November 2, 2018
Bored children at a concert

Youth and Classical Music

The classical music audience is aging: What can we do to interest a younger audience?
by Jennifer Vose, senior editor

The phenomenon is undeniable - certainly not an absolute, but definitely pervasive. Classical music audiences are aging, school and state budgets for the arts (classical music in particular) are threadbare, and younger people - those who would make up the next generation of lifelong classical music patrons - by and large snub classical music as boring, hard to listen to, too long, and simply "uncool." Perhaps, in time and with life experience under their belts, today's youth and young adults will, in their middle- and older-adult years, find their way to the seats of concert halls, but what happens if they don't? Those of us who passionately promote and appreciate classical music perish the thought that the grandeur of a symphony concert, the intimacy of a chamber music performance, the eager anticipation of a newly unveiled composition, or the comfort of an old stand-by may, as we know and love them, someday become obsolete. And this is to say nothing of the countless benefits that will pass today's youth right by should their young lives be without the beauty and enrichment of classical music - benefits for their brains, bodies, minds, neighborhoods, and wider world.

These concerns are not new. In 2009, the League of American Orchestras released a report in which they outlined the decline in classical music audiences across generations. The report also outlined some key areas for further research and suggested target areas, including, "... understanding the drivers / inhibitors of classical music attendance for Generation X*; [and] understanding behavior of Generation Y** and how to develop their awareness about classical music."

Global interest in classical music since 2004 - Google Trends

If we are to see the glass half full and not paint such a bleak, dystopian picture of the future of classical music, we might look to all that is being fervently done to insure the next generation of classical music enthusiasts, as well as eagerly and intelligently engage in productive discussions about what more can be done now to lay the groundwork for classical music in decades to come. To this end, Virtual Sheet Music has spent the past few months gathering data from over 100 music teachers and arts organizations from around the world on this very topic. While we have not answered the million-dollar question, we've got lots of fodder for discussion, food for thought, and even some suggestions for what individuals and society might do to steer youth along the path of embracing classical music as a treasure we ought not let slip through our fingers.

Disclaimer: As you read our article, there are 2 things we'd like you to keep in mind. First, understand that this is just a commentary with food for thought, not, in any way, a complete, empirically-researched examination of the vast topic that is "youth and classical music." There are aspects of the topic we have not addressed here, and plenty of stones we left unturned. Second, the quotes we've shared from our survey respondents are not meant to represent all viewpoints. In fact, in some cases, the quotes may reflect one, and only one, person's lived experience. The quotes are meant to be illustrative, to inspire, to raise questions, and to shed glimmers of light on some important issues. As you read, you might consider where your own experiences and viewpoints are reflected, where your ideas and opinions diverge, and where new thoughts are raised that you hadn't previously considered. There's room for everyone in this discussion!

What's being done?

To borrow a page from real estate, "Exposure, exposure, exposure!" Not surprisingly, the respondents to our survey unanimously believed in the importance of giving youth every opportunity to "interact with" classical music. Frequent, and even brief, exposure can be extremely impactful, as one teacher explained, "My students love it. Years ago, when I taught K-8 general music, I found that students who were introduced to it at a young age all found some of it to love, since I introduced them to a wide variety in 5-min. listening segments at the beginning of each class."

Further, in an exclusive interview with Jon Weber, the Director of School and Family Programs with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO), he pointed out that, "You just don't know where exposure will lead students." He explained that while students may not, as a result of one classical music experience, run out and download all of the Mozart they can get their hands on, any one classical music experience may manifest itself in a deeper interest later on in a young person's life.

Jon's words carry with them a lot of weight as he hails from an organization that has made great strides over the past 100 years in helping to grow future generations of classical music creators and enthusiasts. For the past 100 years, the CSO has offered a yearly series of concerts specifically programmed for school groups and families. "The CSO has an incredible history of sharing music with young people," said Jon Weber. "The school and family concert series was founded to expose young people to orchestral music, and the musicians and instruments that make that music come to life." These efforts are reaching wide audiences, as Jon Weber explains, "On average, 40,000 children, teachers, and family members attend the concerts each year, with nearly 50% of school-day audiences coming directly from Chicago public schools."

Video interview with Jon Weber about Classical music and Children

For the CSO, it's about far more than simply performing the music, closing the curtain, and calling it a day. "When we present programs today, the music should be as vibrant as it has always been, but there also need to be connections to children's daily lives." To achieve this ideal, and rather successfully at that, the CSO provides teachers and parents with pre- and post-concert learning materials and lesson plans to help students understand what they'll hear in-concert, and then take what they've experienced out into their worlds beyond the concert hall with "suggestions for continued learning and exploration." The CSO also "list[s] learning objectives in the curriculum we develop, and all of our curriculum is aligned with state arts learning standards and Common Core standards." He added that, "Specific student outcomes are dependent, in great part, on teachers' use of the materials." These supplementals can help teachers better justify to administrators the time spent preparing students for, attending, and debriefing after the concert experience. For schools with band and orchestra programs, the CSO offers master classes, ensemble-playing opportunities, invitations to attend open CSO rehearsals, and chances to get to know musicians from the orchestra.

