Is Classical Music Dying? Readers comment on a recent piece by author Bill Zuckerman

“Are musicians who work in the field of classical music taught and praised for achieving a set of values that are exceptionally homogenized?”


Galliard String Quartet: Photo by University of Hawaii – West Oahu Via Flickr Creative Commons


A thought provoking read by Bill Zuckerman, founder and author of ‘Music School Central,’ asks the question: Is Classical Music Dead? In his article, Bill poses the argument that classical music could be seen as ‘dying,’ given the decline in CD and Mp3 sales in classical music, the waning of public classical music competitions, the mentality behind being solely a classical musician and finding a job, and the crisis in major symphonic orchestras over the last five years. This article also argues the need for music schools to teach multiple skills instead of uniform specialization, and discusses the significance of finding new ways to connect classical music to a new audience.

See if Bill’s perspective matches your own. What did he miss?


See highlights from the article below:


Why would one ever reasonably assume that Classical music is a dying practice?

In the last five years…

  • The major symphonic orchestras of Detroit, Minnesota, San Francisco, and even Chicago have all gone on strike
  • The musicians of the Atlanta Symphony experienced a lockout in 2014
  • The Philadelphia Orchestra filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2011
  • The New York City Opera went out of business in 2013, citing $10 million in assets and debt when it filed for bankruptcy
  • Consistently declining CD and MP3 sales in classical music
  • Public classical music competitions are seemingly becoming less and less important to the careers of musicians
  • Perceived irrelevance of classical music in today’s popular culture, very few names in classical music are well known to the public (exceptions: Yo-Yo Ma, Dudamel, and Glass)
  • Many of the basic values and institutions that the classical music community still holds in high regard no longer carry the same gravitas they once held
  • Major publications, including Slate, the Times, the Washington Post, Mother Jones, etc. have noted the stagnancy failing for Classical music to adapt to change


Does the problem start in music schools?

  • Are schools teaching that only orchestra jobs = financial stability?
  • Is there a dated mentality on the importance of classical music competitions?
  • Do music schools reflect the needs of a diverse, economically simulating, and rapidly chancing market of classical music audiences?


 “If the workers in the field of classical music are taught values homogenized and uniform across the board, then inevitable stagnancy resulting from a fundamental lack of understanding in change and difference in our art form comes to exist.”

What has changed?

  • Classical musicians are now using social media to promote their careers
  • Composers have used museums and galleries as new performance venues
  • Arts entrepreneurs have started their own ensembles


“Achieving specialization for the purpose of obtaining an orchestral job should not be the only thing valued in conservatories.”


Music Schools Now Have an Unprecedented Opportunity to Make Sure Classical Music Does Not Die and That Their Students’ Futures Are Secure

  •  Music schools should favor teaching multiple skills instead of uniform specialization
  • Online platforms are  finding new ways to connect classical music to a new audience
  • Students themselves now have more tools than ever to try out different things that appeal to their abilities and their future careers
  • Diversify the values taught to classical musicians to better reflect the needs of a modern market


 It’s up to music schools to value and teach new practices, practices that create a brighter, more diverse future in music for everyone involved. We, the lovers, listeners, composers, performers, historians of this centuries old art, await in eager patience.


Read the full article here

About the author, Bill Zuckerman.


Chicago Symphony: Photo by Jordan Fischer
Chicago Symphony: Photo by Jordan Fischer


We heard from several readers, and here is what they had to say…be sure to include YOUR opinion in the comment section below!


“I think that what’s really missing is that the homogenized approach to conservatory-style music education neglects to teach what working musicians have known since the time of Bach and before, musicians make a living doing many different things in music and other things to supplement their music-making income. We perform, teach, compose, conduct and numerous other activities. Being a working musician means you need to be versatile….We need to teach versatility and versatile skills. Isn’t it true of being a music teacher? Not everyone is a full time Band Director. We need to be versatile and willing to learn new things as educators, too.”



“After one semester in college for music we are pulling my son and letting him transfer to another school. The head of his department at the school he is leaving commented to me on how “they have a program that works.” Well, over the last semester we saw how the program works as students were being put through the paces based on their ‘grade level” and not by their abilities. As a freshman – you are in the lowest level ensemble – didn’t matter if you played better than the others. I am an elementary school music teacher – and we are constantly being reminded about differentiated teaching, to help students where they are at -stretch and grow – not be pushed into a mold of a program and produce cookie cutter students. I think the college level students should also be allowed to grow, learn and develop into musicians based on their abilities and potential. Hoping school number two thinks more about the students’ growth and potential.”



“I am an orchestra AND history teacher. Am thankfully full time because of my split roster. Thank god someone told me early on in conservatory to consider a double major, it would be useful – and it is! Couldn’t agree more!!”



“Lindsey Stirling plays the violin, others like her play classical instruments, but I don’t see that as a perpetuation of classical music. She plays electronic dance music. Covering rock songs, playing arrangements behind pop stars, or adding samples of Bach to rap songs does n’t indicate that classical is thriving, but that classical musicians are compromising to stay in business without needing to relearn a new instrument or mixing…I’m still concerned that classical styles are losing audiences.”



