What is classical music for?

According to this article which appeared in The Guardian at the weekend, classical music is for the elite monied few, not the many. What a shame The Guardian, which in the past has championed classical music, has fallen back on that tired old trope that classical music is elitist and inaccessible – and to make the point, the (unknown) author of this lazy article has chosen the Proms as the prime example of this.

The Proms is the most democratic, non-elitist and accessible classical music festival there is. Not only can one pick up a promming (standing) ticket for just £6 and thereby have access to some of the greatest musicians and orchestras in the world, there are cheap seats in the auditorium, and every concert is broadcast on BBC Radio Three, so you can listen at home, for free. If that’s not “accessible”, I don’t know what is.

Classical music concert tickets are generally far cheaper than West End theatre and musicals, and significantly cheaper than pop gigs/festivals and football matches. Even opera, always tiresomely wheeled out as an example of how elitist classical music is, is affordable with venues like the Royal Opera House offering tickets in the gods for c£25, and ENO’s secret seat scheme where you pay c£30 and may end up in a £100 seat in the front row of the dress circle. Meanwhile, Wigmore Hall’s partnership with ClassicFM gives under 30s the opportunity to purchase tickets for just £5, and Cavatina Trust‘s ticket scheme provides young people free entry to 100+ concerts around the country every year.

In its keeness to highlight “the unwillingness of many audiences to expose themselves to the shock of the musically new” (the author blames the UK’s classical music radio stations and their “unchallenging” programming for this), the article omits to mention that the Proms is also one of the greatest showcases for new music, opening with a world premiere and new commissions peformed in virtually every concert, thus bringing contemporary music and living composers (of every gender and colour) to the attention of a large audience (in fact, the article reads as if the author has never actually attended a Prom, or indeed any other classical music concert).

With its obsession with elitism and privilege, The Guardian article also overlooks the primary reason why most people engage with classical music. At its best, classical music has the power to transport us to places we never thought possible, freeing the imagination and removing us, for a few hours at least, from the every day. Classical music puts us in touch with the full range of human emotion – because those who wrote/write it, whether dead white guys or living composers of all genders/colours, were/are human too and share our hopes and desires, fears and joys. For some, classical music provides therapy, solace and comfort (and let’s not snobbishly dismiss the therapeutic, relaxing benefits of classical music); it uplifts and excites, energises and thrills.

Classical music still has an image problem and its association with privilege, the notion that one must have specialist knowledge to “understand” or appreciate it, and that the etiquette and customs of classical music concerts or opera are confusing and off-putting, remains a problem for those of us who seek to encourage more people to engage with this fantastic artform. Ill-thought articles such as the piece in The Guardian are not helping.

Meanwhile, if you want to sample classical music, just buy some goddam concert tickets – because classical music is for everyone.




  1. This ‘argument’ just sounds like a self righteous drunken rant – I zoned out at mention of 4’33”, the ‘go to’ reference for people that want to make it look like they know what they’re talking about.

    It purely just relies on the assumption that classical music is somehow elitist, without a good argument for it being elitist, and the assumption falls on it’s face when you take a minute to discover the affordability and the accessibility of the Proms and other classical music events (many of which are free if you can be bothered to find them).

    ‘Conspicuous consumption’ is *everywhere*, and the re-selling of tickets at high prices is much more prevalent in pop music and pop music culture.

    This article could have just as easily been written about going to Glastonbury, the Chelsea Flower Show or Wimbledon. It’s a really, really poor argument.

  2. There are many Piano schools who hold concerts regularly. These concerts are fun and are attended by all music lovers. The tickets are not too expensive either.

  3. “just buy some goddamn concert tickets” – yes! Thanks for this critique. I was just listening to a news program talking about how a family of 4 could easily spend $300 going to a football game here (it’s huge in Saskatchewan), and if that’s not elitist I don’t know what is.

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