"Many schools have limited resources, and we do what we can to reduce barriers," explained Jon Weber. In this centennial anniversary of this remarkable, far-reaching program, the CSO is offering free school-day concert tickets, as well as free transportation for Chicago public schools to attend concerts. "Hopefully," he reflected, "this supports their interest in playing an instrument and coming to concerts. It's incredible to see students' enthusiasm."

As explained by Jon Weber, and as reported by the respondents to our survey, simply listening to, or going through the motions of playing classical music, may not, in and of themselves, provide the richness of exposure required to spark a young person's interest in classical music. For one thing, teachers and arts organizations who responded to our survey emphasized the importance of context. Beyond simply playing classical selections in the classroom, assigning classical repertoire to learn and perform, and encouraging concert attendance, making connections between classical music and the wider world was paramount to teachers' and organizations' efforts. In other words, teachers and arts organizations suggested that their efforts seem most successful when youth have the opportunity to understand the historical landscape when a particular piece was composed, and what life experiences may have moved a composer to write a particular piece. To illustrate this point, one music teacher shared, "My students really enjoy classical music when they are learning to perform it in a group setting. They are eager to know the context of a piece and enjoy learning about the history associated with it." Another teacher reflected, "... most [students] are very receptive to learning music from different periods of time, especially when I add some history about the composer and piece, and explain why we are choosing that particular music."

Along with helping students understand the back-story behind the classical music they hear and play, teachers and arts organizations are also tasked with showing students how classical music conveys and arouses a broad spectrum of emotions, and even how today's popular music reflects some of the fundamental techniques grounded in classical music - both of which can enhance the relatability of music that may otherwise seem totally irrelevant to the life of a tween, teen, or even young adult.

Teachers and arts organizations also mentioned the importance of choosing wisely when deciding what music to play for their young audiences, or what music students will be assigned to learn to play. Our survey respondents acknowledged that youth are most likely to be moved by and interested in classical music that is engaging to a young mind and heart. One arts organization "select[s] music beyond the 'classical standards' that everyone is sick of hearing, but still find[s] music that has an accessible tune, and then develops lovely harmony and variations and demonstrates the power of a non-electric group of instruments," suggesting that it is critical to present pieces that youth will find musically interesting, yet takes them out of their musical comfort zones. Further, according to one arts organization, many contemporary composers' music may be "more accessible since some of their work is intended to explore or create an emotional landscape as much as a sonic world," underscoring the importance of an emotional experience with classical music as much as a musical one.

When it comes to exposing kids to classical music, teachers and arts organizations also emphasized the importance of making it interactive; that is, along with providing insights about context, allowing for movement, art, emotional expressiveness, and games to be part of the listening or music-making experience help young people develop a deeper connection with the music. Perhaps this is why learning to play music, in addition to being a listener, can be a powerful tool when introducing youth to classical music. One teacher commented," Many love the music immediately & others grow to appreciate & enjoy after they've learned it & performed the piece or work," suggesting that a deeper appreciation may be fostered when youth learn to produce the music with their very own bodies. But even when students aren't equipped with the ability or resources to play classical music themselves, moving, dancing, and allowing the music to inspire other artistic creations are, according to our survey respondents, invaluable vehicles when exposing kids to classical music.

Interactive 360° video by the Education Through Music, narrated by Meryl Streep

How do young people respond to classical music?

Teachers and arts organizations did report that the initial response of their youth audiences to classical music is generally positive. "Most are quite receptive," said one teacher, "especially with commonly-heard music as well as music connections with the present." Another teacher shared, "Initially, there were only a few who understood and enjoyed what I was doing, but after a while, they really started to get it. It's gotten to the point where they look forward to finding new pieces, and do so even when I don't assign them. I've had so many one-on-one conversations about random pieces from their exploring, and they're my favorite. ... I think I've made my mark."

But as explained earlier, this enjoyment depends on the informative, interactive nature of the experience. One teacher commented, "They enjoyed it because the listening activity was prefaced by movement, historical background, listening for certain melodic or rhythmic characteristics. I always gave them something concrete that they were listening for," highlighting the importance of setting the scene and making classical music an interactive, rather than a passive, experience when striving to cultivate enjoyment and appreciation.

