Think-pieces bemoaning the uncouth preferences and practices of the millennial generation are no new thing, and often include sweeping generalisations and a hefty dose of judgement – proving we all turn into Grandpa Simpson at some point in the ageing process, no matter how hard we try to fight it. But the seeming unwillingness of the younger generation to attend live classical music concerts is an ongoing concern for arts organisations, leading some to fear that such performances may eventually, quite literally, die out.
It’s a topic which 25 year-old journalist Aliette de Laleu broached recently on her show, France Musique, arguing that “It’s impossible that only one generation can appreciate this style of music”, and claiming that “nearly half of classical concert audiences are under 50”. De Laleu believes that it’s the word ‘classical’ itself which prevents young people identifying as fans of the form during questionnaires, and calls for a re-brand to eliminate the existent associations with ‘old’. But is this really the way to overcome young people’s reservations? For answers, we’ve turned to a recent University of Sheffield study, published in the Journal of Popular Music Education, which did something few think-pieces dare to do – interact with this alien generation of youngsters directly.
(Un)popular music and young audiences: The Study
To investigate the attitudes of millennials to classical music, the study’s authors recruited volunteers from three categories – music students (B1), students of the creative arts but not music (B2) and young people not formally engaged with any art forms (B3). The study format would be simple – the participants would fill in a questionnaire, experience a live classical performance, then complete an exit interview and final questionnaire.
All participants were Sheffield University students under the age of 25, and the researchers noted difficulties even finding volunteers for the study – despite providing free tickets, transport costs and a group of peers to attend the concert with, they managed to recruit just four B2 and 10 B3 participants. Music students were rather more enthusiastic, with 26 participants, bringing the total volunteers up to 40.
The students were interviewed prior to attending their concerts, to assess their attitudes and preconceptions, and invited to draw and write their responses throughout the live performances. As expected, these preliminary questionnaires showed that music students were most familiar with the format of classical concerts, seemed most enthusiastic about the prospective shows and also familiarised themselves with the programme of music to be played prior to attending. B2 participants (who, incidentally, were all creative writing students) expressed interest in the “research” aspect of the trip, but no excitement about experiencing the music itself, and B3 students expressed anxiety and fear of being bored.
During the concert, the responses participants recorded ranged from comments on the technical prowess of the performers (from B1 students) to sketching an abandoned house to symbolise a sense of absence and disconnect from the performance (B3). Several B1 and B2 students scribbled ‘zzz’ on their Write-Draw cards, indicating that they were, scientifically speaking, collapsing with boredom.
Some themes emerged as reasons for this disconnect – participants expressed fear of being judged by other concert attendees, a feeling of displacement in the overly formal environment of the concert hall and, most importantly, difficulty in relating to the music emotionally. While some participants did express surprise at enjoying the concert more than they’d expected, the study’s authors ultimately concluded that ‘the likelihood of [any of the participants] returning to a [classical music] concert seems slim, at least in the immediate future.’
So, does classical music need a millennial rebrand?
It would be easy to conclude that classical music needs a facelift in order to appeal to a younger audience – a more relaxed venue, shorter performance times, greater consistency of emotional pace. But this conclusion ignores the fact that reluctance to attend live music concerts doesn’t necessarily indicate a disconnect from the music itself. When asked whether they had classical music on their iPods, 75% of B1s and all of the B2 participants said yes, indicating that, among students who are actively engaged with the arts, voluntary affinity with classical music is quite common. It may be that classical music concerts don’t appeal to youngsters for the same reason that cheese and wine tastings or dinner parties don’t – not because of a dislike of the fare on offer (whether it be classical music, or copious amounts of wine), but because our idea of what constitutes a bloody good evening changes with age.
Classical concerts don’t need to bestrides themselves to attract a younger audience, and nor do musical aficionados need to feel concern that the style is dying out. The younger generation simply interact with music in a different way –passively, through mediums like computer games and films, and actively, through playing and composing music themselves. Indeed, the availability of musical scoring software has piqued the interest of the digital generation in a way many wouldn’t have believed possible – the latest winner of the BBC Proms Upper Junior category, who wrote his winning piece using music composition software ‘Dorico’, is still at school. Each year, thousands of talented young people graduate with performance-related or compositional music degrees, hoping to make their own mark on the world of classical music, and we can expect many thousands more to begin lining the concert halls, once their clubbing days are over. So question the future of classical music no more – were you spending your Friday nights listening to flautists when you were 20?