Why teens don’t listen to classical music

teens classical music.pngI wrote this essay for school earlier this year. I had to take (drum roll) Basic Writing at my local community college in order to get my teaching certificate (yes–I also see the irony).

Anyway, here it is. Do I actually believe all this? It’s certainly debatable–after all, I was a teen who loved classical music, and many of my students are the exact same way. See what you think:

Why teens don’t listen to classical music

When you see a teenager walking down the street, white earbuds firmly implanted, swaying slightly to their own inner grove, you can be pretty much certain that it’s not classical music they’re listening to. Teenagers I know can enthusiastically rattle off the name of a dozen bands on their current favorite playlist, but ask them if they know who Brahms was and a funny kind of glazed look comes over their eyes. Even my music students, who I’d hope would know better, are astonishingly unknowledgeable about classical music, and if they don’t even know the names of these composer, you’d better believe that they don’t have an recordings by them.

The numbers for classical music consumption in general are, by any standard, frighteningly low. Only 3% of recordings sold in 2008 were classical, with the average classical music recording selling only 300 copies. And you’ll be disappointed if you think that this low figure is made up for in concert attendance—only 3% of concert tickets sold in 2008 were for classical music concerts, the same depressingly low figure as CD sales.

Who’s to blame for this incredibly low number? Though schools, television, and video games can all be blamed for the lack of popularity for classical music among teenagers, it really boils down to one reason: it’s just plain boring to them.

Now, I know that this doesn’t apply to all teens. I have plenty of students that listen to classical music all the time, which is very cool. But they’re in the minority! Also, I’m not exactly classical music connoisseur #1 myself–I typically listen for research purposes, while I’m working, or once in a great while for fun. The vast majority of the time I’m listening to bad 80s music (let the tomato throwing begin) or P-Funk-era stuff.I actually listen to music from a vast array of styles–rock, bluegrass, classical, jazz, early music, and more–but my total classical music consumption is probably pretty close to that 3% figure, excluding the listening I do for professional reasons.

Reasons Why Teens Don’t Like Classical Music

First of all, the pace and rhythm of classical music, with its many stops and starts, tempo, dynamic and mood changes, and lengthy moments is the exact opposite of what the turbocharged teenage psyche craves. After all, kids talk fast, play fast, and think fast. They also want their music fast. They also have attention spans of about three minutes (if they’re lucky!), far too short for a four-movement sonata but perfect for that new pop tune. Pop tunes are also structurally much simpler, kind of like an aural billboard, and quite a contrast to the multi-faceted complexity of classical music. A symphony is something that makes a person want to curl up with next to the fire and, like a good novel, sit and savor. How many teens do you know that like to sit still for an hour and bask in the sublime subtlety of anything, let alone music? I don’t know many.

The subject matter of pop music also holds much more appeal to the typical teen than does a wordless, 45 minute symphony by Gustav Mahler. Classical music is incredibly powerful but not exactly about issues that are immediately relevant to a typical teen. To them, listening to that Mahler symphony is about as exciting as reading the Constitution. Interesting? I suppose. Information-packed? You bet. Exciting? Not on your life.

Finally, the way that teenagers consume music today is vastly different from what generations in the past did. In the nineteenth century, families would gather in the parlor and sing songs together, and the ability to play piano was a treasured thing for a family member to have. The only other opportunity to hear music was an infrequent journey to a concert hall, where one would be dazzled by the novelty of actually hearing many humans making music in tandem. Fast forward many generations and many technological innovations (the record player, radio, electrified instruments, CDs, the Internet) to the present, and music flows across broadband networks with lightening speed, the entire sum recorded music of humanity available just 99 cents and a click away. Also, the musical fabric of a teen’s daily life is not exactly symphonic. How many movies, television shows, and video games prominently feature classical music these days? Not many.
There is wide speculation as to why or even if there is a downturn in classical music consumption.

