• Stanley Holewa

The Myths and Facts of Classical Music

In the culturally diverse world we live in, music is perceived and appreciated in so many different ways. Most of the musical genres we see today diverged from classical music. The realm of classical music encompasses a range of styles, from intellectual Baroque music to the more experimental Contemporary music. Nowadays, classical music is studied and performed globally for live audiences, competitions, and auditions. In truth, learning classical music can be incredibly complex, and the technical difficulties in many instruments require countless hours of practice to overcome. Unfortunately, some people who are indulged in mainstream culture have a distorted impression of classical culture as a formal and aristocratic group of elitists and feel that only those with classical training can genuinely appreciate it. However, from my experience in the classical community, these preconceived notions are incorrect. Therefore, I feel that it is important to address a few of the stereotypes and myths circulating in mainstream culture.

“Classical music is for the elderly”

One of the common misconceptions about the classical community is that the people associated are exclusively old people. I frequently hear the phrases, “classical music is for old people” or “that sounds like grandma music.” Although it is not out of the ordinary to glimpse a sea of white hair in an audience, there are also plenty of young fans of classical music. Every classical concert I go to, the audience is a broad spectrum; younger children, middle-aged adults, and the occasional senior. As a historical art form, it resonates with the older population who have had more exposure to classical culture growing up, but it has also reached out to the current generation and other generations that grew up with different mainstream cultures.

There are many young people out there, not necessarily musicians, who love classical music because they are searching for something in their lives that is more substantial and fulfilling than the typical four-chord pop song. The stereotype that young people do not like classical music is undoubtedly false; anyone of any age and cultural background can enjoy it. The primary factor that determines musical tastes is the exposure that a listener grows up with, which is why an old person who never grew up with K-pop is less likely to be in a Blackpink audience than in a classical concert audience. If you are a young person who has never had a chance to fully immerse yourself in a classical performance, give it another chance; you do not have to be old to enjoy the delicacy and brilliance of it.

“All classical music is boring and sounds the same”

The myriad of styles that classical music presents itself in certainly undermines this stereotype. In a very general impression, what comes to mind is the famous “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik” or “Canon in D” or “Fur Elise”. In the mainstream culture’s holistic view of classical music, it is sometimes mistakenly thought of as only one style. Without sufficient exposure to hearing classical music, it may be difficult to grasp the extreme range of emotions that can be expressed, the variety of musical forms and styles, and the openness to interpretation.

Classical repertoire is extremely broad, including everything from solo instrument performances, to chamber music to full orchestras with concertos, symphonies, operas and overtures, and various other forms. There are five instrument families, each with distinct and wonderful sounds. There are slow pieces, fast pieces, moderately-paced pieces, dynamic contrasts, harmonies, time signatures, and modulations between keys. Classical repertoire covers four main eras; baroque, classical, romantic, and contemporary, all of which have different features and numerous works.

Classical music is one of the most stylistically diverse genres of music out there, whereas pop songs often lack originality in timbre, considering the few instrument choices and overstimulating vocal and electronic effects. Pop music is structurally repetitive and harmonic variation has become monochromatic. It is evident that classical music is extremely diverse and colorful in comparison with modern songs that are characterized by trends, overstimulation, and repetition. Pop music is designed to sell and the capacity for inspiration and mental nourishment has been reduced to make way for catchy compositional and marketing choices that are commercially oriented. This is not to say that popular music is ‘mind-rotting’, it can be quite emotionally impactful at times. However, there are genres such as classical music that interest people who would like to perceive creativity and musicality more naturally. If you have come to the conclusion that all classical music sounds the same, maybe you have not listened to enough pieces that suit your taste.

Another vital aspect of classical music is interpretation. Every soloist or quartet or symphony orchestra interprets the musical scores in a unique way. They do not just ‘play the notes’. These interpretations give classical music, as well as many other artistic music genres an element of diversity, that people can always explore new interpretations and evaluate the artist’s subtle choices. You will see what I mean when you listen to the various imaginative approaches that different performers can employ, even if they are playing the same work.

“Classical music is elitist”

In the history of classical music, it had a reputation as an exclusive form of entertainment for the aristocratic class. Most middle-class people could not afford to attend concerts in the past. Nowadays, classical music is accessible for everyone; anyone with internet access can listen to performances of virtually every classical piece for free on YouTube or Spotify. In fact, classical concerts are cheaper on average than popular music gigs, so there is no reason to think of it as ‘rich people music’. Yet, there is a stigma in the mainstream culture that classical music is for wealthy and arrogant people. From my experience in Thailand’s classical music community, the people are just as open, friendly, light-hearted, and generous as ordinary people. There are very few behaviors that come across as arrogant or elitist; literally anyone can enjoy classical music.

The notion that all classical musicians are serious is merely a misconception from a non-musician’s perspective. I have learned with many talkative and humorous teachers and professors, met many lovely classical music enthusiasts, and have joined classical communities on social media. Of course, musicians are serious about their music, but when it comes to social engagements, they can be outgoing and light-hearted. It only comes across as serious during classical concerts in which the etiquette is relatively formal. The rules “don’t clap between movements” and “don’t talk during the performance” are merely cultural norms that must be respected.

“Only those who have studied classical music can enjoy it”

You do not have to be a professional musician to be a classical enthusiast; you do not even need to have musical training at all. Classical music is universal and perpetually enjoyable. Anyone with an open mind can ride the emotionally syrupy waves of harmony and sensitive nuances of a Rachmaninoff symphony or sink into the warmth and tenderness of Tchaikovsky’s life-changing romantic melodies or smile to the puerile and light elegance of a Mozart Sonata. Anyone can contemplate Bach’s brilliant complexity or gasp at a flawless performance of a virtuosic Liszt etude or shiver at Shostakovich’s hair-raising and intense passages. Many non-musicians have emotionally bonded with classical music and appreciate it just as much as a classically trained musician can. Although I have not personally experienced being a non-musician who can enthusiastically dive into the classical world, I can say that many of my friends and people I know who have had limited musical training have been deeply moved by listening to classical music. If you are interested in listening to classical, please try some of the following pieces:

  1. J. S. Bach - Chaconne from Partita No. 2 in D minor, BWV 1004 (link)

  2. Gustav Holst - The Planets, Op. 32 (link)

  3. Samuel Barber - Adagio for Strings (link)

  4. Sergei Rachmaninoff - Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor (link)

  5. Pyotr Illyich Tchaikovsky - Violin Concerto in D major (link)

  6. Ludwig Van Beethoven - Symphony No. 9 in D minor (link)

  7. Claude Debussy - Clair De Lune (link)

  8. Franz Liszt – La Campanella (link)

  9. Frederic Chopin – Nocturne in E flat major Op. 9, No. 2 (link)

  10. George Gershwin - Rhapsody in Blue (link)

  11. Jean Sibelius - Violin Concerto in D minor (link)

  12. Ludwig Van Beethoven - Sonata No. 8 in C minor “Pathetique” (link)