Sampling Bias in discussions about Classical Music


This might as well be placed out there since we have Andy Doe’s recent post calling us to challenge the Classical Music Crisis folks.

As I said in a previous post, we are generally terrible at reasoning with numbers–especially big numbers. This post deals more with the collection of the numbers inflects the Classical Music Crisis discussion. All this talk about the decline, dying, or death of Classical Music is mostly fueled by Sampling Bias.  While I generally don’t like using Wikipedia as a source for quotes, its description of Sampling Bias is perfectly serviceable and pretty much textbook:

In statistics, sampling bias is a bias in which a sample is collected in such a way that some members of the intended population are less likely to be included than others. It results in a biased sample, a non-random sample[1] of a population (or non-human factors) in which all individuals, or instances, were not equally likely to have been selected. If this is not accounted for, results can be erroneously attributed to the phenomenon under study rather than to the method of sampling.

As I mentioned in my Choral Organizations and the “Classical music is the sum of all its institutions” posts these discussions are shaped more often by the organizations which are prominent in media (usually due to Negativity Bias) rather than the organizations that actually exist. While, as I mentioned, I doubt the number of Choral organizations is nearly as high as Chorus America claims, and I doubt each and every one of those organizations are actively performing solely Classical Music, even if a tenth of those numbers are correct then Choral Organizations would outnumber the 1800 US Orchestras (as given by the League of Symphony Orchestras) by 15 times.  Adding in the 125 or so US Opera organizations or the 150 or so Ballet Organizations won’t help much to offset the size of Choral Organizations.

I actually went back through the Pierre Keys Music Yearbooks I have and simply did a count (Ballet Organizations aren’t included in these) and found that even during the years of 1927 and 1938, Choral Groups significantly outnumbered Symphony and Opera organizations combined thought the proportion isn’t nearly as dramatic. I think it’s obvious that with the lowest overhead and operational costs, Choirs are the cheapest organizations to fund so the number of groups shouldn’t be particularly surprising.

The thing is, we have no idea what impact this has economically to “Classical Music in the US” because these organizations aren’t often discussed.  It seems strange that a group of Classical ensembles, which vastly outnumber the ones usually under discussion, have no part in the discussion about the health of the Classical Music industry.

Granted, if how we’re defining US “Classical Music” only means the typical SOBs (Symphonies, Operas, Ballets) that would be perfectly acceptable, it just wouldn’t show how much actual interest or impact what we normally call Classical Music has on American Culture.  SOBs are not a randomized sample of the Classical Music field and shouldn’t be treated as such. In other words, as the Sampling Bias definition above states, “If this is not accounted for, results can be erroneously attributed to the phenomenon under study rather than to the method of sampling.”

The other question is, what is Classical Music? While the NAI and NEA SPPA audience data tracks, say, Symphony attendance–does this include attendance to your kids High School Orchestra or Youth Symphony performing symphonic works or at State Contests?  Does this include attendance at University Orchestra events? Should we include these kinds of attendance? If not, then why aren’t we?  Is it because these are professional groups (I’ve heard some high school orchestras at the State contest level which play much better than some community and semi-professional orchestras which are surely listed amongst the 1800 League groups and included in the data for attendance).

Again, this is a form of Sampling Bias (or more precisely, Selection Bias), though a bias that might be reflected more in the survey methods since they might not specify whether or not these types of performances should be included.

I think there’s a real need to really understand what is being said, and how the numbers can be interpreted as well as the types of biases we have in the collection of the numbers and reporting of them.  For more about Biases, Fallacies, and Statistics as it applies to the Classical Music Debate, please check out this post: Preamble to Orchestra Audience Age: notes about numbers, statistics, and bias and this recent response on Facebook regarding this issue.


  1. Just let me beat my favorite dead horse for a second: “While the NAI and NEA SPPA audience data tracks, say, Symphony attendance–does this include attendance to your kids High School Orchestra or Youth Symphony performing symphonic works or at State Contests? Does this include attendance at University Orchestra events? Should we include these kinds of attendance?”

    What it all boils down to is that the current industry counts sitting in an audience MORE than they count one of those people doing it themselves.

    I can see why — I’ve stopped going to all but a few concerts/recitals myself, and that will hit their bottom line no matter how many arrangements of Haendel aria intros I upload to Soundcloud. But then they’re just one more business talking about their own individual survival, and they should stop making the noises about how they’re saving culture, doing something of unique artistic significance, and guarding the gates against the Huns. To my taste, a nameless schmoe off the street who plays their own instrument (voice included) at any level of proficiency means more in terms of cultural survival than they would sitting in a seat passively watching someone else do something.

    In other words, should the NAI and NEA SPPA include these kinds of activities? I’d say yes. Yes a thousand times … if they were really measuring the health of CLASSICAL MUSIC and not just the economic health of a few industries that have hitched themselves to it.

    I remember being in a discussion one time on an online musician’s forum, maybe Piano World but I can’t remember, where the inevitable topic of the health of “classical music” came up, and I will never forget the comment made by the one professional in the discussion when the concept was raised that many people in the audience may play the music themselves. “I don’t really care what they do. I want them to come hear me play it.” That comment really got my nose out of joint, and it’s stayed out of joint. If that’s the attitude that industry takes, then the hell with them. Maybe it should die out.

    And then I see things like the Philadelphia Orchestra’s woodwind play-in (which they are having TODAY) and the BSO’s Rusty Musician program, and read your posts about the enormous popularity of choral entities, and I think that maybe some parts of the mainstream industry don’t have their heads entirely up their asses.

    And maybe the NAI and NEA SPPA should take a particular look at those kinds of things.

    Sorry to hijack you. 🙂


    • No worries–I know the feeling. It’s an attitude that doesn’t serve anyone–I understand that many full time musicians just don’t have the time to see anyone else play, and it can be easy to just worry about who’s going to see you. One of the reason I love doing multi-band bills is just so I can get to see other folks play since I almost never get a chance otherwise. The trade off is that no one really gets paid well when you have three or four acts on a show!

      But I really need to see if I can get a hold of their surveys just to see how they are collecting data. That would answer many questions!


  2. BTW, have you ever done a survey of whatever programs the SOBs may have that do exactly that: get the audience out of their seats and onto the stage? I’m not counting the programs that train up and coming prodigy kids to become members of the organization (training orchestras, any exchange programs that the NY Phil might have with Juilliard, etc.). I mean the various types of play-ins. How many SOBs have that kind of thing going with community amateurs?


    • That might be an interesting survey–I know the Louisville Orchestra recently did a concert with the Louisville Youth Orchestra and I remember when I was in the local youth symphony we played at least 3 concerts with them, but that’s not like letting the general public in.

      One of the hjigh school orchestras I work with has an alum concert which let’s folks sit in with the current students–that’s probably a little closer.

      I’ll have to look into that.


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