According to Douglas Dempster of the Symphony Orchestra Institute, classical music audiences have actually increased in recent years. This may, in fact, be true, but I’ll hazard a guess that not many of those new audience members are teenagers. I play concerts for all sorts of classical music ensembles, and no matter how “hip” or edgy” they are in their marketing, I see almost nothing but gray hair when I look out in the crowd. These gray-haired classical music lovers seem to continue to love classical music (there is evidence, according to Dempster, that people are more attracted to classical music in middle age than in their youth), but if you’re a teen and your mom and dad love something, chances are good that you’ll, if not outright hate it, at least think it’s pretty lame.

Some blame the schools for this lack of interest in classical music among teenagers. Writing for The Guardian, Tom Service points out that school music programs service significantly fewer children than they did a generation ago, and that schools are ill-equipped in terms of actual instruments and well-qualified teachers to teach them.

Respectfully, I must disagree. The schools I teach in around metropolitan Chicago have first-class facilities packed to capacity with students eager to play classical music in their school band, orchestra, or chorus. They arrive before school to practice. They stay after school to rehearse. They spend their weekends on field trips or traveling to competitions. They love it… but they don’t listen to it for fun! The two activities—playing and listening—have become separated, as has the cultural context of what they play in school (old) and what they listen to for fun (new).

There is little discussion of teenage classical music consumption among those looking at trends in classical music, however, and for good reason: listening rates for teens are practically nil. Even my own music students, who practice for hours a day and spend even more hours in music rehearsals, admit (somewhat sheepishly) that they almost never listen to a classical recording unless it’s for research purposes like learning a new piece or comparing different interpretations. When they want to relax, it’s always pop music. Always.

36 thoughts on “Why teens don’t listen to classical music

  1. Possibly the problem within the classroom is not crossing the genre as much as teachers could to retain the concentration of students? I believe if music was selected in complement to their interest (a pop or classic rock transcription) as well as a classical piece of music, students would generally be a little more at ease with learning and concentrating for the time on the classical piece.

  2. A related story, for whatever it’s worth:

    I think it was just over a year ago that I saw my teenage son and his friend make elaborate preparations for a classical musical listening experience. They pulled our stereo speakers out from against the living room wall, arranged them for optimal sound, and then sat there, eyes closed, silent and still, absorbed in a symphony to the point where I think, at some moments, the world outside the music simply didn’t exist for them.

    I can’t remember exactly what it was they were listening to—-probably Mahler or Shostakovich, if I had to guess, maybe even music they’d played-—but I think there was something there that one of them wanted the other to experience. It was a very memorable afternoon for all of us.

  3. Hi Jason, I am in Manchester, England.
    I trained as a dancer so obviously I had live musicians present either a drummer for contemporary class (modern in the States) or piano for ballet.
    I think classical music is best absorbed live,live classical music played in a shopping centre will always attract an audience, these same people probably wouldn’t listen a CD of the same music.
    I can remember the 1st time I heard Jazz for the 1st time as a 16 yr old, my friend’s dad played me Giant Steps by John Coltrane on these huge bassy speakers, I thought it was fantastic.
    If the music has a social or stylistic relevance teenagers will listen to it. I work in a school and have played music like Apocalyptica playing Metallica to the metal heads, Paul Anka; Rock Swings album to the indies. Elvis Costello and the Brodsky Quartet Juliets Letters to the “Emos”.
    To all students I play West Side Story because you can’t fail to be moved by it.
    Try some contemporary classical work that is funky like; Chris Fitkin, Piano Circus, David Byrne;The Forest is fantastic.
    To be honest why would a non musical teenager or anyone for that matter be interested in music that was composed a century before?

  4. Living in Paris I have a different view. Here classical music sales are three times what they are in America (i.e. 9% of overall sales). As an expat, I see America devaluing the arts and cutting their coverage in the press.
    If you care, classical music is as addictive as any drug and I was hooked as a teen. Never looked back and don’t listen to anything else. David Byrne has nothing on Mozart.

