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Classical Music vs. Cultural Disruption

Interest in classical music is fading. What does that tell us about how we arrived at the current state of culture?

Arts and Culture  |  Nov 27, 2017  |  By Joseph Svendsen
A conductor leads an orchestra.

Orchestra concert inside Artemus Ham Hall on November 22, 2016. (Josh Hawkins / UNLV Creative Services)

Editor's Note: 

Joseph Svendsen is the assistant director of choral studies and an assistant professor in the School of Music. He will present Sensory Inflation at 7 p.m. Nov. 14 at the Marjorie Barrick Museum as part of the University Forum lecture series. Here, Svendsen discusses how classical music pushed him to study sensory perception.

I love classical music. I grew up on the stuff. My dad is a small town pastor, and I spent many hours listening to church organs and choirs. Over time I came to love classical singing and choral music the most of all, and it was this avenue of musical expression and artistry that tapped a vein of lifelong curiosity and discovery.

Over the last five years, I have seen an increasing number of headlines about the aging, winnowing audiences of classical musical organizations across the country — each one a small beacon of warning, portents of a coming ice age in the arts valued by the traditional academy. Naturally, this caused me some concern. I had always known that classical music was an acquired taste for many of my friends and family, but it never worried me that it might be in danger of extinction.

Yet, in every newspaper and magazine, it appeared as if the pillars of the classical academy were teetering all over the country. Less than 20 percent of all high school participate in music in their school or community. Music major enrollment is down nationwide, and the percentage of students participating in collegiate music has so greatly shifted toward majors that non-majors might as well not even be considered as a demographic anymore. Symphonies, opera houses, and other arts organizations declared bankruptcy regularly. What could be the cause of this collective, societal indifference toward tried and true musical forms, forms studied by millions of students in thousands of schools, religious institutions, and private lessons over the last century? Was there anything to be done about it? What could I do to prepare my current students for a career in this future?

The answer to this question has led me down the rabbit hole into the worlds of food, music, popular art, entertainment, marketing, psychology, neurology, and sociology. I’ve read entire books on the allure of potato chips, the societal implications of smartphones, what makes top 40 hits, the ways music aids people with profound neurological disorders, and "the singularity," a concept of human and technological integration that seemed more like science fiction than reality until very recently.

What I found was surprising, and it has implications not only for the world of classical music, but for every aspect of our sensory perception. European classical music’s troubles are many and multifaceted, but they may also be a symptom of a wider cultural disruption. Indeed, the very way we perceive our daily reality is changing. This change is having a profound impact on the human experience, which in turn affects the way we interpret that experience through the creative arts. With more and more stimulation required to capture and retain your attention and interest, art is at a crossroads. Which direction we turn is yet to be determined.