Can classical music engage modern music fans?

by Christopher Sutton on December 14, 2011

Can social media help engage a new generation with classical music? (Photo: smanography@Flickr)

To many of my generation, classical music is unfamiliar and, sadly, unappealing.

I was lucky enough to get a fair bit of exposure through my childhood music education, but must admit that I still feel very ignorant of the standard classical corpus. I have a lot of respect for classical repertoire and those who play it, but it’s been rare that I find a piece I’ve really felt an emotional connection with. As a church chorister, there were certain pieces that I particularly enjoyed singing, and some which became emotionally resonant just through being a frequent part of that phase of my life. There have been some classical pieces outside of church music which I’ve loved. For example, much of Carmina Burana, Rodrigo’s superb guitar concertos and some of the pieces I played on saxophone (e.g. Mussorgsky’s “The Old Castle” from “Pictures at an Exhibition”).

In fact, I know enough to recognise the blunder of even using the term classical as such a catch-all, especially since all the pieces mentioned above sit firmly outside the classical period (1750-1830). But to most people my age, ‘classical’ music is just a synonym for pre-20th century, orchestral, old-fashioned, boring…

But surely there must be a future for these works which have stood the test of time, beyond just the dedicated performers and the (ever-dwindling) crowd of elite music appreciators who pay to hear them play live?

The progression of classical music into the Romantic, Impressionist and increasingly dissonant styles of the 20th century led to some strange and interesting aural innovation – but perhaps at the cost of becoming even less relatable to members of the general public. How many people d’you know who enjoy listening to John Cage or Edgard Varèse? A few years ago the Washington Post ran an experiment where world-renowned violinist Joshua Bell performed anonymously in a subway station – and barely drew a second glance from passers by.

So what is the future for classical music?

Well, I’m far from qualified to try to offer an answer to that vast and imposing question. But I think a part of it must be re-establishing the connection between the classical composer or performer, and their audience.



Classical Music on the Social Web

I wanted to share two particular examples I’ve recently found encouraging.


A light-hearted glimpse of the professional performer’s life

The pianist James Rhodes has garnered quite some publicity through being quite different from the usual buttoned-down classical virtuoso. His talents at the keyboard are unquestioned, but he manages to combine this with a vibrant personality and none of the usual careful guarding of public image. Oh, and he hates the term ‘classical music’ for its implied segregation.

A few notable examples of how Rhodes behaves a little differently than you might expect from a classical musician:

He’s remarkably candid about his past mental health problems and time in psychiatric hospitals. In a society which still places huge stigma on mental health disorders, it’s refreshing to see someone with public visibility be so honest and forthcoming about it.

He also regularly writes thought-provoking articles on modern culture, for example this one on the cruel (yet socially acceptable) mob mentality of laughing at X-Factor competitors.

Perhaps even more striking is his Twitter account. Though it provides the expected window into the world of professional classical musicianship (tweets about long practice sessions, instruments, rehearsals, and concerts), it also, without reservation, paints a picture of a regular person – who struggles with motivation for practice, who finds himself rusty after a break… and who also tweets about lazy weekends, porn, and bad jokes… and takes the time to @-reply to vast numbers of tweets from followers (and presumably fans, of one sort or another).



To me, this makes him a far more relatable person than most classical artists, and while this might seem like a trivial aspect of celebrity, it is in fact quite a powerful thing and not to be dismissed lightly. His self-exposure and willingness to show his vulnerable human side remove a lot of the stigma and intimidation that the classical world can hold for people, and make picking up a copy of his CD (which is straight-up classical music) a far more appealing and approachable prospect.


New classical music introduced by the composer

The other example comes from contemporary classical composer Thomas Hewitt Jones, someone I was fortunate enough to know during school and university, and whose music you’ll almost certainly have heard recently, as the soundtrack to the promotional Wenlock and Mandeville videos for the 2012 Olympics.

Enjoying the success he does in the classical world, it would be easy for Thomas to conform to expectations, and play the part of refined, careful composer. Fortunately he has far too lively a personality for that, and so he chooses instead to embrace the modern status quo of sharing and connecting with people online. The example which particularly struck me recently was a YouTube video he posted, introducing a new Christmas carol he wrote, and recorded with VOCES 8. It’s a short video, in which Thomas introduces the piece and its lyrics, and then plays a section of the VOCES 8 recording.

Again, it would be easy to write this off as just another part of the social media boom. Wave a wand to make X more successful by combining it with Web 2.0 Social Media magic. But, as in the case of James Rhodes, it actually serves both to give a glimpse into the world of the modern classical music professional, and to knock down the barriers of snobbery and intimidation that many young people feel around classical music.

It led me to wonder whether vastly more people would consider classical music approachable and be willing to give it a try if the composers (and performers) were out there providing such personal, friendly, down-to-earth introductions.

The seeds of a new relationship?

These days it’s very easy to see a problem and say “let’s solve it with social media”, and I’m perhaps too cynical a technologist to do anything but cringe at that attitude. But it would be equally naïve to dismiss its potential just due to the slight cliché it’s become.

Arguably the biggest problem classical music faces in this era is that people can’t relate to it and so do not consider it a part of their world.

If that’s the case, then social media is undoubtedly a powerful channel for improving that situation. And artists like James Rhodes and Thomas Hewitt Jones stand out to me as terrific examples of how to use that channel effectively.



See also:



Thanks to Sr. Emma Nolan for sharing the Joshua Bell story.
Violin image by smanography@Flickr.

  • K. Lendi

    I couldn’t agree more with your post. I LOVE Classical music and I’m always surprised at how I’m often alone. The music is absolutely fantastic but how we professional musicians handle ourselves and relate to our audience is really sad. It’s fine to maintain some traditions but we cannot ONLY act as though we’re still back in the 17 and 18 hundreds.

    We’re humans and in life we experience all sorts of amazing sensations and emotions which can be very well represented in music. The human condition and experience are universal and Classical music could be a great way to think about life and its struggles.

    I’m very glad for the leaps and bounds in technology. Hopefully more Classical musicians will start using it to engage with more and more people and to share their musical explorations with the world.Thank you for the post and introducing me to two new artists. 

    Best Regards,

    Kerry Lendi
    ClassicalMusicEducation.com

  • http://SonicTruths.net Christopher Sutton

    Agreed! Thanks for sharing your perspective, Kerry.

    ClassicalMusicEducation.com seems like a fantastic site, I look forward to digging into it some more…

  • K. Lendi

    Thank you! And likewise :)

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