The popularity of classical music is of interest to those who teach music, and to those who run symphony orchestras. One of the things that attracts audiences to concert halls is favorite repertoire being on the program. Contemporary composers of classical music have at times been at odds with audiences, because their music was not what people wanted to hear. Much has been written about the lack of appeal that atonal and aleatoric music has to audiences, but knowing what audiences do like and want to hear is important if orchestras are going to attract and audience outside the tried, true and aging faithful. A list of the top 100 classical music pieces found on kickassclassical provides some interesting food for thought. Let’s look at what is there.
While there are really no surprises on the list, what I find particularly interesting are the keywords associated with each piece. I counted the number of times each keyword shows up in the top 25 pieces; here is what I found. Four pieces or 16% (rank 3, 6, 15, 19) are matched with key words that are or suggestive of life events. Ten of them, or 40% (rank 1, 2, 4, 8, 9, 11, 14, 16, 22, & 23) are matched with key words that are or suggestive of emotions, and half of them are in the top ten. Five, or 20% pieces are associated with the word cartoon. This is born out in my classes. Students will invariably get the most excited and motivated to listen when they hear classical music that they recognize from or that sounds like music they have heard in cartoons.
Another interesting finding from this list is that all of the top five and 8 of the top ten have prominent rhythm in the themes. This produces an overall more driving, active kind of music, and it also results in a more explicit beat. This last point I believe is key. Young people in particular enjoy the heavy rhythm and beat emphasis of popular music. I have observed in my classes that the more rhythm and beat are prominent in a classical work, the more likely it is that they will enjoy that piece. Though not on the list, it is worth mentioning that among contemporary composers, the minimalists, including John Adams and Philip Glass, have been among the most popular, and that minimalist music is much more rhythmic than other styles.
It is also noteworthy that 15 of the top 25 pieces were written in the 19th century, and that the two most popular composers on the list are Beethoven (3) and Tchaikovsky (2). If my students are any indication, it appears likely that Beethoven’s popularity is driven in large part by two works, one of which (surprisingly) did not make the list: the fifth symphony, and Fur Elise. Tchaikovsky gets heavy promotion in the United States every American Independence Day (when the 1812 overture is common fare) and every Christmas season with the innumerable productions of The Nutcracker.
In general, I could conclude that pieces that have been worked into popular culture are also the most popular in the symphonic concert hall. Between weddings, holiday celebrations and films, many of the pieces on this list are familiar to a large population of people who have rarely or never been to a symphony orchestra concert. That familiarity breeds popularity is a well worn adage in the popular music industry, which relies on heavily promoted concerts and frequent plays on radio stations to popularize its product, and it was well understood by Richard Rodgers, who once explained that he could pick a song from a show and make it popular by placing it in the overture, in the first act, in the n’tract, and reprised in the second act. By the tie the audience left, they had heard the song four times and were humming it on their way home.
Singablility may well be another hallmark of more popular classical pieces. The bottom half of the list also includes many pieces made well known by use in popular media, but many of these have less lyric melodies. These works include Grieg’s Piano Concerto (used in Adrian Lyne’s 1997 film Lolita), Lacrimosa from Mozart’s Requiem (used in a recent DirectTV commercial), Overture to The Magic Flute, “Mars The Bringer of War” from Holst’s The Planets (used often in Carl Sagan’s Cosmos and referenced in the opening bars of “(Imperial March” from Star Wars), and even “March” from The Nutcracker, which comes in at only number 75. In conclusion, it may be that the most popular classical pieces strongly appeal to at least one emotion, are already popular to audiences through popular media, and are comprised largely of memorable and singable melodies.