The Original String Theory

If you think you hate the genre, then you don’t really know what it is.

By Gwynn Lyons, Stanford University


I can’t help but get goosebumps when I listen to a piece like Rachmaninoff’s “Piano Concerto No. 2.”

The roiling piano melody and soaring string accompaniment seem to lift me out of my chair, and I feel a combination of exhilaration and peace, similar to the moment when you step out of a plane and begin to fall, the world hanging before you like a distant canvas.

Everyone has some form of escapism, whether it’s going for long runs or taking drives. My form of escapism is classical music. I am saddened to see how unpopular it has become, given the joy it has brought me and the potential it has to bring the same joy to others.

The Decrescendo

The declining popularity of classical music may have something to do with changes in musical trends over time. Go to any classical music concert today, and you’ll see a sea of gray hair and glasses. Compare this to the demographics of classical music concertgoers in 1937 in L.A., whose average age was 28, according to “Slate.” As the older generations thin out and are replaced by younger generations who aren’t interested in classical music, the overall demand decreases.

But why are millennials more likely to jam to Beyoncé than Mozart? Some have hypothesized that younger people have shorter attention spans, leading them to prefer the shorter lengths of modern pop music to the longer, more attention-consuming forms of classical music.

The Misunderstood Joy of Classical Music

Image via CMUSE

I prefer the explanation that my generation’s preference for modern over classical music is due to the genres’ differing content. Music evokes the time period in which it was composed. The lion’s share of classical music was composed several centuries ago, calling to mind distinguished ladies in hoopskirts and gentlemen in Abe Lincoln top hats, a lost age that seem to have no relevance to the present. On the other hand, pop music, like Beyoncé’s album Lemonade, is clearly motivated by recent social events that we see shaping the world right now, such as Black Lives Matter. Millennials want to listen to something that speaks to their reality.

Another reason for classical music’s perceived inaccessibility has to do with well-founded criticisms about its exclusivity. It is true that classical music has historically been the prerogative of the privileged, since concerts and lessons cost money. It is equally true, and even more problematic, that classical music’s canon is heavily Western, excluding music of other cultures. As a genre, classical music regrettably carries the connotation of elitism.

As an experience, though, classical music, just like any kind of music, touches a universal nerve. Even if you know nothing about music, you can still appreciate the heart-rending beauty of Ave Maria. The emotional connection that classical music offers not just to the past, but to all humanity across time and space, transcends boundaries of race and class. At its core, classical music is as inclusive as any art form.

The Benefits of Beethoven

Once I became part of the world of classical music, I discovered, despite my conception of it as an arduous endeavor requiring hours of boring repetition, that creating it was actually quite fun.

Classical music—and music in general—is inherently a social activity. All music implies a listener; it connects the performer and the listener. Further, musicians who play together are connected in the shared goal of making something larger than themselves. To add a piece of oneself to this common project is to support one’s fellow performers while also being supported by them, bringing out the best in everyone.

Classical music provides a useful lesson about the universal quest for self-betterment. Classical musicians strive for perfection but never achieve it. Narrowing the gap between perfection and my current level is, for me, one of the most fun aspects of the craft. It reminds me that there is always room for improvement and that even world-class musicians are not perfect. This fact pertains to life in general, simultaneously checking one’s sense of accomplishment and motivating one to keep chasing perfection.

For the holdouts who still are not convinced that classical music has something to offer everyone, especially people who prefer non-classical music, I provide one last point: the dichotomy between classical music and non-classical music is artificial.

Every genre of music impacts the others, and the intersection between them makes it impossible to differentiate “classical” from “non-classical” music.

Consider the Lana Del Rey song “Old Money,” a pop song produced in 2014. Now consider Nino Rota’s “Romeo and Juliet,” starting sixteen seconds in. The melody is exactly the same (though whether this was intentional, I don’t know). Does this mean that Del Rey’s song should be considered classical since it samples a classical melody? Probably not, but it does show that no music is created in a vacuum; classical music provided the shoulders on which modern music stands. To categorically reject classical music as a genre on the basis that it is irrelevant to music being produced today is to reject the foundations of modern music.

All this is to say that classical music is misunderstood, and that it has more relevance and value to modern life than people realize. To recognize this relevance and value is not to deny the importance of pop music, but to acknowledge that both are variants of the same species of human art. Perhaps the rise of pop music represents a natural evolution in music and the resting skeleton of classical music should remain in the grave, but I prefer to think that it can come back somehow. Even if the world has turned its ears to something else, I will still be listening.