Culture Clash: The Decline of Classical Music in Modern America


In his article “Who Cares About Classical Music?” Glenn Kurtz discusses an experiment “in context, perception and priorities” carried out by The Washington Post. The publication arranged for Joshua Bell, a world-renowned violin virtuoso, to perform various Bach compositions on his Stradivarius in a Washington D.C Metro station. Gene Weingarten, The Washington Post reporter, wrote that the experiment was “an unblinking assessment of public taste: In a banal setting at an inconvenient time, would beauty transcend?” The results of the experiment proved the answer to Weingarten’s question to be a resounding “No.” During Bell’s forty-five minute performance, he managed to attract the attention of only a few individuals, collecting exactly thirty-two dollars and seventeen cents in tips.

This experiment is rather fitting as a piece of data for my own investigation into the cultural significance (or lack thereof) of Classical music in today’s world. Classical music, a form of high art, failed to attract the slightest degree of interest from the apathetic commuters caught up in the chaos of rush hour traffic in a metropolitan subway station. Likely, few of the individuals present that day in the metro station listen to Joshua Bell or Bach’s music in any context, let alone in the midst of such a crowded and stressful environment. The indifference of the general population towards Classical music is a phenomenon directly observable not just in the microcosm of a Washington D.C metro station, but also on a grander scale. The popularity of Classical music in the contemporary world is diminishing significantly, largely as a result of a cultural clash with other “popular” genres of music (rap, rock, pop, alternative, etc). This cultural clash will serve as the central topic of my inquiry into the status of Classical music in modern America.

In this paper, I will begin with a general explanation of Classical music, introducing the fundamental aspects of the genre with the purpose of formulating a basic definition of Classical music and delineating what actually constitutes it. Next, I will fashion a cultural overview of Classical music, detailing its placement in society and its steady demise in the cultural hierarchy. Thereafter, I will analyze Georg Simmel’s On Individuality and Social Forms, in which he characterizes conflict as a source of unity with a positive nature. I will apply this analysis to the world of Classical music, explaining how the cultural clash between Classical music and other (popular) music genres has served as a source of solidarity in the community of Classical music listeners, but also has threatened Classical music’s total annihilation from the cultural realm.

To understand Classical music, one must be cognizant of its three fundamental aspects: period, form, and instrumentation. In general, there are six time periods into which classical music is classified. Each period has a certain style and sound; for example, medieval music is mostly comprised of religious, liturgical compositions. Baroque music is known for its complexity, ornamentation, and use of major and minor tonalities to control dissonance and chromaticism. The form of Classical music is used to describe the kind of composition as well as the architectural structure of a piece of music; many forms of classical music exist (symphony, sonata, concerto, etc.) A musical form can describe the ensemble a piece of music is meant for, such as an orchestra or soloist. Furthermore, different musical forms utilize different techniques, structures, and forms of musical development, such as motif and phrasing. Instrumentation is used to describe the particular combination of musical instruments used in a composition. Primarily, the instruments used in classical music were invented before the middle of the 19th century (violin, viola, cello, etc.). These terms are most likely foreign to an individual not immersed in the world of Classical music as an avid listener, performer, or fan of some nature. The average person’s unfamiliarity with the most rudimentary of Classical musical principles serves to bolster claims of the decline of classical music in the modern world. Classical music, to the average person, appears abstruse and out of touch with contemporary trends in music.

The declining popularity of classical music in the United States and around the world is well supported by myriad pieces of evidence. Perhaps the most apparent substantiation of classical music’s demise in popularity is the increasing age of its primary listeners and consumers. Young people show little to no interest in classical music, and as a result, the age of its listeners is rising. Greg Sandow, an American music critic from The Arts Journal, has detailed the increase in the average age of classical music listeners with a combination of statistical and anecdotal evidence. Sandow writes: “One way to define the classical music crisis is in terms of shrinkage, starting to happen now, and maybe accelerating in the future — shrinkage of the number of people interested in classical music, and thus in the market for it, and then in the organizations that perform it.” Sandow moves on to support his claim with a sobering set of statistics; he explains that the average age of an orchestra audience in 1937 was thirty, but that number has steadily increased in the ensuing years. By 2002 the average age of an audience member was forty-nine. His account is validated by an executive summary from a 1997 report from The National Endowment of the Arts, which notes:

The classical music audience is aging faster than the population as a whole. In 1982 those under thirty years of age comprised 26.9 percent of the audience and by 1997 comprised just 13.2 percent of the audience. [By 2002, they’d fallen to 8.8 percent.] Over this same span of years, those over sixty years of age rose from 15.6 percent to 30.3 percent of the classical music audience.

