If you catch yourself humming the opening bars to the Game of Thrones theme, or feeling unsettled by the soundtrack to The Handmaid’s Tale, it’s possible you might be a closet classical music fan without realising it.
You may think classical music is dying, but it’s actually booming — and it’s throwing off the confines of the past.
From film scores to television commercials and the opening of major sporting events, classical music provides the soundscape to our modern lives.
It’s arguably the most influential music genre in the world. And it’s never been more accessible.
“It comes with the touch of a button,” says Martin Buzacott, presenter of Mornings on ABC Classic FM.
“There are so many different ways to access the music through digital means, and particularly through streaming.
“If you want to hear the Berlin Philharmonic, or see the Berlin Philharmonic playing in a concert, you can do that live, all through new technology.”
Then there’s YouTube: a rendition of Maurice Ravel’s Bolero has 7 million views; Chopin’s Complete Nocturnes, 35 million; while one version of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata has clocked-up a staggering 114 million hits, and still counting.
Figures like that, Buzacott says, put paid to the notion that classical music is on the way out.
A broadening influence
“Over the last several years classical music has been spreading out into other types of music,” says RN broadcaster and musician Eddie Ayres.
“You quite often hear cellos now in pop music. You will hear violins. They very regularly have brass sections.”
The infusion of classical sounds into popular music, exemplified in the 1970s by Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody, has now become an industry standard.
The benefits, Ayers says, work both ways.
“I think getting used to that sort of sound, that timbre, is going a long way to getting the ear accustomed to classical orchestral sounds, and to then bring the audience over into classical music,” Ayres says.
And some pop musicians are now returning to their classical roots.
“The guitar player from The National, Bryce Dessner, and people like that, they actually play in rock bands, but they are formally-trained classical musicians and they are writing now for classical music,” Buzacott says.
“The Australian Chamber Orchestra have played quite a bit of Bryce Dessner’s music.”
Perhaps the most surprising upsurge in demand for classical music in the last decade has come from the online gaming industry.
There are now specialist game music shows, and video game compositions compete at international music awards.
The London Philharmonic Orchestra has even released two albums dedicated to classical orchestrations of themes from games like Halo, World of Warcraft and Call of Duty.
But despite its utility and appeal, the genre still suffers from a branding problem.
For some, the term “classical” speaks of elitism and inaccessibility; dry, stuffy and interminable concerts where interaction is discouraged and even clapping between movements is frowned upon.
Young American pianist Charlie Albright blames that lingering perception on a 20th century move toward uniformity and formality.
Prior to that period, says the former child prodigy, musicians and composers had a far closer relationship with their audiences.
“People like Mozart and Liszt, they were very used to improvising on the spot, and Mozart notoriously would perform in less formal settings,” Albright says.
“If he did something that people liked, they would applaud in the middle of his piece and he would play that part again.
“The rules were much less stringent. Improvisation [in classical music] is very much of a lost art nowadays.”
Albright, who now regularly tours the United States, says communication should be at the core of the musical experience.
“It’s a reflection of humanity,” he says.
“So, between each piece when I’m giving a recital I’ll speak to the audience. I talk about why I like the piece or what I find difficult. I also love incorporating improvisations into concerts.
“And I will often take notes from the audience, three or four random notes and then sculpt together a 10-minute or longer piece of music. That’s exciting because it’s the creation of music on the spot. It’s fresh and it’s unedited.”
Albright says the response is overwhelmingly positive. Those who come to his shows, he says, come for enjoyment.
They’re not looking for perfection, they’re looking for the magic of a live, interactive experience.
“If you want to hear a perfectly crafted piece of music, you can listen to a studio recording and it will be perfectly silent and there will be no other sounds,” he says.
“But I really don’t think that’s the point of live performance. I think it’s a shared experience that is in the moment.”
Becoming part of the creation process
Social media is also proving a successful way of building new audiences for classical music.
Ayers cites Australian violinist Ray Chen as a case in point.
“He’s brilliant at using social media to up his profile and to really connect with the audience, throughout all levels and all ages,” Ayres says.
“He’s got so many young people now really connecting with him.”
Buzacott sees a future where audience engagement goes even further.
Classical music fans of the future, he predicts, will become part of the creation process, using digital tools to mash-up, remix and personalise the music they like.
“Just look at the credits of any three-minute song — there are five different people featuring and remixing and collaborating and all the rest,” he says.
“It’s happening in all other forms of music and I can see classical music going that way.”
So could audience-personalisation and an increase in digitally-created music spell the end of the live concert experience?
Buzacott believes the two can and will co-exist, but acclaimed Adelaide pianist Anna Goldsworthy isn’t so sure.
She believes flesh-and-blood audiences are already in decline — and that the young are losing interest.
In a provocative and influential article for The Monthly, she blames audience attention spans for the drop-off, and fears the complexity of the genre is at risk.
“We are losing this tradition of these extraordinary symphonies or sonatas that unfold in time, that tell a story, to me that’s a very sad state of affairs,” she says.
And she questions whether all orchestral music should be considered classical.
“Is it sufficient consolation to say that people are listening to acoustic instruments and you can hear a cello sometimes in a video game soundtrack? Or is there something else of deep and intrinsic value that has to do with this music that demands to be attended to, it demands to not just be a background?” she asks.
“A concert experience, to me that’s something worth preserving and it’s got to do with mindfulness and it’s got to do with attention.”
Buzacott isn’t convinced. If attendance figures are really declining, he says, then economics could be the issue.
And he says there’s also a “time of life” factor at play.
“There was a period of five or 10 years where I didn’t go to a single classical concert, and the reason I didn’t is because I had a young family, I had huge financial responsibilities,” he says.
“The last thing I had the capacity or the time to do was to fork out $300. But I am now coming back to going to concerts.
“From the perspective of what is happening as opposed to what we want to happen, there’s a huge amount going on in classical music.
“If you want to access classical music now you’ve got more opportunities than there have ever been probably in history. It’s probably never been healthier.”