Although neglected in today’s mainstream, Lewis Wolstanholme argues why Classical Music is still relevant in 21st century musical culture.
The appreciation of classical music has dwindled to a niche demographic in recent decades, whilst popular music has become the most accessible art form for the masses. Classical music, it seems, is mostly disregarded as old fashioned or irrelevant in today’s digital society, and its general listeners come across as elitist or even post-bourgeoisie. However, this is not the definitive view. I truly believe that classical music, despite its negative connotations, is a staple of past craftsmanship and out-of-the-box thinking.
Classical music can be viewed as Western society’s most accurate historic representation of music. It contains within it the development and exploitation of many instruments that we are familiar with in today’s popular ethos (e.g. piano, guitar, strings, etc.). As notated scores are such a heavy influence on the performance and creation of this music, it outweighs any aural tradition for reliability in viewing a developmental trend. As folk songs are passed down, each new player has their own inflection on the work, whereas a score can only be interpreted in so many ways, and even when improvisation and embellishment is implied, this entails a scholarly approach towards a, what some would consider, ‘correct’ interpretation.
Since the development of the printing press and music publication in 1500, sheet music was the only replicable document available to both amateur and professional musicians on a grand scale. This availability amplified the widespread and popularity of classical music, being accessible outside of the pedagogical discipline of aural training for amateur musicians and allowing self-tuition.
This is not to say every score is a transcendental object, or even that popular music is irrelevant. The history of popular music spans a much greater time period than classical, but until the era of recording, physically documenting it wasn’t at the forefront of people’s mind. During the 20th century, also when the collecting of folk art from across the globe began, the value of classical music diminished and all of a sudden the variety of listening wasn’t limited to what was being performed in your local area. In an instant, social appreciation of music was no longer focused on learning the instrument or studying a score, but playing records. Anyone with any taste or musical ability could go down to a record store and purchase any genre of music that took their fancy – the score was no longer the only replicable document.
This sudden change in the market not only diversified the availability of music, but also opened up previously unfathomable genre developments in popular music. It’s fair to say that house or punk wouldn’t have as much of a following today without recorded music, right? Quantify this with the bias of 20th century capitalism, and social revolutions that almost erase the ideals of the romantic composer, and classical music naturally falls out of the limelight.
However, look at the 2003 trance anthem “Adagio for Strings” by Tiësto. Would this piece of music even be plausible without classical music? Simply not. The entire track, even its title, samples American composer Samuel Barber’s piece “Adagio for Strings”. This work is suddenly taken from the world of classical music, into the world of popular music.
Classical music is by no means dead, but the relevance of the classical composer in today’s market is not what it once was. It now lies on the side lines and continues to progress further into the shadows of obscurity. But even as the distinction between classical and popular music begins to disappear, its influence on modern day Western music will never be diminished.