Richard Warren FieldRichard Warren Field - Writer/Musician

Is “Classical Music” Fading Into Obscurity?

Posted on August 9, 2009

Copyright © 2009 by Richard Warren Field

What has happened to “classical music?” Is it doomed to marginalization, and eventual oblivion? Let’s take the second question first. No, “classical music” will continue to survive, even thrive, depending on how it is perceived. For the first question, we will need a more nuanced, detailed answer. And within that answer, we will understand the “no” answer to the second question.

I need to start by defining what we mean by “classical music.” People have a general idea what the common use of the term “classical music” refers to. But for the sake of clarity, I want to discuss this term, then settle on a practical, working definition.

For conservatory educated musicians, “classical music” refers to a period from the mid 1700s to the early 1800s, with specific approaches to form, harmony and compositional technique. This group might refer to what most people call classical music as “serious music,” or “concert music.” They would ask “what about baroque music or music from the romantic period?” But all these periods, for the general public, are rolled up into one type of music—“classical music.”

“Classic” can also refer to the best of a category. Definitions from include “of the first or highest quality, class, or rank,” “of literary or historical renown” and “definitive.” This certainly could apply to the type of music we think of when we talk about classical music. The idea is that this music has stood the test of time. But this definition of “classic” or “classical” is not the way most people use the term for music.

We will set aside verbal nits and picks and adopt the common meaning of the phrase “classical music.” We will refer to “classical music” as music played by an orchestra, or by orchestral instruments in small groups (called “chamber music” by the conservatory types). “Classical music” generally does not refer to film music, though this line can be blurred. (I will discuss film music in more detail later.) So we will use the term “classical music” to refer to non-film music played by orchestras or orchestral instruments in smaller groups.

It is undeniable that classical music has slipped from the cultural mainstream. To find out why, we need to look at the changes that have taken place in how and when music is delivered to the public. Before recorded music, music was a rarer, more special event occurrence. A recital in a concert hall, or perhaps a trained musician in his or her home had to sit down and make an effort to produce the music. In the concert hall, the listener focused entirely on the music. This was also true for the performer in his or her home, or at a festival or special event. Now, people hear music on their car radios, and as background to many activities, including riding in an elevator and grocery shopping. To be commercially successful, music today has to carve out its attention, and demand it, to be successful. Classical music does not come across effectively from a car radio, and does not demand attention the way more "pop" forms do. It is more subtle, and does not cut through background activity the way a big electric guitar sound or other electronically recorded music does. So our ways of experiencing music have changed. We live in a different world, different from the world that spawned much of what we now call classical music.

I am arguing here that classical music is not doomed to be relegated to insignificance. But it could be doomed if we talk about it in terms of an intellectual exercise. Human beings listen to music for the emotions it evokes, not as a puzzle to solve. It is a mistake to offer classical music as something that is subtle, and can only be appreciated after study and education. Such an approach is certain to discourage young or even older potential classical music enthusiasts, especially when these same people aren’t required to labor to enjoy the music they’re familiar with. And “study” is not the way human beings experience music in most cultures.

So how should classical music be offered? The way music in most cultures is offered—for the feelings, the moods, the emotions it evokes. So when introducing Beethoven’s Fifth to a general audience, instruction shouldn’t start off with an in-depth study of the sonata-allegro form. The piece evokes “fate knocking at the door,” with a feeling of triumph at the end. Once that mood is understood and absorbed, then the brilliant compositional technique of Beethoven, using a four note motif to string out this masterpiece, has a more powerful meaning. Beethoven’s Ninth is an “Ode to Joy.” The pages of vocal parts written in the high range allow, almost force, the musicians to exclaim the joy written in the music. And it really isn’t necessary to understand German to relate to the music. More recently (within the last hundred years), we have Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring,” with its complex time signatures distorting rhythms, its dissonant wanderings in and out of various tonalities and the adventurous instrumental combinations. But the music is better studied after we listen to it in the context as background music for the primitive ritual Stravinsky depicts, the ritual of a young girl in a prehistoric time dancing herself to death. In Adagio for Strings, Samuel Barber voices strings with rich harmonies and motivic development to create a mood of utter pathos. But the utter pathos needs to be absorbed first, before studying the technique and form. Emphasis on the feelings of music, the emotions it stirs, will then allow us to take those pieces of music and look deeper into other compositional techniques: how counterpoint acts to heighten complexity, how certain harmonies create tension and how those tensions then release in a satisfying way to the listener. But the technical aspects will not be appreciated if the first step, of latching onto those moods and feelings, is skipped.

Also, there is one way our culture is exposed to the classical music style—in film and television background music. That music is specifically created to bring feelings to a piece of film—a scary part of a horror film, a romantic moment in a dramatic film, a pratfall in a comedy or a dignified section of a documentary. For skeptical students, who still believe they will never relate to classical music, these clips could be played to show the emotions and moods they evoke, and the film clips could be shown with and without the musical passages. Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” referred to earlier has been used countless times in films. The pathos from that music effectively adds that feeling to a piece of film. Only the most jaded, closed-minded listener would fail to recognize how effectively that music evokes that feeling.

Film music itself does not fit the definition I have offered for “classical music.” There is a sizable group of people who collect film music and would argue that this could be the “classical music” of tomorrow. Film music has been crafted into concert suites by composers, including music written by well-known luminaries like Aaron Copland (“Of Mice and Men,” “Red Pony”) and Serge Prokofiev (“Lieutenant Kijé,” “Alexander Nevsky”). Classical music, as I have defined it here, is also used in films. I mentioned earlier the use of Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings.” I suspect most in our culture have heard this piece, though only a handful of afficianados would be able to name it. The same is true of the introductory fanfare to Richard Strauss’s “Thus Spoke Zarathustra,” Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in D minor” and George Frideric Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus” from “The Messiah.”

So the key to the appreciation of classical music is to focus on what music almost always aspires to do—evoke emotions, evoke moods—taking the listener on a journey of sound with dramatic twists and turns along the way. With that focus, classical music will stay alive and even thrive. The music that touches people the most, that moves them the most deeply, and that resonates with a timeless quality, a timeless humanity, impervious to context, will be the music that is played over and over again, the music that will survive through the generations.

Richard Warren Field is the author of the award-winning novel, The Swords of Faith.

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