Recent study: Digital natives relate to music differently

22 Sep 2016

For many years, there has been a conventional wisdom that people’s tastes in music are dependent upon their social background. It was believed that upper classes prefer classical music, middle classes are engaged with a wide range of less sophisticated styles, and lower classes are predominantly focused on pop and folk. This concept came not only from mundane observations. It was confirmed by comprehensive studies of musical tastes carried out in the 1960s and 1970s.


Latest investigations show that this concept doesn’t work anymore. Listening habits of today’s youth differ significantly from those in the recent and distant past.


A group of scientists from the Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics and the University of Vienna have identified for the first time new tendencies of how music is appreciated among digital natives:


• Classical music loses its links to upper social classes, i.e. to rich and highly educated people. Commitment to classical music comes now from another sources.


• Young music lovers, including professionals, are omnivores. Classical music adherents are not more mono styled as they often used to be in the past.


• Opposite tendency – increasing specialization in narrow sub-styles inside traditional styles with no interest to adjacent sub-styles.


• Rock listeners are not becoming omnivores over time. They continue, as before, to form the cluster of their own, expressing no interest to classical music.


What do these tendencies mean for the classical music in regards of its consumption?


Here are some conclusions which, obviously, are far from what we wanted to have.


1. Family rituals of attending concert halls and of engaging in classical music among upper classes don't exist anymore.  For decades, and actually for centureies, the sense of belonging to the classical music was  a pattern of social behavior of so called “elite”.  It used to be one of the methods of their self-identification and the sign of supremacy. That was one of the stronger reasons for the upper classes to support classical music. And it is no longer the case.


According to Paul Elvers who headed the investigation from the side of Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics:


"striking outcome of the study is that it failed to demonstrate any significant link between social status and musical taste”

Strong traditional ground for classical music is dissolving. New generation of businessmen and intellectuals don’t adhere to the traditions abided by their forefathers. They have more passion for the hi-tech rather than for the arts. There are no maecenases or classical music benefactors among them.


Sillicon Valey,  a hi-tech Mecca, densely populated with affluent people and companies, has a rather modest classical concert life. Live concerts and festivals are not popular, despite that the tickets are cheap and often free. San Francisco Symphony, the major orchestra in the area, faces financial troubles, and musicians happen to go on strike to get a wage increase .


The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) is a world’s leading university with  “85 Nobel laureates, 52 National Medal of Science recipients, 65 Marshall Scholars, 45 Rhodes Scholars, 38 MacArthur Fellows, 34 astronauts, 19 Turing award winners, 16 Chief Scientists of the U.S. Air Force and 6 Fields Medalists“ (Wikipedia) affiliated with it over its history. Look at some of its “official events”:  



2. Pure classical music lover, be it a fan or a professional, is a thing of the past.

Only a few decades ago, to deal with classical music often meant to single it out of all other musical genres. Such an attitude was indicative in both of the attendees of classical concerts and in performers. Artists were a kind of VIPs which refused to be blended with more “democratic” genres. Classical music was placed in such a priveleged position because of its rich and refined content.


But the situation looks quite different for today. Even professionally trained classical musicians expose a fair amount of loyalty to non-classical genres. Paul Elvers says:


“The fact that we discovered this tendency toward ‘omnivorism’ is the most striking difference between our study and earlier ones… It had already been established that people who study musicology have a preference for classical music. But the fact that they now also tend to engage with other styles is something completely new.”


Musical omnivorism means that the average classical music adherent deals less with the classical music than before when he/she wasn’t engaged with music of different genre. If they used to participate in certain number of musical events per month, at one time all of them were classical, but now only part of them are classical. This matches the reality - live attendance of classical concerts is dropping.


3. Classical music lovers are not a homogeneous cohort.

They are now more specialized in one or few sub-styles and are more frigid or indifferent to other sub-styles inside the same genre of classical music. This kind of aesthetical individualization is a new trend. According to Melanie Wald-Fuhrmann, director of the Music Department at the Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics:


“This is something that isn’t always easy for outsiders to understand, but that is completely obvious and important to the individuals involved. In the area of classical music, for example, there is the type of fan who is interested in new music but who is completely different than the fan with a preference for Haydn and Beethoven, not to mention the fans of early music.”


This fragmentation of interests also effects negatively on filling concert halls.


4. The listeners of rock, folk and other “simple” styles don’t behave symmetrically to the listeners of classical music – they are not changing their musical tastes over time.

While classical music lovers expose the openness to non-classical genres, the fans of the latter don’t show the same to the classical music. So, the overall musical preferences of society are moving towards  simplification. This is obviously not good for classical music in many respects.  


All in all, the situation with classical music is really new. Actually the investigation carried out by German-Austrian group rejects that calming point of view according to which classical music have always in the past experienced the problems with attendance, and therefore nothing special is currently happening.


What is really special, young upper classes don’t need classical music - neither to feed their mind nor to feel socially exclusive. With this, classical music is loosing its main historical ground of sustainability, and this loss is irreversible.


It’s a serious point, especially taking into account that this tendency was discovered in Germany and Austria, the cradle of the classical music and countries with still saturated concert life.


Logically, the next to be asked in these circumstances is what the new grounds for classical music are, or are to be. Why people need classical music, and why they don’t. Can society benefit from maintaining this “outdated” art form or not. What kind of government strategies towards classical music would be the most reasonable, etc.  


This set of questions is what Paul Elvers and his colleagues are going to investigate in their new comprehensive study they are arranging at the moment.





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