing others who are actually enjoying themselves?’

Following from this, one commenter suggests for fellow readers to seek out Julian Barnes’ short-story Vigilance. Well, I found the collection of short stories — The Lemon Table — in the library and started reading it. And what delightful, sinister fun it is.

An ageing man is increasingly disgruntled by audience behaviour. His chief complaint is, of course, unstifled coughing. At first the irritation is mild. He is grateful, at least, that people don’t fart raucously during Mozart. ‘So I suppose,’ he remarks, ‘a few vestiges of the thin crust of civilisation which prevents our descent into utter barbarism are just about holding’.

But one can obviously tell that his anger is already at an agitated simmer. He starts devising methods to improve or dissuade bad audience behaviour. He tries handing out cough sweets, but either the wrappers would make a noise or no one would take unwrapped ones. Then he pretended to be an usher so he could confront audience members, telling them that coughing during Mozart is like gobbing on the Rokeby Venus, or else falling back on coarse name-calling. His revenge just gets meaner and meaner. At one point he fantasises about electric shocks in each seat that would correspond to the decibel level of the cough. (My personal fantasy has always been snipers in the balconies — non-lethal, of course.) His partner is right, however, to note that audience members in pain might mean even louder audience members. You just can’t win.

Sadly, the disgruntled audience member ends up being the more evil party. Lebrecht in his post comes dangerously close to this himself when he writes, ‘I could have made a call this morning and found out the offender’s name, but why bother?’

I’m not claiming to be a perfect audience member. Yes, I never cough, and I’ve never sneezed, and I don’t wear those scratchy puffy raincoats that magnify the volume of every twitch a hundredfold. But I’m not always perfectly still, usually suffering from neck ache that forces me to sharply jerk my head side to side, like a pigeon, which results in a small clicking sound from my bones (though perhaps only audible to me). I also was once horribly ashamed of myself for slouching over the railing to get a better view, taking far too long to realise I was obscuring the view of the old chap next to me.

However, the lesson from the story is that one must try one’s utmost to be a good audience member. Or else you’ll end up with some mad sexagenarian hovering over you, pretending to be an usher, who whispers into your ear, ‘what’s it like, being an utterly selfish berk?