How to Get Young People to Like Classical Music

Classical music is dying! It has been for decades, even generations. You read about it all the time: that young people aren’t interested in classical music, and that there should be a way to get them interested. In a recent article, pianist Stephen Hough suggested that shorter concerts may attract a younger audience.

This is a false problem, however. Young people like all kinds of music: my son is into EDM (electronic dance music), yet he’s been listening to some Satie recently, and is open to other types of classical music, even though he doesn’t go to classical concerts.

I actually discovered classical music by listening to Emerson, Lake, & Palmer, whose Pictures at an Exhibition was intriguing enough that I wanted to hear the original. Of course, those days of bombastic prog rock are gone.

Some people say that “education” is the key. That young people should be indoctrinated to like classical music; brainwashed, as it were. Yes, that’s a bit extreme, but that’s what the well-meaning people really mean. That may help, by exposing more young people to classical music, but it’s not the solution.

I’m not sure there is a single solution, but I can think of a few things wrong with the way this question is framed:

  • There is an assumption that classical music is somehow “better” than other kinds of music. This makes it elitist. Tell a teenager to see something elitist and they’ll probably balk; they want to do what their tribe does.
  • There is also an assumption that classical music needs to be “explained,” through pre-show talks, program notes, and presentations. Why? Does jazz need explanation? Does the blues need a pre-show talk? This makes classical music seem difficult, and goes against the idea of it being something people can discover easily.
  • The whole concept of classical concerts as stodgy affairs with musicians wearing tuxes with tails is very off-putting, and underscores the fact that this music is archaic, anachronistic. The obsessive need for silence, no applause after movements, etc., makes the experience daunting.
  • The sheer number of composers, and the names on programs, confuse. Let’s assume that I’m 20 years old, and I’m musically curious. I look at concert listings and I have no idea who most of these composers are. I’ve heard of Mozart and Beethoven, but who the heck is Rautavaara? Who’s this Korngold guy? How do you even pronounce Berlioz? Make thematic programs, build them around an idea, an instrument, a feeling, or something more creative.
  • Cheap tickets for young people are fine, but I would bet most of them are grabbed by music students, so this doesn’t help the musically curious.
  • Integrate conservatories into universities. Students do what their friends do. If people studying business have friends who are into music, they may tag along to see a concert. But if young classical musicians are in a separate educational institution, they won’t have many non-musician friends.

I’m just spitballing a few ideas here, but it’s annoying to constantly read articles about this, most of which simply reinforce the elitist nature of classical music. Most people in the world don’t care for western classical music; we need to accept this. People who do are the 1% of music lovers. This number is not going to magically increase.