How to Fix Classical Music

old pianoMoney (1950). Lascivious musicians (1530). The gramophone (1930). Money (1969). Claude Debussy (1902). The violin (1740). Money (1683). YouTube (2013). Ludwig van Beethoven (1827). Money (1903). Popular music (1324). The compact disc (2009). Money (1987). Figured bass (1609). An aging audience (1960s-present).

For centuries, classical music has been on the brink of death. Over the years, many things have been blamed for its imminent demise. Two years ago, a writer for Slate finally called it. Time of death: 11:52 p.m., January 21, 2014.

There were swift and vigorous responses from all corners of The Internet. “Classical music isn’t dead! Because Dudamel.” “Classical Music can’t be dead–I just saw Classical Music last night at a club in Brooklyn. He was drinking a cocktail and grinding on Bryce Dessner.”

Now, nearly two years to the day since Slate proclaimed classical music to be dead, Medium just did the same. (As Charles Rosen once quipped, “The death of classical music is perhaps its oldest continuing tradition.”) This time, though, the culprit was rather odd.

Classical music was killed by classical music.

That is, the term “classical music” has too much baggage and is contributing to a negative perception of the art form. Therefore, we must stop calling classical music classical music.

The solution?

“Classical music” should be called “composed music.”

Here’s why (according to the term-coiner):

  • it’s inclusive, covers all eras
  • avoids stigma of “contemporary” or “modern”
  • it’s plainspoken
  • celebrates the composer
  • refers to how audiences should listen (i.e. in a state of composure)

So……..I disagree with this assessment/terminology for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that ALL music is composed. Justin Bieber, Britney Spears, Rage Against the Machine, Kanye West, Juanes, Tom Jones, Beyoncé, and the Kronos Quartet all perform composed music. Even the great jazz improvisers perform music that is composed. It’s just that the composing is happening right there in the moment.

The term “composed music” subtly prioritizes music that is written down over music that is not written down. The author even went so far as to suggest that improvised music be referred to as “semi-composed music,” as if that doesn’t at all smack of notation privilege. This name change accomplishes little besides removing the monocle from an elitist, rebranding him slightly–dogma’s got a brand new bag.


I could go on, but my beef isn’t specifically with the term “composed music” so much as it is with the continually-recurring premise that gave birth to the new term: classical music is dying/has died and I’m going to breathe new life into it with some slick new marketing.

You want to know how to fix classical music? Stop trying to fix classical music. Stop believing the myth that classical music is dying. Stop lamenting that the average age of a classical music audience tends to skew high. (Who cares? It always has.) Give credit to young people (yes, millennials) for their open-mindedness. Allow them to come to classical music in their own way.

The term “classical music” is indeed problematic. It doesn’t fully or accurately describe all the music associated with it. But language evolves naturally–you can’t force change. When the time comes for a new term for classical music to be deployed, the right one will arise.

Or maybe it won’t.

Because using words to talk about an art form that transcends words is hard and sometimes sucks.

At least we still have music.

3 thoughts on “How to Fix Classical Music

  1. Interesting article. Regarding semi-composed music I have to say that lots of renaissance music (sometimes categorized as early music) is based o improvisation, so you could have a mass by Monteverdi and a chaconne by Cavalli that live in different categories – a concept hard to grasp for the general audience.
    German speakers have a term ‘E-Musik” where the E stands for ernst, or serious. This is opposed to U-Musik, with U for Unterhaltung (entertainment). So all E-music from Gregorian Chant to Pärt and Salonen is in the same category. I like that.

  2. Hear, hear! I read that article a few weeks ago and had great difficulty stifling my scorn. As though the listening public (younger in particular) would change their listening habits upon such a name change is wishful thinking at best, completely insulting at worst. I unashamedly found my way to classical music through it’s forward-thinking programming…live film music. A John Williams concert blew that door open for me. I quickly realized the power of live symphonic music and it wasn’t long before the wonders of Mahler, Tchaikovsky, and Beethoven revealed themselves to me from across the decades. Great article Brian.

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