Music Uncategorized

Symphony of the times

Is it worthwhile for society to pay for classical music?

There is no way we can distance ourselves from discussing social class when trying to answer the question. Access is a pertinent classical music issue. The notion that it is elitist, aloof and a seemingly acquired taste is entrenched in society. This is not to say there is disdain or resentment towards it; quite the opposite in fact. There is a lot of respect for classical music, especially it’s practitioners. The impression is that enjoying it shouldn’t be just a casual experience.

Doing classical music requires admirable amounts of dedication. The journey is long, hard and costly. Often times the aspiring performer does it for personal reasons. Art is an economy of passion; it drives both the supply and demand. Sacrifices are necessary; morals are not out of reach.

This is one of the reasons why classical music is costly. The money involved pays for these sacrifices, among other things. While the money in visual art for example, center around the creativity and finesse of the artist in crafting new work, a large percentage of money in classical music focus on the practitioners’ execution of existing works – rehearsals, research and study; experience and preparation.

That said, classical music has been starving financially worldwide, even in its spiritual home of Europe. It is highly dependent on funding – state or private – to sustain itself; collections isn’t the main income generator as it should be. Its main selling point is its moral authority – the progenitor of the music we hear today. That is what we are also paying for when we pay for classical music.


When we say classical music, we usually refer to the common practice era, where the norms of traditional Western music – both religious and secular music – were consolidated between 1550 and 1900. This period of Western music includes the Baroque (1600-1750), Classical (1750-1820) and the Romantic (1804-1910) eras.

The aforementioned moral authority comes from this history – classical music is the music from the time that man has started to document, archive and codify music. Loosely speaking, it is regarded as the most refined – if not purest – form of music recorded and documented. This is why there are many concerted – and expensive – efforts to keep it relevant and thriving. It represents human history, and its influence on present-day music is immeasurable – everything we hear in the present day going back a little over a hundred years (commonly referred to the 20th century period) owe their sound to the classical music.

Classical music has thrived and survived on patronage, be it the state or the monarchy. Its origins dictated its form – from ensembles to chamber music to full-scale symphony orchestra, classical music has always been a cultural excursion that requires a specific space and time for the best artistic experience. While this liberated the composers to create seminal pieces of art, it has also endeared classical music to only a limited group of people who have access to it. It became attached and associated to certain social classes, with that bringing a political influence and an economical component into its consumption and appreciation.

Asking ourselves how much would we pay for classical music is pointless.

It is a personal decision. Music, like any other art forms especially in contemporary and commercial spaces, skirt the thin line distinguishing culture and entertainment. The sheer subjectivity in musical choices between one person to the next mean putting a monetary value on a piece of art (recorded or performed) will always be a flawed process. The most reliable way presently is to put a price by balancing the worth of the craft against the economic capabilities of the targeted demographic.


A clear influence in pricing music is production costs. This has always been the case, and for classical music, it has been its most defining characteristic. “Classical music isn’t elitist – the problem is it’s expensive.” says the 17-year old Sheku Kanneh-Mason, the 2016 winner of the BBC Young Musician award. Youth are still practicing classical music, evidenced by the relatively consistent number of student signing up for music courses in universities and colleges around the world. “Within the education system, music is not valued enough for what it can do. The dedication that it takes to learn an instrument is transferable to school work. If you have the focus to do two hours’ practice a day, you’re going to have the focus to study for your exams. It’s just as simple as that.” Sheku explains.

The real question here then accesses. And with the internet and social media, there is hope. Consumption of art and media has evolved exponentially since the heydey of 90s’ MTV. With MySpace previously and now Youtube, Vanessa Mays is no longer a niche and novelty, and classically train pop stars are becoming more and more commonplace. Robert Glasper and Esperanza Spalding are some of the international names that have been making waves in the past decade winning awards, and collaborations such as Tina Guo’s feature on Hans Zimmer’s Wonder Woman theme elevate and extend classical music’s reach farther.


Amidst all this, naturally, there are controversies. Orchestra politics is still an unfortunate norm, especially in institutionalised entities. Cases such as the Petronas Philharmonic Orchestra 2008 restructuring and Malaysian political opposition questioning of its expenses in 2014 are some of the few local examples that add to a global situation.

One of the ways to deal with this is answering the question – can classical music adapt to the times?

We’ve seen it influence the times. But what about adapting to it? Observation says it can, and it will, albeit with some struggle. The next Vanessa May and Tina Guo have already picked up their instruments and memorizing their Bachs. The trick is to make it relevant, and one of the ways is to make it an avenue for storytelling for mankind. Efforts like the Chineke! Orchestra, a groundbreaking ensemble of black and minority ethnic musicians founded by Chi-chi Nwanoku overseas and the Johor Bahru Classical Music Festival on our own shores are fine examples.

The worry is warranted, but while the present malaise observed in classical music may be disenchanting, there are ample evidence that it is not going anywhere. In fact, it is responding to the times in ways we’ve never seen before. And we shouldn’t be surprised by that.

It has always managed to stick around, one way or another, all this while after all. And while it may start to sound different to what we have grown accustomed to, it is still the very same song – a symphony of the times.

This article in written conjunction with the upcoming 2017 Johor Bahru Classical Music Festival. Presented by Johor Bahru: International Festival City (JB: IFC) with the theme “In Sync”, the festival aims to explore classical music’s universality and emphasize its relevance as an avenue for storytelling. Enjoy a fine selection of inspiring local and international performances and classes from 27th – 29th July.

Find out more at

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