“As long as classical musicians maintain the level of excellence needed as they play authentic genres in other styles, I don’t believe it’s a compromise. Outstanding music is the bottom line for me. I think of 2Cellos and I consider them classical musicians who play a ton of covers for fun. I know they’re awesome classical musicians as long as they continue in their genre as well. I see it as very hard to do since Wynton Marsalis decided to make a choice: jazz or classical. I believe it’s a crazy lifestyle no matter what. I tend to view it as this: if they were trained classically and continue in excellence in that genre, they are classical musicians. It’s like their “voice print.” They just perform other genres too. The mixing of genres should have a new name due to its evolution. Also, I don’t see classical instruments as just classical since there are new ways of playing an instrument that I see people trying all the time. I’m more in agreement with the article than in disagreement.”



“Mozart did not refer to himself as a “Classical” Musician, just as a Musician. That is what I think we need to get back to. And we can. The real trouble here is that there is a line within music – made all the more real mostly by musicians, sorry but it is true – that puts classical music on one side and others musical styles on the other. The musical community for decades, really for far more than 100 years, has basically continued to reinforce this notion that some music is better than others. Actually it’s been going on forever in my view. It is absurd. And incredibly, if I can be cliché, unmusical. Classical music is not losing audiences because of the music, its losing audiences because far too many musicians, for far too long, have placed it as a “high art” that is not truly welcoming to the masses. Classical music is not dead. It is not irrelevant. It has just spent far too much time turning its audiences away, largely by refusing to continue to evolve. You cannot criticize your audience – on any level, for anything, even if you are right (that last bit is important I feel) and then complain they will not support you. This is not about Classical music, and it is not about Rock music. It is about Music. We, as musicians, set ourselves up for certain defeat by creating these delineations that only serve to limit. We perpetuate the problem. We actively make it worse by not being open to the real point of it all: to create. Stop worrying about the specifics of how or what and just create. I am, self-indulgently perhaps, about 150 pages into writing a book about this, and how it has impacted Music Education and some thoughts on what can be done about it, as I am told I am somewhat good at what I do – I am not always certain. But regardless, we need more brave conversations.”



“We cannot look past the fact that prior to the 1960’s, every middle class person had a La Boheme record, Enrico Caruso albums and sheet music in some instrument. The Avant Garde scene happened and a generation (boomers) lost touch with classical music. The art form for the masses suddenly became inclusive and unreachable. Then the god awful educational cuts came (and continue to come!) I see orchestras trying to get people in the door with multimedia, lower ticket costs, big pieces (Beethoven) but the audience is smaller and smaller due to the generational disconnect and lack of education.”



“I think it’s a question of featuring classical musicians on tv & making them mainstream again. Why isn’t Yo-Yo Ma on the tonight show or SNL? I recall Sesame Street having Itzhak Perlman and stars of opera. Other than Renée Fleming singing at the #SuperBowl and Macy’sThanksgiving Day Parade, classical music doesn’t cross anyone’s mind. BTW, Atlanta & Minnesota were locked out, they did not strike.”



“With a now two to three generational disconnect, what benefit do major networks obtain by putting classical musicians in their events and series? Very little, so they choose not to. The gap has to be bridged with the younger generation. Music history, listening and making education is the answer.”



“Remember when cartoons had classical background music? The networks took away morning Saturday cartoons. It’s just the cartoon network. I believe that classical music is still used but I could be wrong. That was one way to get classical music in a kid’s head. People trash the Peanuts strip as well which has Vince Guaraldi’s jazz music, saying the strip is too mean.”



“The great musicians KNOW MUSIC!! This is something I tell my elementary kids all the time. If they know the tools of music and become “rhythm masters” they can play any instrument, compose, sing, conduct, etc. They are always inspired by this. Wish someone had taught me that little nugget back when I was young.”



“As educators, do we evolve and continue to perform and work in community as well as the classroom? It delights kids to see us educators play something or sing a piece that they know as well as teach the classics they need to know. They won’t listen to us if we can’t keep a kid’s attention. Isn’t part of our jobs bridging the gap between this century and past centuries? Or yesterday’s billboard hit and their favorite new musical theatre song from Frozen which became a hit and sing a German piece from Schubert, The Trout? Diversity will put food on our table and bridge the gap between generations.”



“There is a way to get kids to practice their Beethoven by writing Beethoven into a funky pop song (our Einstein song.) There is a way to teach young singers to stand tall and also learn how to sing fluidly (our Fearless song). I SO agree that we need to cross the “us” against “them” classical/pop divide sooner than later an agree that can be done by showing kids that classically trained teachers can write meaningful lyrics into pop songs worthy of any kid/tween/teens attention. We can help teach our kids to write their OWN songs by setting that example. I do that all the time! As a producer/songwriter/music consultant/choir director I have personally found a lovely way of mixing up genres and inspiring kids.”



“For me and my observations teaching music in a computer lab for 14 years, is one of how we hook the students in. It’s not just a matter if engagement but one of survival. If they aren’t asking for and taking my class (high school) I am out of a job. Please don’t read into that any more than I intentionally look to engage them in something they like. I grab them with what they want and then feed them what they need. Trust me, I weave in Beethoven, Mozart, Telemann, Stravinsky, Benny Goodman and a plethora of contemporary music from the 20th century. Covering it historically is a matter of time and we need to make choices. It’s in the context of raising their knowledge of music, theory and exposing their ears to different things. This brings a certain level of sophistication to the music they compose. I am careful not to use judgments of “better” but sophistication. Sometimes simple is “better” but I am working on scaffolding skills. First, they need to be in my classroom.”


Lindsey Stirling, Violin Sensation: Photo by Enderst07


 Kristen Rencher, Social Media and Online Community Coordinator, January 15, 2015. © National Association for Music Education (