  5. I think that the reason a lot of teenagers don’t listen to classical music is that they think of music the way they think of fashion. Many young teenagers (like the ones in middle school) simply want to be socially acceptable to their peers, so they give pop music a try. Some people find value in the pop (or country) music they listen to, but mostly, if they are successful in their young teenage quest, they find community. Young people who have interests outside the mainstream culture are the exceptions. And everyone reading this knows exactly the scope and breadth of that word.

    Eventually people grow out of their teen years, particularly the ones between sixth grade and eighth grade, begin to understand the value of individual identity. They look back at their teen years as a series of attempts to be like their peers–a time when what is “cool” is what is important, regardless of whether you like it or not. And if you are interested in things that aren’t cool, you make sure that you have some outward signs of social acceptability showing.

    Teens are, as far as music and entertainment is concerned, a market. Those who find the current trends in music that is marketed to their age group lacking really are the fortunate ones. But they have to figure this all out for themselves.

  6. I’m a 17 year old bassist, and I love classical music! I think I’m pretty much the only kid in my school who does. And there’s over 4,000 kids in my school!

  7. I agree with you….. though I am a big fan of Mozart, Ravel and many more..Im was 15 when I first listened to Pachelbel’s Canon and from then on I was captivated…………………Tnx for the information…

  8. Like Brian, I am also a high school student and classical music nut. I also may be the only active listener of this music out of the 1200 students at my school. I’m lucky to have a friend (now off to conservatory) that is just as passionate about the music as I am. We bought tickets to the NY Phil in June and drove 300 miles to see Mahler’s 8th- what a performance!

    I think that if we debunk the stereotypes of ‘classical’ music (the the general sense) being centuries old and for rich sophisticates, we can widen the audience greatly. How many students really think of music like the Rite of Spring or Einstein on the Beach as being part of the same tradition as Mozart?

  9. Kids dont listen to classical music because they simply dont have the attention span!! The instant gratification pop music is far more practical to someone born and raised in the age of microwave ovens and the internet. Heck! Its even called popular music! We all know how much teens like being popular. Also, it doesnt help that the word “classical music” is used to describe hundreds of years worth of music. Maybe if the music were presented to young people in smaller more digestable chunks instead of one big whopping genre, that might as well be titled “grandpas music,” they might be able to wrap their ADD ridden brains around it. Not to mention the fact that there is so much great music that has been pumped out in the last century, its nearly impossible for a musically curious kid to get past the recordings of the 1960s by the time theyre out of their teen years. Personally, when i was ready to move on to more intellectual music, i was listening to a love supreme not mahler 4.

  10. Why don’t we try validifying the music that teens listen too by meeting them where they currently are. If we continue with the notion that we must “expose” teens to classical music and “educate” them about classical music, they will probably, for the most part, remain uninterested. We have to meet people where they are when trying to expand their musical taste, then slowly, through trust, began to find the nexus between the music they listen to and love and classical music. It is always possible and takes mostly patience and understanding, all of which are free! I know that the Tonhalle Orchestra in Zurich hires a DJ after some of their concerts and has a dance party playing the lastest tunes that young people know. How comforting it must be for a young person, not hip to classical music, to hear music they do know played after attending a hoitytoity classical concert hall.

  11. Actually, my friend just moved out to St. Charles, Ill from Michigan and he was amazed at the high school strings program they had. In places like Michigan, we are lucky if our high school even has a string program. And when we do it is just filled with students wanted a free A in a class. Not only do our students not listen to classical music but they barely even play it… It is too bad they are missing out on the $11 tickets to the DSO for being under 37 years old.

  12. Here is something relevant to the phrase:
    “the entire sum recorded music of humanity”

    Check this link out and see how sad things have become for music of ALL styles. Classical or not, no museum will purchase this mountain of vinyl when 99 cents for any tune keeps the market rolling.

    Watch carefully and you’ll see that only 17% of this man’s record collection is all that has ever been transcribed nor ever will be onto CDs.


  13. I am 13 years old,and I listen to classical music. I also listen to electronic music, (which I personally think it sounds very similar to classical.) I really hate the “rock” music that people my age are listening to. They don’t realize that all that music that they are listening to originated from artist like Mozart.