Not only is the age of classical music listeners increasing, but also the general interest and support for classical music as a whole is plummeting. A New York Times article entitled “Decline in Listeners Worries Orchestras” explains: “All over the Western world, the alarm is sounding that classical music is in trouble. Orchestra subscription sales are dropping widely, in some cases by as much as two percentage points a year. Ensembles are not balancing their budgets. Audiences are getting older; young people are turned off by classical music.” Charles Fowler elaborates on this trend away from Classical music and other forms of high culture in American society in his book Strong Arts, Strong Schools: the Promising Potential and Shortsighted Disregard of the Arts in American Schooling. Fowler writes: “The traditional institutions of what used to be called “high culture” are in serious trouble. The Buffalo Philharmonic and the Rochester Philharmonic, among other small city orchestras, have serious financial problems. Indeed, in the last six years the country’s orchestras as a whole have run deficits totaling $100 million…High culture today survives chiefly because of the support of wealthy corporate patrons. In Buffalo, which lacks wealthy donors, high culture is dying, and culture is becoming less and less accessible.”

More and more, classical music has become estranged from popular culture. Classical music remains in wide use as background music for movies, television, and advertising, but its associations with popular culture are minimal in comparison to its modern counterparts, such as rap, rock, and pop music which are regularly featured as the centerpieces of popular culture. The popularity of classical music has suffered greatly as a result of television networks like MTV and VH1, music publications like Rolling Stone and Billboard, digital media stores like iTunes, and other hubs of popular culture which have focused on other genres of music and helped to accelerate the decline in popularity of classical music. In his book Highbrow/Lowbrow-The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America, Lawrence Levine explains that the classical music form of Opera lost its associations with popular culture and became linked to the economic and social elite:

Although Opera was not, then or now, totally divorced from popular culture-as witness the great popularity of such singers as Caruso at the turn of the century and Pavarotti in our own day-by the end of the nineteenth century it, like Shakespearean drama, was no longer part and parcel of the eclectic blend of drama that had characterized the United States. More and more, opera in America meant foreign-language opera performed in opera houses like the Academy of Music and the Metropolitan Opera House, which were deeply influenced if not controlled by wealthy patrons whose impresarios and conductors strove to keep the opera they presented free from the influence of other genres and groups” (Levine, 102)

Classical music’s lack or representation in popular culture has created a generation of young people who do not appreciate or understand classical music. Charles Fowler writes:

A survey of the attitudes of sixth-tenth grade students toward classical music reveals that many young people don’t like it, don’t understand it, and don’t even know what it is. Their opinions range from an all-too-rare “wondrous sound” to “it stinks” and is “boring” and “dull.” A significant 35.6 percent of the responses described classical music as soft and/or slow, and their misdefinitions ranged from big band, ballroom, and rock and roll, to music heard in hospitals, dentists’ offices, elevators, and supermarkets. To many of these young people, classical music is a dead language, a subject akin to Latin” (Fowler, 78).

While a lack of representation in popular culture is certainly a source of culpability at least in part for the cultural ignorance of youth toward classical music, it is only one factor that has created this phenomenon. Perhaps even more responsible is the American school system, which has placed little importance on music education. Nationwide, music programs have been faced with budget cuts; Fowler explains, “Although there are funds to support other subjects, music education is simply not sufficiently valued…in regard to budgets, curricular considerations, staffing, and scheduling, music doesn’t command much priority” (Fowler, 76). A New York Times article entitled “Music View; is classical music thriving or dying” notes, “a knowledge of Classical music serves no purpose but to give pleasure, to elevate thought or intensify feelings. It is useless. No wonder school boards cut it from the curriculum whenever fat must be squeezed from the budget, as current governmental policies are making increasingly necessary.” Music programs, as a secondary concern for school boards, have suffered, and so too has youth’s knowledge and appreciation of classical music. Schools have continued to cut budgets for music programs despite research by the National Association for Music Education showing that students who study music perform higher on standardized tests and have increased academic production. The study explains:

“students of music continue to outperform their non-arts peers on the SAT, according to reports by the College Entrance Examination Board. In 2006, SAT takers with coursework/experience in music performance scored 57 points higher on the verbal portion of the test and 43 points higher on the math portion than students with no coursework or experience in the arts. Scores for those with coursework in music appreciation were 62 points higher on the verbal and 41 points higher on the math portion.”

The same study also concludes that “nearly 100% of past winners in the prestigious Siemens Westinghouse competition in Math, Science, and Technology (for high school students) play one or more musical instruments.”