In some rare cases, interest in classical music may even extend beyond the educational experience, as one teacher stated, "I know that my students listen to classical music outside of our lesson times because they frequently come to class with questions or comments about a piece they heard on the radio, at a concert or watched on YouTube." For another teacher, "Some of them have taken it upon themselves to seek out more classical music, after we exposed them to it. Some haven't, but still appreciate it when we are teaching them." Further, "They now appreciate it & some now go to symphony concerts and other performances. Some have joined youth symphony orchestras." And thanks to the internet, youth with a budding curiosity can do some exploring on their own, as one teacher relayed: "Many tell me they have searched the internet for more 'stuff like that one'."

Despite the positive in-the-moment response to classical music, teachers and arts organizations regrettably suggested that, except for the most serious music students, youth, too often, do not seem likely to cultivate an interest in classical music beyond the classroom, required repertoire, or occasional concert experience. As one teacher reflected, "I think most do not gravitate to classical music for their casual listening - but the fact that they are learning to play an orchestra music makes them more open than similar aged peers." Music in-the-home may also play a role, as one teacher explained, "Probably very little [interest] for the most part. A great deal depends on the parents and whether they are interested enough to take students to concerts or listen to music at home."

Why isn't classical music kids' music of choice?

We also asked teachers and organizations to venture their guesses as to why youth tend not to load up their ipods with Bach, Beethoven, or even modern-day composers. The proposed theories that emerged are not necessarily tested and proven by science, but they, nonetheless, are grounded in valuable experience and acute insights.

  • Classical music is too stuffy. Performers dressed in formal attire; no clapping or noise of any kind until the very end of a piece; and music that seems to require a road map and exclusive knowledge to understand can, unfortunately, make for a rather unwelcoming, uninviting ambiance at classical music performances, especially for those who are reluctant or new to classical music. As one teacher pointed out, this may be the case, "Because we, as musicians, cater to older, wealthier, people. We've made classical music into something elitist and pretentious, even if we didn't intend to, and that's how younger audiences see it."

In a 2016 CNN commentary, Charlie Albright, a classical pianist and the 2010 recipient of the Gilmore Young Artist Award and the 2014 Avery Fisher Career Grant, explained that such stringent etiquette at classical music concerts did not emerge until the 20th century. Now, he reflected, "With this stifling atmosphere of rules and 'appropriateness,' it is no wonder that people (especially youth) are apprehensive and often uninterested in the whole idea of classical music. Somehow, classical music has become inaccessible and unwelcoming."

  • School-based orchestra and band programs are dwindling. It was once the case that a majority of children, regardless of parental musical involvement or socioeconomic status, learned to read music and play an instrument. But today, according to a 2018 posting on Intellectual TakeOut, the percentage of people who are music literate has declined to around 11%. Schools once provided a variety of music-making opportunities for students: choirs, symphonic band, orchestras, marching band and instrumental or voice instruction. Today though, many of these offerings are no longer available or available only as extracurricular activities and not part of the school day, leaving students with the limits of music appreciation classes to be their narrow gateway into music beyond the mainstream.
Music literacy pie chart

Despite the inclusion of music as part of the standards for a well-rounded public school education in the U.S., school budgets often cannot support the expense of band and orchestra programs; thus closing one of the doorways to lifelong appreciation of classical music. Jon Weber of the CSO reflected, "Teachers' and administrators' prioritization is based, in part, on their first-hand experiences. If they themselves haven't had the opportunity to participate in a band or orchestra as a student, it is conceivable that they might not fully understand the value of these programs." As one teacher further explained, "The time allotted for music is very limited in the elementary years. Depending on the school's population, I only had 45 minutes with each class on a 6 to 8 school day rotation. So, the child sometimes only had 20 - 27 hours of music instruction per year."

All too often, as another commented, "Music is seen as an optional extra in curriculum whereas it is an essential part of children's response to beauty, creativity and imagination. It helps them get in touch with their soul." When public schools no longer provide instrumental or voice instruction as part of the standard school day, then learning to play music becomes something only accessible to the well-to-do, thus perpetuating the notion that classical music is only for the wealthy.

  • Classical music doesn't hold a prominent place at home or in popular culture. Regarding classical music at home, one teacher reflected, "These days, classical music is not played at home so that the kids get to hear it on a regular basis. Even if the kids don't like the music, hearing it at home on a regular basis stays with them. They don't grow up with it so they don't really get an appreciation for it." Even when kids do express a potential interest in classical music, perhaps born of a school experience, one teacher explained, "With this generation, their parents are younger than the typical classical music fan. I find that my [students] would like to go see a concert, for example, and their parents are the ones more resistant."

“I find that my students would like to go see a concert, and their parents are the ones more resistant.”

In terms of popular culture, another pervasive force as youth develop their lifelong interests and inclinations, trends have shifted over time. In previous generations, as one teacher explained, "All the early Radio and TV programs, cartoons, movies and sitcoms had many classical themes interspersed in their episodes. And that generation developed an appreciation for the classics." Today, as many of our survey respondents contended, classical music is not nearly as embedded. Further, today's "Popular music industries are big and flashy. Living artists can promote their music a lot more than dead ones can," suggesting that the lack of presence in popular culture, along with limited classical music promotion in popular culture, may be partially to blame.

