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Classical Music and Barriers to Entry

January 22, 2014

Even though I write about cultural products a lot on this blog, there are many areas of culture I know very little about.  Seriously, my socks have fewer holes than my cultural knowledge base.  This is especially true of music.  Sure, I do my best to keep up with new releases in popular music, but I can’t speak intelligently on production or composition, and I sure as hell can’t play any instruments.  My jazz collection is limited to Kind of Blue and Sunday at the Village Vanguard.  And, relevant to today’s topic, I hardly listen to any classical music.

This morning I read an article on Slate by Mark Vanhoenacker entitled “Requiem”, which talks about America’s declining interest in classical music.  Commercial classical radio is practically dead, symphonies are in financial hot water, and record sales have sharply fallen.  While there are certainly exceptions–I know quite a few personally–my generation as a whole has not embraced classical music as previous generations have.

As a self-fashioned cultural omnivore, this is especially shameful for me.  I can recognize some bits of Beethoven and Mozart, and there is this one piece my Tchaikovsky that I really like, but that’s about the breadth of my knowledge base.  Don’t even try asking me the name of a contemporary classical composer or instrumentalist; you’ll get a blank stare in response.  Hell, I am literally a five-minute walk from the public classical station (WQED-FM 89.3), and I can’t remember the last time I consciously listened to it.

So, why don’t I listen to more classical music?  Vanhoenacker offers up a handful of possible reasons: the financial crisis, cuts to school-based music education, etc.  But one I want to focus on in particular:

Classical music does retain overtones of, well, classiness.  But in contemporary America, that’s arguably its biggest problem.

Citing episodes of Modern Family as evidence, Vanhoenacker hints at a cultural bias against classical music, and perhaps “highbrow” culture in general.  Watching your daughter play cello in a classical music context is pulling teeth; doing the same in an alternative rock context is pleasant.  Vanhoenacker is onto something, but stopping where he does, one gets images of unwashed, ignorant masses instinctively rejecting true art.  I’d like to offer a slightly different take.

I don’t have the source on me, but back in freshman year I had to read a commentary on Pierre Bourdieu, and one idea of his has stuck with me to this day: “barriers to entry”.  People don’t engage with certain “highbrow” cultural products because they are intimidated or put-off by the complex rituals or technical aspects of the works.  There is whole field of prerequisite knowledge which one must have to appreciate a work, and unless that knowledge is easy to access, the work itself becomes inaccessible.

That piece by Tchaikovsky I mentioned is Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 35.  I wouldn’t bring it up in conversation, however, because I have no idea what any of that means.  (Well, okay, I know “violin” is involved, but c’mon).  I have no functional vocabulary for classical music, so I cannot really have conversations about it.  And since conversation is such an important part of enjoying art, how can I truly be engaged with the piece at all?

Or, how about this: imagine that you’re an alien visiting Earth–and, like in the old movies, you know how to speak English.  You ask to see a great work of English literature, and I hand you my copy of Paradise Lost.  You might be able to understand the words, much like I can understand the “feeling” of a classical music piece.  But would Milton’s use of iambic pentameter, or the theological questions addressed in the text, or the possible political subtext, mean anything?  Would you be able to understand why English professors say it’s a big deal?  Or would you hand it back to me, say, “That’s nice,” and move on?

I don’t know how rectify the problem, how to break down the barriers to entry.  Perhaps stopping the cuts to music education is a start.  Or, as Vanhoenacker jokingly suggests, maybe Jeff Bezos can buy a symphony.  (There’s a promotional campaign: classical music delivered via drones).  Just, something to make a work less unduly imposing, that’s all I’m asking.

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