Fowler, obviously a strong advocate of music education, ends his book with a call to action. Fowler writes,

“What is at stake is nothing less than a whole way of life. The classical arts represent a value system that should be prized but increasingly is not.  One hope is to gather all the forces, scant as they are, and join together in a massive effort to reverse the current trends. If we don’t, we stand to lose a precious part of our cultivated human existence. The world could get coarser, crueler, and more uncouth. We could lose altogether our mechanisms for communicating both the ennobling and the starkly revealing purviews of human life. We could cease to value the “languages” of civilization through which we express our feelings, dreams, outrages, and intuitive understandings. Science does not and cannot provide us with the insight” (Fowler, 81).

Fowler is not alone in his concerns about the disappearance of classical music. Countless other individuals and organizations share his sentiments. However, a competing school of thought does exist which boldly contests these claims. Some scholars maintain that the movement of popular culture away from classical music is not a calamitous and detrimental trend. Rather, this cultural shift away from classical music may be a boon to the classical music world. John Steinmetz, a writer for the classical music website, writes in his article “Step Away From the Pedestal:”

“Our culture now has musical needs that classical music cannot meet…classical music, through no fault of its own, has fallen out of step with current values. While humanity struggles to rethink our relationship with the rest of nature, classical music, with its focus on human emotion, is mostly silent about that crucial current issue. While our culture is working to shed old baggage about gender, classical music narratives often emphasize a triumph of “masculine” energies over “feminine” energies. Recent thinking about community and interdependence does not fit well with classical music, which instead provides wonderful expressions of individualism while relying on hierarchical musical structures…Moving off the pedestal and moving away from the center of culture could actually help classical music. Because it no longer has to act as a cultural ambassador, and because it can shed any responsibility to be respectable and “great,” the music can be free to show its full personality, including its crazy streak, its extremes and its looniness as well as its beauty and power.”

While there is no denying the decline of classical music in modern America, there is clearly fervent debate over the consequences that the decline will have on “cultivated human existence” in the years to come. Perhaps only time will reveal the effects that the decline of classical music will have on the cultural value system of future generations.

In his essay On Individuality and Social Forms, Georg Simmel seeks to prove that conflict has a positive nature and is a source of solidarity. Simmel begins his argument with a discussion of conflict as a form of sociation, or an interaction among men. As a form of sociation, conflict allows for the resolution of the tension between contrasts. Simmel writes, “Conflict is thus designed to resolve divergent dualisms; it is a way of achieving some kind of unity, even if it be through the annihilation of one of the conflicting parties” (Simmel 70). Simmel explains, “conflict contains something positive”; it is a dual entity, encompassing the positive and the negative, “the antithetical and the convergent” (Simmel 71).

Simmel moves on to discuss social relations in reference to conflict, as he creates a distinction between relations that constitute a unit, and those that counteract unity. Simmel explains that these two distinct forms of relations do not exist separately; rather, they are inextricable. Simmel writes, “There probably exists no social unit in which convergent and divergent currents among its members are not inseparably interwoven” (Simmel 72). This balance of attractive and repulsive forces (e.g. love and hate) is a positive aspect of conflict, as it is needed to maintain the form or shape of society. Simmel explains that “some quantitative ratio of harmony and disharmony” is a necessary element of social relations, and “society, as we know it, is the result of both categories of interaction, which thus manifest themselves as wholly positive” (Simmel, 72).

In an effort to further his argument about the positive nature of conflict and its ability to bind people together, Simmel explains that people tend to focus on the negative effects conflict can have on individuals. When viewed from a broader perspective, however, conflict has “an entirely positive role.” To support this assertion, Simmel uses the example of the positive effects of competition between individuals in an economic system (Simmel 74). Simmel proceeds to describe how conflict plays a positive role as an integrative force in the group. Simmel explains that, “a certain amount of discord, inner divergence and outer controversy, is organically tied up with the very elements that ultimately hold the group together; it cannot be separated from the unity of the sociological structure” (Simmel 74). Simmel cites multiple examples of “the positive and integrating role of antagonism.” First, Simmel uses the example of marital relations that are “bearable or at least borne,” maintained despite disagreement. Next, Simmel explains that conflict allows for the “carefully preserved purity of…social divisions and gradations” in the Hindu social system, as hostility prevents boundaries between groups from disappearing.