  14. AS a kid and young teen, I played trumpet. While I played some contemporary music, I had the greatest fun playing classical music. In high school, Led Zeppelin was my favorite group, along with Black Sabbath and Van Halen. Later on, I somehow got into listening to classical music. Having recently purchased some of the Beatles re-masters, I came to the conclusion that listening to them when I was a pre-teen may have interested me in classical music later. Some of their top hits-A day in the life, Hey Jude, Sargent Pepper, etc, used strings in a classical manner. There are a number of groups that do that today.
    Maybe the challenge of today’s composer is to write some material-ala Chopin’s preludes, Dvorak’s and Brahms Bohemian dances, Markopoulos’s 24 Pyrrochoi dances, to match the age they are living in. Composers usually write material based on what is happening around them, so one would expect at some point to hear hip hopish, rock and country influenced pieces much as Ravel and Gershwin wrote piano concertos with a Jazz/classical synergy.

  15. Great style of writing. Very interesting throughout.

    I think the main problem is that it’s not ‘cool’ teenagers are sheep!

  16. I’m 23 and Rock is my favorite genre. Black Sabbath (with Ozzy), Led Zeppelin and The Doors are some of my favorite bands.

    I’d just like to add that, it’s difficult to listen to a symphony by Mahler and not get excited. The man was a Genius, and in my opinion, the greatest composer of symphonies (after Beethoven, of course). There are so many frenetic moments and morbid subjects in Mahler’s music, any open-minded listener of Metal could easily get into Classical music by checking out his symphonies. I suggest getting started with the 2nd and 9th. But my personal favorites are the 1st and especially the 3rd.

    One thing that’s for certain: the length of most Classical pieces does tend to exasperate young people. That’s a shame because, even though Rock is my favorite genre, there’s a reason why Classical music has survived for hundreds of years… and you might discover why, if you give it a try.

  17. Of course what the music industry chooses to throw its money behind and promote is a huge factor. I’m not saying that if the music industry started promoting classical that kids would suddenly start listening to Bach– however I do think it would help.

    There are many negative stereotypes that are spread about classical music, composers and listeners, and the music industry and media in general help to perpetuate such stereotypes: Classical music is very uncool, for snobs, for nerds. With such stereotypes being thrown around, what kid, amid heavy peer pressure, would dare even consider taking an interest in such music?

    My first exposure to classical music was via john Williams’ Star Wars soundtrack (I was seven when it first came out in 1977) and then through the Fantasia soundtrack (which was re-released in theaters in the early 80s) and also the “Hooked on Classics” album that came out during that time. From there I started actually exploring actual classical music, beginning with Bach (my first, and still most intense love). I later branched out to modern classical and in my teen years I loved Stravinsky, Copland and others. I simply found most of the music in my teen years to be boring (however I did listen and still do, to a lesser extent, some rock music from the 60s and 70s, early 80s, and then just a smattering of other rock music, usually not of the popular variety, as well as avant-garde, ambient electronica and traditional jazz).

    How does classical music fare in other countries besides the US I wonder? Someone mentioned about that sales in France are three times higher. When I lived in Christchurch, New Zealand a few years back I noticed MANY classical concerts of a wide variety were available there (oh, I missed some good concerts there!). I notice that Amazon’s UK site has a different category for “classical music” whereas the US site does not– that must be because in the UK there are more sales in classical there? For those countries where classical music seems to do better, what is it that is being done differently there? There must be other cultural factors at play.


  18. It’s just a matter of breaking the sterotype.
    I (and yes, I am ashamed) used to think of classical as boring, sticking mainly with metal. Ironically the thing that got me into classical was Death metal, specifacally the classically influenced technical bands.

    Anyway, I found some Paganini and found that it could easily compete with metal (and exceed it in many areas, though it still lacks drums :( (I like drums, being a drummmer)).