  • Young people may lack some of the necessary personal resources to fully embrace classical music. For example, as one teacher colorfully commented, " I believe that just as fine wines and liqueurs tend to be enjoyed more by mature palates than those with less experience, the intricacies and nuances found in classical music tend to call to those with more life experience and broader horizons." Besides limited life experience, youth may also have limited attention spans that do not lend themselves to listening to lengthy classical pieces. One teacher offered, "As we age, we slow down as well. Kids are almost too energetic to sit still long enough for a classical music concert. That's because our current society's life is coming out infull blast very fast. Unfortunately, attention spans are shortening." Also, many potential classical musicians or listeners may lack the financial resources to fully avail themselves of an art form that often comes with a price tag. For as one teacher reflected, "Taking lessons costs money. Instruments cost money. Concert attire costs money. Concerts cost far too much money. I feel that there's so many kids who could be interested in and/or have a talent for the genre if only they could afford to be a part of it."
  • Classical music may not embody what youth look for in their musical experiences. For one thing, "Youth want to be engaged and listened to. This rarely happens at a classical concert," as one teacher explained. Additionally, "... the art of listening to music is not done today - the beat seems to be the thing. Also classical music is thought [of] as boring and too hard to perform. Old fashion." Further, "[Classical music is] more relaxing I suppose, and thought provoking. It allows you to sit and meditate if I may use that word. That's what older people want or feel they need. Younger ones are more into other genres of music like Hip Hop and rock." Perhaps this is because, as one teacher put it, "Our society is geared toward loud & fast with flashy costumes & lights. Classical music doesn't always embrace that." While new classical music emerges all the time, much of the classical music most often learned and performed is from decades, or centuries, ago. If what is "outdated" seems "uncool," and this tends to be the mindset of the younger generation, then it's no surprise that classical music can be a tough sell with many kids and young adults.
  • Classical music may not be immediately relatable for a younger audience. As one teacher explained, "The age of immediate thrills is no secret. As telephones, typewriters, CDs become extinct; it seems inevitable that classical music would be considered a dinosaur. It is not as accessible to ears that are used to hearing high pounding, non-melodic, rhythms." Youth may also find it difficult to see themselves reflected in this music that seems complicated and unfamiliar, as one teacher commented, "The composers are usually dead, the concerts are very formal, and young people think they cannot relate to their ideas - though they can!" That said, despite the diversity within our society today, classical music, by and large, remains very "white" - composers, performers, and audiences. Non-white youth may be more willing to give classical music a glance if they saw their own faces reflected in the notes and on the stage. As Jon Weber shared, "There's a greater need for culturally-relevant education, so it is appropriate for educators [and arts organizations] to really consider what is the content that is most accessible and appealing to students."
Global interest in music, video and books since 2004 - Google Trends

What can be done?

So, where do we go from here? Giving up on today's youth altogether seems unthinkable and inappropriate; for while not within the scope of this article, exposure to classical music has far too many potential benefits for youth to abandon the cause entirely. Besides the potential positive effects that playing and listening to classical music may have on the developing minds of young people, as discussed in VSM's previous article on the effects of music on the brain, appreciating classical music may also help youth to broaden their world view to understand the past, embrace the present, and prepare for a thriving future - a future where classical music, which has already stood the test of time, continues to be treasured and valued for its depth of artistic merit.

Turning young people into instant and passionate classical music fans may be a tall order. Rather, the most productive approach for teachers and arts organizations may be to lay the groundwork for youth to continue developing an appreciation for classical music over time. After all, if it is true that a more finely-tuned mind, ear, and heart are needed to be able to fully appreciate and enjoy classical music, perhaps today's youth will, in years to come, find themselves with the very depth of life experience, coupled with lifelong, carefully-guided exposure, to find themselves buying tickets to symphony concerts, downloading classical recordings, and even re-creating and creating the classical music of the past and future.

There is much food for thought in what teachers and arts organizations shared in our survey that may help guide future endeavors with youth.