The removal of conflict from social life, Simmel writes, would not improve social relations. In contrast, the disappearance of conflict would be as detrimental to the group as the disappearance of cooperation: “Conflict is not only a means for preserving the relation but one of the concrete functions which actually constitute it” (Simmel 76). Conflict is a positive factor even in its latent form, as feelings of mutual repulsion prevent intimate contact, which can lead to hatred and fight. This positive aspect of conflict allows for the existence of urban life, as antipathy protects us against the typical dangers of city life. Antipathy is preliminary phase of definite antagonism; it creates distances and aversions that help prevent more severe forms of conflict.

In the text, Simmel makes a variety of arguments. Simmel claims that conflict is a means of resolving the tension between contrasts, an amalgamation of convergent and divergent factors, an integrative force in groups, and an essential factor for the existence of urban life. Ultimately, Simmel believes that conflict is something positive, a means of binding people together to create a sense of unity. Simmel’s arguments can be applied to an analysis of the world of Classical music. Conflict in the world of classical music is represented by the aforementioned cultural clash between classical and popular music genres. Classical music is gradually being squeezed out of the public consciousness. The age of its primary listeners and consumers is increasing and the general interest and support for classical music as a whole is plummeting. Classical music has become estranged from popular culture and the American school system no longer supports Classical music programs, creating a generation of young people who do not appreciate or understand classical music. While Classical music dies, popular music thrives: rap, pop, rock, and alternative music is featured on television, in periodicals, and in various forms of digital media. Revenues for these popular music genres are substantially larger than for classical music, and these genres are the centerpieces of popular culture.

This conflict, or cultural clash with popular music, has a twofold effect on the world of Classical music. On one hand, this conflict between classical music and popular music genres creates unity, as we witness the “the positive and integrating role of antagonism,” represented by the forging of a community of classical music listeners, performers, teachers, and supporters of other kinds connected by their common fandom. These individuals are drawn together by a shared ideology reflecting their support of classical music and belief in its importance and value in the modern world. The solidarity borne out of this conflict manifests itself on a cultural level. A multitude of organizations supporting Classical music exist throughout the world. The National Association of Music Educators is among the world’s largest arts education organizations, serving millions of students nationwide with over 75,000 active members. Websites like list hundreds of “societies, organizations, foundations & associations” affiliated with classical music, ranging from American Federation of Musicians to the Rachmaninoff Society. The Spinx organization is a great promoter of classical music for Blacks and Latinos; its mission statement explains, “We envision a world in which classical music reflects cultural diversity and plays a role in the everyday lives of youth.”

The National Association of Youth Orchestras in the United Kingdom supports over 125,000 young musicians in over 1,800 youth orchestras. Countless professional music organizations exist, including world-renowned symphony orchestras like the New York Philharmonic which are still able to draw large audiences to their performances. The world of classical music, in this sense, is the embodiment of Simmel’s ideas, as conflict serves as a positive factor in bringing together the people of a community.

On the other hand, however, conflict is a detriment to the world of classical music. While conflict serves as a source of solidarity, it also resolves “divergent dualisms” through the “annihilation of one of the conflicting parties,” as the world of classical music is gradually being destroyed as a result of the cultural clash with popular music genres. Classical music is no longer a widely appreciated, popular genre of music among the public. It is gradually disappearing into oblivion as the age of its fans increases and as interest and support for classical music decreases. Classical music is no longer an icon of popular culture, and the media of the modern world pays little or no attention to it. Classical music programs in schools across the nation are suffering from budget cuts. The combined effects of these trends have generated a profound ignorance of Classical music in our nation’s youth, who do not know nor care about Mozart, Beethoven, or Tchaikovsky. This “annihilation” creates unity, but it can only manifest itself after the destruction of classical music. Inevitably, classical music will become a remnant of times past, a pastime enjoyed by forgotten ancestors.

5 Responses to “Culture Clash: The Decline of Classical Music in Modern America”

  1. by bmm32

    You do a great job of making a coherent case for the social dynamics of classical music in modern America. However, I’d like to know your thoughts on classical music appreciation at Duke. Do you think the same “decline” holds true, even in what many people would describe as an highly cultured environment with much support for classical music?

  2. by mbw20

    First off, I would like to say that I agree whole-heartedly with what you are saying about classical music, and I really like all of the research you did that proves it. However, this is also my only real issue with the paper, since your paper doesn’t really have many of your own ideas, just a great number of citations of other people’s research.

  3. by apm12

    It was very interesting how you outlined the decline and loss of interest of the general population in classical music; it was very thorough and detailed and showed the effects of such a decline. The presentation in general was very well-done. One suggestion I have is to maybe include more visual aids, such as websites/charts/videos showing the effects and consequences of the lack of classical music in the musical world today.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.