    From Paganini I was able to get further into classical and now list my favorite bands/composers are a mixture of death metal and classical.

    But yeah, breaking the sterotype and exposing things in it that can compare to what kids like is the way to go. I wish I’d been exposed to Paganini earlier on in life, rather than the stereotypical stuff.

    I’d say you’ll probobly find the biggest new audiences in Jazz, (underground) Metal and prog rock. But then the problem is many people there already like classical, and there is a much larger gap in complexity between classical and most genres other than those. And it’s pretty big between those 3 and classical anyway.

  19. You paint quite a flattering picture of our helpless kind – I honestly think most teenagers simply don’t listen to classical music because they are not perceptive or even intelligent enough to comprehend it. Let’s face it – teenagers are, on the whole, rather shallow creatures who crave acceptance. Classical music certainly doesn’t bring that.

    I started listening to classical music when I was about 13, and only then did my instrumental skills develop (I am a pianist and a non-violist). You’re right when you say that listening and performing have become seperated – performing has become an agressive, competitive art, whereas listening is somewhat obsolete. Unfortunately, my love for classical music – an all-consuming passion – led to scorn and rejection, and it was not until I befriended a “respected” member of our school with similar tastes as me that I became grudgingly accepted. Still, I am considered a nerd of sorts and, sadly, have been labelled a snob by many who have never even met me. If I mention Beethoven, for example, even just in passing, I am suddenly “posh,” “upper class,” and “too refined.” This is completely contrary to my lifestyle, background and upbringing (upon trying to discuss Ravel, Debussy or Bruch with my family members, I am met with blank stares or rolling eyes) – still, it is an insisted stereotype constantly shoved down my throat. I don’t care too much – I thrive on being different, like a quiet rebellion – but it’s easy to see why most teenagers tend to avoid classical music like the plague.

    It’s actually quite sad :(

  20. Right. But that’s not the case in China. I understand that western classical music is prominent in Chinese pop culture. Lang Lang is a superstar, as would be (fill-in-the-blank) American superstar du jour

  21. It seems the one topic that wasn’t tackled here is the social asssumption that listening to classical music is for the wealthy. Those gray hairs in the audience of the concert hall appear to be from the upper class only. There are always student prices and discounted prices for the rest of us, but the genre is still pigeon-holed as “for the wealthy.”

    I did not love classical music as a teenager, but a teacher made me give it a listen and talk about it. I truly believe that the power of a hip and influential teacher can go very far. Most teenagers don’t understand what they are listening to or the connection it has to the past. Without Mozart there is no Lady Gaga. I believe that it is the job of parents, educators, and other mentors to introduce teens & tweens to classical music. They may not love it immediately, but later in life they are more likely to come back to it and have a better understanding.

  22. I’m 13 years old and I love classical music.
    I think that it all started two years ago when I first listened to Tchaikovsky’s Solemn Oberture 1812. Now I am proud to say that I am completely devoted to classical music. Moreover, this year I am going to Chicago in october and I plan to see a performance of Also sparch Zarathusta.

  23. I’m 18 years old … and i’ve been listening to classical music sence i was 7. I NEVER, thought that contemparary was apealing to me for some reason just liked the complicated style of john wllions, beethoven, and many other composers … At age 7 all i ever wanted to be was a viollinist, but instead took intrest into the piano… now i am a succsessful self-tought pianist.haha don’t take my word for it .. come to my concert … hahaha One thing that my choir directer asked me was, do you have any friends that like classical music as much as you do?? i got a bit teery eye’d and said no. I wish i did though…

  24. Any Classical lovers out there … please .. YOu can talk to me about classical music any time any day … face book me .. My name is lehks gonzalez

  25. I think to some degree it will always be this way. Classical music will garner only a small audience in perpetuity–but, an enduring audience, gaining new listeners all the time — whereas most popular song genres will die with the generations they were made for, when those generations are gone.

    Case in point, I can more easily find a radio station that plays classical music than I can a station that plays big band swing music. Lady Gaga will meet the same fate as Glenn Miller, at least artistically speaking. I don’t expect her to start flying airplanes.