  1. Concerts for kids. As many of our survey respondents suggested, more opportunities for kids to experience live classical music is key. "Young kids need to see live music performed so that they understand that there is more out there than pre-recorded sound," said one arts organization. "People of all ages need to be exposed to music that does not have a drum kit and electric guitars and lasts only 2 minutes." Additionally, as Jon Weber pointed out, "Classical music is most impactful when you see it and hear it live," suggesting that concerts for youth are well-worth the effort to produce. Family concerts (with affordable tickets for kids and parents alike that feature engaging, short, perhaps well-known pieces); instrument petting zoos; school-day concerts, like those offered by the CSO; or visits to schools by orchestras and smaller ensembles are just a few ideas.
  2. Expand the Scope. Classical music is often touted as "relaxing" - which is the case only some of the time. It's definitely true that kids, like adults, need downtime and tools to help them relax, which may include classical music, but when kids hear "relaxing," they often think "BORING!" Adults might, instead, acknowledge and share with youth the broad spectrum of emotions found within classical music: jubilation, curiosity, despair, pride, passion, confusion, anger, fear, humor - the very same roller coaster of emotions that accompany youth on their day-to-day life journeys. As one arts organization stated, "Keep the prices low and advertise the edginess of composers - show their angst." Composers were and are people too, and their rich, eventful, sometimes-dramatic lives are so vividly reflected in their compositions.
  3. Parents are Paramount. Teachers and organizations can do a great deal to provide opportunities for kids to interact with classical music, but a lifelong appreciation may depend on the extent to which classical music is a part of family life. Kids might be excited by music they hear in school, but if their parents or other important adults in their lives aren't, themselves, open to classical music and eager to bring their children to concerts, or even just listen together at home, kids' enthusiasm may live and die within the classroom walls. 20-, 30-, and 40-somethings may also need to develop an appreciation for classical music alongside their children so they might indulge their kids' budding interests and curiosities, as reflected by one teacher: "I encourage parents to grow an appreciation for the music and let it play at home in the background or during relaxing time. Then the children slowly grow to appreciate it." This means that arts organizations and teachers alike might reach out to these younger adults, as well as kids, in their efforts to raise the next generation of classical music enthusiasts.
  4. Creative Crossovers. While classical music purists may cringe at the thought of blending Beethoven and Biance, Mozart and Maroon 5, but if that's the music kids enjoy and relate to most, then let's use popular music as a gateway to introduce kids to classical music. Can a classical melody be "countrified?" Can a symphonic theme be added over a beat to create a rap or dance tune? What elements of classical technique are the foundation of today's most popular tunes? Can kids' favorite songs be reimagined and played in a baroque, classical, or romantic style? Bach may not roll in his grave nearly as much as we fear if he knew that such creative crossovers opened kids' eyes to a genre of music that they'd otherwise ignore or assume is just for older people, or worse yet, a genre of music that is completely dead with no life left to live. Authenticity is key though, so if this treads too far outside your comfort zone, find ways to think outside the box that are in keeping with your values. Another crossover opportunity might be to allow classical music to reach across academic disciplines. Classical music might serve as the inspiration for drawing, painting, and sculpting in art classes; as the background music for movement in physical education; as a jumping off point for a history lesson; help tell a story or provide a soundtrack for reading materials in English classes; even science and math can use the numerical aspects of rhythm, tempo, sound, and instrument construction to illustrate fundamental principles. As one arts organization sees it, "Classical has been treated like a subject in a box and that just should not be."
  5. STEAM in School. Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math - this is music to music teachers' ears! Far too many schools eliminate music from the core curriculum, or altogether, in an attempt to put all resources towards the STEM of education. But as one teacher shared, "I think it should be promoted more in the public schools and not be seen as just an elective but as a real subject." Public schools are a particularly important piece to the puzzle, because with the right resources and support, they can provide all children, regardless of socioeconomic status, access to classical music. Jon Weber of the CSO shared, "when young people have the opportunity to learn to play an instrument, it is incredibly rewarding but it also opens up an incredible amount of skill and opportunities, such as creative and collaborative skills, and communication," as well as "other academic and social/emotional gains." One of our teacher survey respondents urged, "Put string programs back in the public and private schools." Further, "If children play in a school orchestra and a community youth orchestra, they will learn to love classical music." School-based instrumental music programs may help diminish the notion that classical music is only for those who can afford the expenses of buying instruments, taking private lessons, and participating in fee-based orchestra programs. Advocacy on the part of teachers, parents, and arts organizations can never run in short supply, so we must persist. Many of our survey respondents emphasized that the future of classical music depends on music in schools: more time devoted to music appreciation in the classroom, and the reinstatement of band and orchestra programs for all students interested in learning to play an instrument. After all, as one arts organization commented, "It seems like participation enhances interest. If they play, they seek more classical music inspiration." But why wait until elementary school? As one teacher put it, "Start when they are young!!! ... Let's start in pre-school with fun classical music- have children dance and sing and enjoy!"
  6. Partnerships. Why not pool resources! Teachers, especially those who find themselves lacking in funds to do what they want to do with their students, might reach out to arts organizations to work together. Jon Weber encouraged, "It should be a two-way street for teachers to feel empowered to speak with and share their needs with cultural organizations around them." Many organizations are eager for outreach opportunities, and teachers should not be shy in making these organizations aware of what their students need. If a program doesn't already exist, teachers and organizations can work together to create one - maybe even one that is tailor-made to suit a particular school or group of students. In Jon Weber's opinion, "it is the CSO's responsibility to be as responsive to the needs that occur in schools. There are unique ways that arts organizations can support the work of teachers." Likewise, organizations might do their part to be ready to partner with teachers, parents, and other organizations to do as much outreach as their own budgets can manage. Teachers often need to justify what they do with their students, so like the CSO, organizations might consider providing teachers with lesson plans to accompany their outreach efforts, as well as learning outcomes - that is, the "take-aways" that students will bring with them back to their regular classrooms.
  7. Share the Love. Don't just teach about it and play it - show kids how much you love this music! As one teacher reflected, "My students see that I am enthusiastic about playing and listening to classical music and they pick up on that vibe." True passion can be infectious, so let youth see how strongly you feel and are moved by classical music. Tell stories of your past experiences with classical music, help them understand why particular pieces are your "faves," and don't be shy about letting kids see the emotions that stir in your heart as you listen. Sharing success stories can also be incredibly powerful, so that people in the wider world become aware, and supportive, of the far-reaching benefits of the arts - and music in particular. AmericansForTheArts commented in a 2013 blog post, "... we know the arts transform lives ─ we watch it every day. Tell the story of how the arts change the lives of your community members. Encourage them to share their stories with their friends. Share these stories with your local arts council as well as national service organizations. Help them lead the greater push for change." Everyone from teachers to arts marketing executives should sing the praises of their music programs for young people to help forge further support for the arts in schools and the community.
  8. Attracting an Audience. Arts organizations are tasked with the challenge of reaching younger audiences. Many of our survey respondents emphasized the importance of making live classical music experiences more affordable and accessible, including cheap tickets for kids and parents, and effectively-marketed school- or family-oriented concert programs designed with kids' interests and attention spans in mind. And why not change the setting? Instead of formal concert halls, perhaps public spaces for pop-up, or even well-planned, concerts, along with well-established outdoor concert venues where the audience can enjoy music, as well as the open air. Places like Tanglewood in the Berkshires of Massachusetts, the Hollywood bowl of Los Angeles, California, and the New World Symphony in Miami, Florida attract audiences of all ages to their unique, less-formal settings where music, a picnic, and good times are all in good order, thus introducing many to classical music who might otherwise never give it a listen.

