Classical Music: declining or rising…or neither…

Greg Sandow poses a question (or rather, series of questions) at his latest blog post “Why don’t we know?”  This one is probably the pin that ties them all together and is obviously something I’ve been blogging about and research for myself for years now:

behind all of this — at least in my view — is a debate about the state of classical music itself. Is it (at least in its mainstream forms) declining, as I say it is?

I’m interested in seeing where this discussion will lead, but will post my own response here.

Two words–Hedgehogs or Foxes. Philip Tetlock has discussed the phenomenon of expert judgement and the ability to assess information and take stances in [the fields of] political psychology and behavioral economics.

Foxes are cautious and tend to weigh all sides [of an issue] before making judgements or predictions, and hedgehogs were generally alarmists and took an entrenched side on the issues. The foxes, in general, [are] more often correct in judgements and predictions than hedgehogs. Foxes are also much more likely to change their mind due to increased knowledge or data while hedgehogs tend to discount any new data that challenges their position and explain it away. Hedgehogs, though, tend to get more of a public voice since they are inflammatory in nature. We see these phenomena in politics all the time, I think.

Whether the view is that “Classical Music is dying” or “Classical Music is perfectly healthy”–both are entrenched viewpoints, and more than likely to be wrong in some fundamental way.

I think that Douglas Dempster, had as cautionary or “Foxy” a statement to say about the issue over ten years ago (bolded part my emphasis):

I haven’t offered anything approximating an exhaustive survey of the known data on the classical music audience. But the studies reviewed here make it perfectly clear that critics have, perhaps in a spate of millennial fever, greatly exaggerated the demise of classical music at the end of the 20th century. Even worse, however, they have witnessed very complex trends in the culture of classical music and reduced them to the morally simplistic calculus of “rise” and “decline.” Musical and cultural critics misinterpret economic, demographic, and technological changes affecting the world of classical music as signaling some spiritual decay in the culture of classical music itself. The audience for classical music is not withering, but technological, sociological, and economic forces are reshaping that audience in important ways.


5 thoughts on “Classical Music: declining or rising…or neither…

  1. Discussion on about Greg’s post on Greg Sandow’s facebook page:

    And a response I posted in it to some issues Alex Benjamin’s concerns:

    @Alex — You’re right to bring up some of the issues you do. Conflating a wide range of economic and social activities to one particular subset of “Classical Music” can be misleading. Greg’s wife, Anne Midgette (in this piece: ) and Greg himself ( in a number of his responses to comments in an older blog post of his here: ) highlight some of the good things that the data does tell us about the field as a whole.

    Sure, it’s increasingly more difficult to make a sustainable living doing classical music if the career choice is one of the typical big three (orchestra, opera, ballet companies) but at the same time, there’s a proliferation of newer and smaller venues for classical music; and as Anne mentions in her blog, the NEA data states “Arts participation” in classical music (as opposed to attendance at “benchmark events” like symphony concerts) is actually up, which gels well with much of the data regarding classical music leading the charge in digital downloads (at least until 2006). Also, the business of music schools and conservatories isn’t slowing down the number of graduates they are pumping out; there’s been the growth of music programs (some of which are for-prof orgs); pre-schoolers (I used to teach for one of those nationwide companies); the huge influx of non-prof organizations until around 2008 (when the laws for non-prof incorporation were changed); and the increasing number of adult beginners which have necessitated a growing number of private instructors to market themselves as specializing or catering to that new demographic of music students–I think there’s possibly even more interest now than ever in classical music.

    The big question is how can that translate into a sustainable living since now there is more competition for scarce [economic] resources (more venues and non-prof organizations) and a much bigger supply of labor (i.e. musicians) in the classical music pool.

    As I mentioned in Greg’s blog, we all tend to dichotomize the issue–and as Joe Kluger (former president of the Philadelphia Orchestra Association) put it ( in a private email that Greg posted after permission was given to him to do so: )

    “What really frustrates me about this is the polarization of people as either Pollyanna-types, who think there is no classical music industry problem or that it is only temporary, or Chicken Little-types, who say that classical music is doomed to extinction.”

    The truth is somewhere in the middle. But the data isn’t showing a rosy picture for some (but not all) segments of classical music as Anne said in her post:

    “But it also proves that the old institutions are being left in the dust. Classical music has the highest participation of any art, and ticket sales are still tanking (as the same data demonstrates)? This is more evidence, say I, that orchestras in particular are going to have to continue to work to expand their role if they want to stay alive in an era that loves classical music more than ever but is happy to pursue it without them.”


  2. Part of the problem is the fact that the reports and the media rarely focus on the artists and organizations that are increasing their audiences. I scan the news every day, and it is completely lopsided. There are examples of people and organizations that are getting it right and are thriving. We as an industry need to start focusing on the good ideas and solutions that are becoming apparent.

    For the shame of plugging, something I rarely do on blogs, I am hosting a webinar on Friday, Participatory Classical Music with John Steinmetz (author of the essay Resuscitating Art Music), and we will be talking about the examples, ideas and solutions that can help shift our focus. Our industry has basically remained the same for over 150 years with slight changes. We are very much due for a shift that we have fought off tooth and nail for decades. This change can happen gracefully if we begin the shift from within.

    Thank you, Jon, for bringing more attention to this topic.


    1. Exactly! News tends to be geared towards pointing out the bad things rather than the good ones and that gives everyone a rather skewed look at the state of affairs. While having all these various studies and data on various aspects of our industry–that information is necessarily incomplete–and isn’t unambiguous.

      And thank you for mentioning the webinar–I’ll make sure to forward that info to anyone I think should and would be interested in it!


  3. What do you think about the state of ‘classical’ music in smaller centres? Many places don’t seem to want to contribute financially towards the music that they so enjoy (at least, this has been a partial facet of my experience). I think a large chunk of this impression comes from the fact that many places HAVE to centralize their professional classical musicians – there just isn’t money in it in smaller areas where a more traditionalist population might really enjoy it. Unfortunately, in today’s culture of on-demand everything, usually for free (or at least a pittance), the idea that you would pay a musician to entertain you seems to be regarded as silly in some circles.


    1. Very true–and that is one of the problems. Some studies are starting to show that, with the increase of smaller and more local performing arts organizations–which means less money go to each since arts fundin doesn’t get larger (but has increasingly shrunk–especially during the recession), that there is going to be increased stratification and a widening financial gap between the largest budget organizations, which have the economic as well as institutional power to survive and prosper while more and more folks at the local or smaller orgs will increasingly do it for less and less money (even free).

      With so many folks now willing to participate, the idea of making money isn’t an issue. And for those who would like to make a living doing music, it will become more and more difficult to find the infrastructure that can sustain them since there is such a proliferation of musicians, venues, and opportunities to hear live music for next to nothing.

      I’m not sure how much I agree with that analysis, but it is something I’ve seen increasingly in the areas I often gig and with discussions I’ve had with musicians on both the classical as well as pop side.


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