Classical Music and Contemporary Culture

2011 Symposium2

Elsewhere on this site, I wrote about the top 25 classical music works, and key words that help explain why they are as popular as they are. After writing that post, I decided to take the results to my eighth grade students and see if the key words in the survey resonated with these adolescents. Some of them are reluctant to listen to classical music, but many of them were surprised to find how much classical music was already familiar to them through the media. For my inquiry, I made a list of 10 pieces from the top 25. These pieces were the first theme from Beethoven’s fifth symphony, the finale from the 1812 overture, allegro from “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik,” the toccata from toccata & fugue in d minor by J.S. Bach, the finale from the William Tell overture, Pachelbel’s canon in d, “O Fortuna” from Carmina Burana, the opening from Richard Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra, “Infernal Galop” from Orpheus in the Underworld by Offenbach, and “Hallelujah” from The Messiah. For each excerpt I had the students circle all choices that applied to complete the sentence “What I like most about this music is…” from the following list: a. the rhythm and the beat, b. I recognize this music from a cartoon, c. I heard it at a wedding I attended, c. I heard it on tv or in a film, d. the melody is easy to remember and/or sing, e. the music evokes a strong emotion in me i.e. joy, scary, sad, excited, etc.

The results indicated to me how important contemporary culture is to the enjoyment of classical music. Thirty students participated (n = 30). The results are given shown in table 1.

Table 1 Tally and Percentage of each choice for each excerpt

  Total Percentage
The rhythms and the beat 116 64
I recognize this music from a cartoon


93 52
I heard it at a wedding


28 16
I heard it on TV or in a film


168 93
The melody is easy to remember and/or sing


82 46
The music evokes a strong emotion in me 58 32

Students indicated that what they liked most about the classical music they heard was that it was familiar to them from television or film. The students gave this as a reason for liking the classical music they heard 93% of the time. None of the other reasons were close. Of the remaining choices, the next most often chosen reason was the rhythm and the beat, which was given as an answer 64% of the time. This also points to contemporary cultural influences, because contemporary popular music privileges the musical elements of rhythm and beat. On other occasions, my students have told me that the absence of a prominent beat (by which they often mean rhythm too) was the reason they did not care for a particular classical music work.

The low placement of “the music evokes a strong emotion in me” is interesting. At one point in the closure portion of the lesson, as student asked how music could be expressive if their were no words. He had not considered that the music itself, that is the musical elements of rhythm, pitch and so forth, could in and of themselves be expressive. With adolescents so focused on the beat and rhythm and after that the lyrics, expressive qualities of the music apparently often go unnoticed. This suggests that even when students are just listening to music, when there are lyrics, much of the music is background to the privileged elements of lyrics, beat and rhythm. This indicates to me the need to teach more instrumental music and to focus on expressive use of musical elements in contemporary popular music when using it in a lesson. To be sure, pop, rap, and rock composers frequently are not trying to be expressive beyond the lyrics, but there are enough songs where the music is expressive, particularly among pop ballads,  to be useful in teaching students to recognize and enjoy the expressiveness of music.

I also see in all this a recommendation for symphony orchestras. They need to take back their music; reclaim their repertoire from the popular media. Many of the works on that list of the most popular ones were orchestral classics long before the movies, commercials and television programs scooped them up and popularized them. These pieces need to graduate from pops concerts and be featured often to young audiences. These new concert goers will delight in hearing this familiar repertoire, and will, I believe, develop a curiosity about other works by the same or similar composers, and in this way be drawn to return to the concert hall.


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