Additionally, perhaps classical music events could be made more welcoming to all, especially those not well-versed in classical music "etiquette." maybe, sometimes, clapping in between movements can be OK. Perhaps healthy, relatively mess-free snacks can be allowed in concert halls. And as one teacher suggested, "Show everyday people playing - not always in tuxes." Make musicians and conductors seem more relatable and down-to-earth with more casual dress on stage, introductions of on-stage personalities to the audience, pre- and post-concert meet-and-greets with performers, etc. And why not take advantage of technology to the fullest? An engaging social media presence might reach potential audience members of all ages, and interactive in-concert opportunities, like real-time program notes for smart devices, might help a younger crowd feel more connected to what they're hearing and seeing before them. Advertise concerts, instrumental or voice lessons, and all else classical music with the target audience in mind by highlighting what they'll enjoy and appreciate in the experience - with the knowledge that this hoped-for audience may need a little bit of convincing at first.


With much hope, one arts organization believes, " The more opportunities kids have to interact with classical music in different ways, the more satisfaction they get from their accomplishments, the more chances they have to fall in love with the art form. And then, they will be there for life." Perhaps a big part of the solution is simply allowing kids to have fun with classical music. "When a student is having fun with a piece, it can be a gateway towards choosing to experience more music from that genre or time period," as one teacher stated. We may also need to simply be patient. "Society always changes and pendulum shifts, maybe the current youth will also end up loving classical at a later age whether they do or not now." Undoubtedly this is our hope, and we as teachers, parents, and arts organizations must continue to make it part of our mission to nurture, cultivate, and grow the next generation of classical musicians, listeners, and creators.

What else do you think we could do to increase interest in classical music?
Please share your thoughts and experiences in the comments section below!

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Comments or Questions:

