“Classical music should be reserved for the elite,” someone said to me this summer while I was attending a music festival. She is a successful, internationally-acclaimed soloist who travels between Europe and the US to juggle a teaching career with a performance career. “There should always be a level of pretentiousness about it,” she went on to say.

I say: Yikes.

The people who think similarly to this performer do not seem to be concerned with reports of lower performance attendance and increased orchestra strikes in the past decade, possibly because they personally have thrived in the current state of the industry. However various stats from the past fifteen years paint a saddening truth about the classical music scene as it is.

Search interest for classical music in the US has decreased from 2004 to 2017

From 2004 to 2017, there is a decreasing trend of Google searches for the general topic of “Classical Music”. Additional data like this exists, but doesn’t seem to see the light of day as often as it should, beyond statistical reports on government websites or national agencies. Individual orchestras conduct statistical analysis of all aspects of their business, including attendance and revenue, but it proved very hard to find the nitty gritty number findings. I hope to bring forward some of these numbers. The reports that are used for this article include a report released by the government agency National Endowment for the Arts: A decade of arts engagement: findings from the survey of public participation in the arts, 2002–2012 and Orchestra Facts: 2006-2014 A Study of Orchestra Finances and Operations released by the National League of American Orchestras.


Okay, I'll be honest. These were the first three composers that came to mind. But, if I asked you the names of some famous classical music composers, odds are that you would guess two of three. Turns out some credible sources back me up:

Using academic research and opinions collected by readers, scholars and music listeners, New York Times’ head music critic Anthony Tommasini concluded that Bach, Beethoven and Mozart land the top three spots for the top influential music composers of all time.

Bachtrack, the largest site for listing worldwide classical music events, released their annual report which placed Mozart, Beethoven and Bach as the composers with the highest performance numbers in 2017 (for the fourth year in a row).

There is a decrease in yearly search interest from 2004 to 2017

Again, we see a general trend of decreased popularity in Google searches, falling by roughly 50% from 2004 to 2017. The dips and spikes seemed to indicate seasonal trends, so we took a look at the monthly trend:

Monthly search interest for Bach, Beethoven and Mozart has decreased and shows seasonal trends

We see a seasonal trend that results in lower popularity for the summer months of both 2004 and 2017. This could be explained by the fact that a standard orchestra season runs from September to May. Despite this predictable seasonality, there is still a statistically significant decrease in popular interest. If this is happening for specific composer searches as well as broad classical music searches, what’s going on with the orchestral scene?

The orchestral scene is still presented in a very traditional manner- programs of the great classics in large halls with formal attire and attitude. Statistics released about orchestral performances and revenue between the years 2002 and 2012 show decreases in attendance as well as disappointing financial figures.

Since 1982, the Survey of Public Participation in the Arts has tracked adult attendance at jazz events, classical music performances, opera, musical plays, non-musical plays, ballet, and art museums or galleries, which are called “benchmark activities” by the SPPA. If a survey respondent reported going to any of these types of events during the 12 months (ending in July 2012), the adult is considered as an attendee of a benchmark arts activity. Attendance at elementary or high school performances was not counted. The following information was gathered between 2002 and 2012. Let’s examine how many adults have seen a performing art in the past year:

Classical music performance attendance in millions: 2002, 2008, 2012

The 2004 SPPA counted a total of 497 million attendances by adults for benchmark activities, which fell by nearly 20 percent in 2008 and then by another 9 percent in 2012. Here is the breakdown within age groups specifically for classical music performances:

Percentage of US adults attending at least one benchmark* activity in the past 12 months, by age group

Older adults are the only demographic subgroup to show an increase in performing arts attendance over the past decade. Their rates of attendance at classical music (as well as opera, musicals, and non-musicals) were significantly higher in 2012 than in 2002.

We live in a world of classical performance where a sort of “performance etiquette” has found its way into the concert setting: clapping between movements or clapping spontaneously after an especially impressive section is frowned upon. Heaven forbid you cough, which guarantees a nasty look from a neighbor. Children are viewed more as a nuisance that creates noise and disruption, even leading to their dismissal from the concert. As a result of all this, people who want to enjoy music experience discomfort in the classical performance setting. Does this contribute to reluctance in attending this events?

Can you remember a day that went by without music? Really think about it....sometimes it's actively seeking out music to listen to, sometimes not. This graph contains the most common times to search for music:

Hourly searches for Bach, Beethoven and Mozart show increased interest during sleep hours and lunch hours


This graph has two distinct sections of activity: searches spike during the early hours of the the morning and also at lunchtime. Adults typically fall asleep by midnight. On average, adults wake up once or twice during the night as a natural part of the sleep cycle. It is reasonable to assume that music is used as a tool to help people go back to sleep.

The other area of interest falls at lunch time, which is eaten at 12:30-1pm on average. Whether cooking or taking a short lunch break at work, meals have become less of a social occasion and result more in time spent alone. Playing music to help pass the time provides some kind of comfort and a way to fill the silence that accompanies eating alone.

The function of classical music is evolving. It is not as present in our lives in its traditional venue of concert halls and formal functions, but rather in all other aspects of our individual daily routines- in the car, in movie soundtracks, as a study tool, as sleep remedy or as background music at a store. On Spotify, we see a strong presence of classical music in playlists created for multiple purposes other than just listening to classical music for the sake of classical music.

It is also used as a tool for community togetherness and social functions. The League of American Orchestras found that there has been an increase in free concerts and events hosted by the orchestra. The SPPA found an increase in outdoor music concerts. It can be assumed that these type of events are more casual and provide an environment where people are comfortable coming together for the sake of music.

I took an improvisation class as an undergrad in my Instrumental Performance BM program, where we learned about the classical jazz standard derived from the hit 1944 movie "Laura". It got me interested in the movie, which was a murder mystery. The key element in solving the murder was whether or not a suspect attended an specific orchestra. The investigator asks him to name the pieces performed that night, which the suspect does successfully. However, unknown by the suspect, there was a program change that night that would have only been discovered by those who attended. The fact that something like a program change would be a key element of a pop culture movie means that most of the audience would have been educated enough in performance etiquette to know what a program change meant. If this was a key element in a movie today, I'm not sure the audience would understand the significance of not being able to name the piece in the program change.

Is this a bad thing? No. It's just different, and the natural evolution of things. However, this evolution of classical music needs to be embraced for there still to be a classical music. Get what I'm saying? Time can't stand still and an audience needs to exist to continue propelling the beauty that is music forward.

About the project

Designer | Writer | Coder: Mackenzie Miller

Advisor: Alberto Cairo

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