  26. I think the problem runs deeper than that. Long ago classical music was part of people’s lives, but in the early 1900s or so, composers (and probably not only composers) decided that they had to be different from their predecessors. By 1950s things had gone completely crazy, with the result that composers had almost completely lost their audience. It’s okay for a while to keep going back to Mozart and Schubert, but any successful form of art must remain alive. Classical music is no longer alive in the sense that hardly anything is being created that survives more than a single premiere. Something had to fill the void – and so we got pop music in various forms.

  27. I’m 15 and I personally LOVE classical music, especially the romantic era. One of my personal favourites is Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture. It has so much emotion, yet lots of power. My next favourite would have to be Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 5 ‘Reformation’. Although not often played since Mendelssohn himself thought of the piece as amature, I find it to be a great symphony!! Like I said, I love my classical music and I prefer it over any other genre :)

  28. First of all Classical music has never been popular, never. The average person in those periods listened to folk/tavern music or church music and not the Classical music we think of today..

    I did not get into Classical music until I was about 19 but I could always name a few Baroque and Classical composers.

    A lot of video games have good composers, lots of Medieval style fantasy games have really good orchestral pieces.

    One of the problems is the parents do not know any more than they do about classical and baroque music.
    If I asked my Mum if she knew who Chopin, Paganini or Handel was I am not she she could answer it.
    We need to start playing classical music to our children from as young as 2 and we need to teach them how to play an instrument.

  29. I am a teenager and have been listening to classical music for quite a long time. I don’t think that teenagers don’t like classical, it’s just that they aren’t exposed to it and if they are, they instantly try to convince themselves that it is boring, and the music they listen to is much better. Of course, this also has to do with what our society has become, which is much more fast paced and electronic then before.

  30. That was a well written article.
    I’m 18 and classical music makes up at least 60% of my listening, the remaining is composed of mainly jazz, blues and bluegrass.
    I wish I could sit down and play something like Hungarian rhapsody N.2 but I was never encouraged to learn an instrument when I was younger, but one day maybe. The only instrument I can play is the flue which I started playing 12 months ago, I play for at least an hour each day. I can only play by ear but I get a lot of enjoyment out of it.

    When I was 13 I was just like every other teenager, my dad liked classical music but I could never stand it because if the reasons you stated (too long, no words and boring). But not long after my dad pulled me out of school and home schooled me he somehow got me to appreciate classical music. Now I couldn’t live without it.

  31. I am 17 and have adored classical music since around the age of 9. However my grandparents exposed me to classical music at a very young age. My particular favorite composes are Mozart, Chopin, Bach, Vivaldi and Schubert. I think that classical music is inspiring and has more depth and meaning than that of other genres. I think the reason why teenagers do listen to classical music is because they were not exposed to it as a young child and if they have it would have been limiting and not a full representation of the broad range of classical music available. Classical music needs to be played in pre-schools and primary schools so children learn about it while they young and they haven’t heard the stereotypes about classical music being ‘boring’. Because it is not boring at all, it is merely a preconception accepted by peers that stops them from exploring this genre.

  32. Maybe if we had classical musicians who look and dress like Justin Bieber and One Direction, the teenage girls will start wanting to listen to it and enjoy it again.
    Hey, Michael Buble made jazz OK for teens and young adults to like again, so……. ;-)
    Plus being a rock pig myself, I definitely agree that a lot of modern rock, metal, and progressive rock has its origins in classical music. Listen to Emerson, Lake & Palmer sometime.

  33. I personally Was really introduced to classical music by my piano teacher. When I was younger I never really liked it. My family definitely didn’t like classical music. I never really liked the romantic era of classical music, I really love the baroque and classical era’s, Bach being on of my favorite composers. I’m the only musician in a non-musician family, so I’m definitely an odd duck in my family. My mom was the only one that really encouraged me and brought me to piano lessons. But musicians run on both sides of my family. My first cousin is a rather accomplished musician.

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