Charles * VSM MEMBER * on November 5, 2018 @7:25 pm PST
The decline in audience and interest in concert music has a much longer history than you offer in the article. Seeds for this decline were sewn during the Jazz Age. The solution is not more concerts for kids, "creative crossovers," "STEAM," etc. We have raised 3 generations who are unable to relate to "Classical" music because they don't hear it. Most in this demographic are lost. The only way to interest in this music is to put an instrument in the hands of every 3rd or 4th grade student so they can learn the language of music when their ears and minds are most receptive to language learning. Only when they experience the joy and thrill of performing with a musical ensemble for themselves they will become lifelong fans.
Jennifer Vose - host, on November 6, 2018 @9:55 am PST
Hello Charles, and thank you so much for putting your opinions on the table. It is definitely true that the decline in younger audiences for classical music is a decades-old phenomenon, and we certainly didn't intend to imply otherwise. Delving into the historical roots of the decline in classical music audiences is a whole other fascinating topic in and of itself - so thank you for bringing light to this facet of the topic that we did not address in our article. Perhaps I'm a relentless optimist, but I must disagree with you that we have "lost" the current younger generations with regard to classical music. While I am just 1 person, my own experience tells a different story. I am in my early 40s. I did not play an instrument as a kid, and I was never exposed to any classical music as a child - none, except for my "Flinstones Go To the Orchestra" record. My family is not musical, and my Catholic elementary and high school upbringing afforded me no musical opportunities whatsoever. It was not until a required music appreciation course in college that I discovered classical music - and since that time, classical music has been my genre of choice - so much so that now, classical music is almost all I truly enjoy listening to. So, while there's lots of work to be done, and there are many creative approaches to tackling the challenge, I do think there is hope yet for younger audiences to find their way to classical music. But as you suggest, getting instruments in the hands of today's youth is paramount - and perhaps this is where "STEAM" in schools cannot be underemphasized.
Alan on November 5, 2018 @1:43 am PST
It is a major problem and until form and structure is restore to so called modern music classical music will move further into history. It is my experience that most people do not listen to music they experience the beat of todays music. The lack of the art of listening to music is to me the great same for the youth of today, . Concerned music teacher Alan West
Jennifer Vose - host, on November 5, 2018 @2:14 pm PST
Well Alan, I'm sure that many of us share your concerns about how to help classical music find its way into the future, so if it is any consolation, you are not alone. That listening to classical music is, as you put it, an "art" is certainly a challenge. Listening as an art suggests that one needs some level of skill to be able to listen to and appreciate classical music - and I think that is probably true in one sense. But, could this also be perception? Is it possible to help unfamiliar audiences find a way to listen to and appreciate classical music simply based on what they are hearing and experiencing in-the-moment, without having to worry about form, structure, or even the composer's intent? If people can listen to a piece of music and find a way to relate to it in their own way, maybe we'd find that there can be different kinds of listening. Or, is it essential to develop an ear for classical music before one can truly appreciate it? These really are the fundamental questions, and thank you for helping keep these important concerns at the forefront. Keep pressing forward, Alan!
Tosh * VSM MEMBER * on November 4, 2018 @10:09 am PST
One section of the article hit the nail on the head when it said at one time a majority of students in schools learned to read music and play an instrument, whereas now this has dropped to about 11 percent of them. This is no different than what happens in other areas of life: e.g., young kids who learn to golf later form the backbone of the adult contingent who continue to play golf into old age. Similarly, those who watch baseball games are usually those who played baseball as kids. And in Canada, where I am, this holds also for hockey. Given budget cuts in the school systems, which have drastically pared down music performance programs in the public schools, it would appear that to reverse the classical music audience demographic has become a really tough job and will really require some rather creative initiatives. In my own case, I got hooked on the violin when at the age of about 8 or 9 I heard on the radio a recording by Fritz Kreisler (the most famous violinist of the early 20th century) and later when I was 10, I was able to enter a public school program in which I could learn to play the violin....which I continue to play well into my old age...and of course I started going to classical music concerts and continued to do so, as well as buying classical music recordings...and playing in a community symphony orchestra for many years.
Jennifer Vose - host, on November 5, 2018 @2:22 pm PST
Hello Tosh! Thanks so much for sharing your personal story of playing the violin. That's really wonderful! Instrumental music in schools has certainly diminished over the years, and I think it is foolish for anyone to deny that there is some correlation between that and the distance between younger audiences and classical music. With so much emphasis on STEM, which is important of course, there seems to be fewer resources available to invite all students to learn an instrument - and by virtue of that learning, gain valuable hands-on experience with classical music. Learning to play an instrument is so expensive, so until we find a way to bring instrumental music back to schools across the board (not just as an elective, but for ALL students), fewer and fewer young people will find their way to classical music. I guess that's why we all need to get creative and find other avenues to expose younger audiences to classical music in such a way that they enjoy, embrace, and appreciate it (even if not right away, at least down the road).
lbwhite on November 4, 2018 @4:22 am PST
current pop music is purely visual there is very little melodic or harmonic content, tin pan alley and top twenty are finished.THERE is no more melody,children do not get access to any sort of music
Jennifer Vose - host, on November 5, 2018 @2:26 pm PST
Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts. As hard as it may be sometimes, I think we do need to boil even today's popular music down to its most basic components, and in there somewhere, we will find traces of classical music. When we can help younger audiences make these connections, we may find a glimmer of hope that they will appreciate classical music, if for no other reason than for its contributions to the popular music they enjoy. And who knows - that could be a foundation for later in life when they may seek music, like classical, that stimulates them in other ways.
Diane Cross * VSM MEMBER * on November 2, 2018 @8:45 pm PST
I recently went to a concert by The Piano Guys who take current hits and turn them into classical style arrangements. The cello played with loops and percussion and there was often a visual backdrop. Casual attire on stage set the mood for a contemporary pop concert, and the venue was packed with all ages. Audience participation and standing ovation followed. A real cross over experience. Cellist also advised students in audience to keep practising their instruments until they feel like your friend. As a piano teacher I loved that comment. Altogether an inspiring concert.
Jennifer Vose - moderator and CEO, on November 2, 2018 @9:04 pm PST
Yes, what The Piano Guys are doing is exactly what must be done more to attract new audiences and, mostly, young people. A concert must be a fun experience, which stick in you memory and make you want more of it.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts Diane!
Jennifer Vose - host, on November 5, 2018 @2:05 pm PST
What a great experience, Diane! As Fabrizio commented, this is just what we need to draw younger audiences to classical music. The Piano Guys seem to create an experience that is inviting to people who may not be familiar with classical music, or who don't yet know they really do like it! Thanks so much for sharing this, Diane!
Jo Hanssen on November 2, 2018 @7:50 pm PST
Jennifer Vose - moderator and CEO, on November 2, 2018 @9:02 pm PST
Great example of how to involve the audience and get it closer to appreciate classical music.

