Sounds /// Thoughts x
In an article about classical music, a pile of sheet music with a pair of black glasses and a pen on top.
Photo by Dayne Topkin on Unsplash

Believe it or not, it isn’t just for rich people and out-of-touch octogenarians.

No matter what the average person’s favorite music genre may be, there is one that persists as either the most despised or the most forgotten. It is a genre that commonly conjures images of stuck-up, snooty upper-class folks who look down upon the lower classes and their hip hop and their rock ‘n’ roll. It is a genre that — by pure stigma alone — alienates the common man. It is known as classical music.

Despite hundreds of years of concertos, ensemble pieces, masses, symphonies and operas, it isn’t most people’s first choice in genre. Countless countries and cultures have contributed to classical music over hundreds of years, so the term takes on a broad meaning. Rest assured, no one sound or style is designated for any one particular person, and music of any kind should be free for anyone to enjoy. That being said, people have their biases.

Nevertheless, the stigma surrounding classical music lives on in both popular culture and in popular media. It is an unfortunate reality that has some historical and economic precedence, but should not be a limiting factor to the listener’s satisfaction. What caused this?

In Europe, most music was reserved for either the Church or the aristocracy; that is, either for distinct religious purposes or for the pleasures of the rich and noble. Musicians and composers among the wealthy weren’t valued as artists, but held the same social status as cooks and servants. They were performers who intended to please their customers, which meant following their guidelines and not straying away.

This image of music in early European history doesn’t sound appealing — it isn’t — but there was some good to come out of this system. One example is Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, a composer of the late 1700s who mainly composed music for the court of the Holy Roman Empire. Thanks to his early life traveling as part of a performance act with his family, he was treated more like a monkey who would dance on command rather than an artist who dreamed of expanding his craft.

Frustrated by the lack of creative growth in his work, Mozart left the aristocracy to become one of the first freelance composers. He was mildly successful, but he did struggle financially all the way up to his penniless death. Mozart was actually largely unknown in his day, he was greatly eclipsed by his contemporary Antonio Salieri. The masses didn’t genuinely appreciate his music until much later in Europe’s history.

During the 19th century, the combination of a sharp rise in nationalism all over Europe and a sharp decrease in the cultural sway of the upper class, the music of dead composers suddenly became revered and respected. Somebody like Mozart, Bach or Beethoven would probably not have had their music played after their death However, these works were finally put into the cultural canon. These composers and their works were finally appreciated and respected by mankind, and their music would attract patrons willing to put on their fanciest clothes and quietly observe classical musicians in concert halls for centuries to come.

There is of course a dark underbelly to classical music’s past, specifically in regard to the ways it was utilized to spread political ideology. Most, if not all, of the great composers in the classical canon were white, and the majority of them were German. These composers were propped up posthumously to promote the greatness of the German people and their culture. In a time of great nationalism and expansion through conquest, great artists (dead or alive) served as puppets in an insidious jingoistic spectacle. If that sounds like a bit of a stretch, consider the controversial figure Heinrich Schenker, an Austrian-born music analyst who openly praised Hitler.

However, these facts don’t automatically make anyone who likes classical music an out-of-touch aristocrat or racist nationalist. Almost any art worth enjoying has its own dark history. Just like how the English used Shakespeare to promote English literature to their colonial Indian subjects, Germans used their dead composers to promote a “higher ideal.” While it may be uncomfortable, it’s better to acknowledge that it happened and take responsibility for it in the present.

The present generation must also recognize that people with a classical music background have a history of bashing new forms of music, particularly those pioneered by people of color. It’s also important to recognize that the general cost of owning and maintaining an instrument, in addition to the cost of lessons, is often out of reach for low-income individuals, furthering the class divide.

People must recognize that all of this hullabaloo is over sound. All of the stigmata, expectations, social pressures, difficult history and troubling consequences are the results of wiggly air. It’s not an active hate group or a radical movement in philosophy, but air wiggling through the atmosphere at varying frequencies and amplitudes. The music is indifferent to the background of a listener or performer, because it’s wiggly air and nothing more.

There is no good reason we should prejudge music of any kind. The only reason we associate certain sounds with certain cultural expectations and ramifications is because someone from long ago decided that’s how it should be.

At the end of the day, listeners who prefer one song over another – provided they actually listened to them – can be assured that their unique tastes are completely valid. People are free to enjoy any music from anywhere as they please, but preferably after giving these genres a fair chance. Whether it’s West African music, North Indian Raag, or European classical, listeners are free to listen to whatever genre they please.

Writer Profile

Jacob Puestow

University of Wisconsin, Green Bay
Writing and Applied Arts

Jacob is an independent writer from Manitowoc, WI who favors short stories, articles and poetry. He is also a gigging musician, recording engineer and composer/lyricist.

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