Thanks for sharing this Jo!
Sarah * VSM MEMBER * on November 2, 2018 @1:50 pm PST
You need to change how classical music is used in movies. You will find it being used often to engender an aura of fear.
Jennifer Vose - host, on November 5, 2018 @2:01 pm PST
Hi Sarah! Classical music, particularly in movies, can be used to create all sorts of moods - and you're right that fear is very often evoked through classical music techniques. But I'd say that love is probably evoked just as often - and probably many other facets of the emotional spectrum as well. The challenge is to help audiences understand that classical music, with its breadth of instrumentation, can evoke the nuances of emotion that other genres of music may struggle to create - and to your point, much more than just fear. Thanks so much for posting!
Edwin Hawke on November 2, 2018 @10:30 am PST
Suggestion box 4 is right on! Bringing these great melodies forward, and mingling them with more current styles, works well. Pop music from many eras has been doing this for quite some time. Since many classical pieces have movements that mimic the dances of the day, laying them over current dance styles is no great stretch, and neither is substituting today's instruments. One of my favorite experiences was doing Midnight Orchestra with a bassoon doubling my cello part, and a mandolin playing the trumpet part. My daughter is a Dead Head, but her kids have memorized some piano concerto (they say it's Beethoven, but I'm not convinced), that they heard once at the school talent show. There is hope!
Jennifer Vose - host, on November 2, 2018 @11:42 am PST
Hi Edwin! Thanks so much for your comments and for reading the article! It's really interesting to think about the ways that we can build bridges between today's popular music and "classical" music to help younger audiences find their way to classical music. These bridges can help youth make connections, both stylistically and historically, between music with which they are most comfortable and classical music which may seem daunting, uninteresting, and unfamiliar to them. I'm so glad that you are hopeful for the future - I am too!
Ken G. * VSM MEMBER * on November 2, 2018 @6:40 am PST
Great article!
Jennifer Vose - host, on November 2, 2018 @11:43 am PST
Thanks so much, Ken! So glad you found the article interesting, and hopefully helpful too in your own efforts to help youth learn to appreciate classical music.
Ken G. * VSM MEMBER * on November 2, 2018 @4:53 pm PST
Thank you Jennifer!

Yes, I am sure it'll work!

Excellent work again, thank you.

References and Notes

* Generation X is a term used to describe those born roughly between the early 1960s and late 1970s, after the baby boomers and before millennials.

** Generation Y is a term used to describe those born during the 1980s and 1990s.

Albright, C. (2016). Classical music is dying... and that's the best thing for classical music (opinion). CNN [link]

Americans for the Arts (2013, June). Local arts branding on national stage: Are you effectively playing your role? [link]

Henschen, J. (2018). The tragic decline of music literacy (and quality). IntellectualTake-Out [link]

National Association for Music Educators (2018). Everything ESSA [link]

Sunday dialogue: Is classical music dying? (2012, November 25). New York Times [link]

Why is classical music unpopular with the youth? (2015, November). Talk Classical [link]

Contributors to this article: Jon Weber, Stephanie Lewis, Sofia Ferrari.

DISCLAIMER: All content within this article is provided for general information only. The views and the opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Virtual Sheet Music and its employees. Virtual Sheet Music is not liable for the contents of any external internet sites listed, nor does it endorse any commercial product or service mentioned or advised on any of those sites.

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