This analysis includes unsubstantiated assertions. To that extent, it is intended only to be indicative of lines of argument. A literature search or even original research may be needed to discover support for some assertions. Some statistical data have been assembled and are provided in separate files.


  • Classical music is the greatest musical accomplishment of the West, in terms of range and depth of emotional expression and variety and complexity of musical language. (Some will regard this as an arrogant or elitist statement. It is intended simply as factual. It is acknowledged that many may not accept that it is factual or would respond that to say it is factual is arrogant. It is acknowledged also that many people get greater satisfaction from other musical genres than they do from classical music. Musical preferences are the result of one’s life story. See further comment in the Weaknesses section.)
  • It has been accepted as such even by many who do not get personal reward from it. These include governments.
  • As with great art in other forms, the best classical music works reward concentrated and persistent attention. The more you listen to them, the more you hear, and the greater your satisfaction.
  • The Federal government recently substantially increased funding to orchestras, against the recommendations of a commissioned report. This indicates a level of continuing commitment. (It is said that the then PM was persuaded that every capital city worth its name must have a good symphony orchestra. While this is not perhaps the best motivation to maintain orchestras, it has served a purpose.)
  • In Australia, the present quality and quantity of classical performance overall probably exceeds any before.
  • According to 2006 census figures, the Australian audience for classical music excluding opera has grown robustly from 1995 to 2006. The participation rate – percentage of population attending live performances – grew 22% from 7.7% to 9.4%; the actual numbers grew 40% from 1,081,000 to 1,508,000. (There are weaknesses in the situation for classical music, described in the next section.) By contrast, the participation rate for live popular music events dropped 9%, although actual numbers climbed 6%. The orchestral sector is unusually buoyant with standards, management and audiences lifting.
  • Overall, the amount, diversity and quality of Australian classical composition probably exceed that in any previous period.
  • By and large, the management of Australian classical music organisations is probably at its highest level of competence so far.
  • By international standards, the quality of Australian youth orchestras is very high and they are a fine conduit for aspirants to a professional career in classical music.
  • Internationally, Australian classical music performers rank fairly well; standards overall may or may not be competitive at the world peak level. The Vienna Phil is still a better orchestra than the MSO or SSO. Probably our achievements or the recognition of our achievements are constrained mainly by our geographical position, and modest subsidies by European standards or sponsorships by US standards.
  • Trends in the situation of classical music internationally are mixed but there is strength in Asia. For example, in October in Shanghai at the Music China conference, a Chinese official stated that there are 34 million children in China learning piano. The basis for this statistic is unknown. The Chief Conductor of the Beijing Symphony said in conversation that in Beijing, 1 million children learn piano and 1 million learn violin. We might expect increasing sophistication and accomplishment in China as we have seen in Japan and South Korea.
  • Data collected by MCA from a number of European countries show a mixed picture. Attendances at classical concerts fell in a majority of countries but opera attendances increased in a majority of countries.
  • The community-based program in Venezuela to teach young children including poor children to perform on classical instruments and to form orchestras has been extraordinarily successful and has been adopted in a number of other South American countries. It is an exemplar of what can be done and it demonstrates that music education in classical music can be successful with children whose family background and personal interests would not normally have led them to classical music.


  • Live classical music depends on large scale educational and performing structures that can survive only with major subsidies.
  • Subsidy-dependent orchestras and opera companies provide the critical mass of audiences and activities that stake classical music’s position in the cultural life of the country, and make performing careers in classical music possible. The rock industry is viable on the basis of small performing groups that attract large audiences but in classical music, small performing groups do not have that appeal.
  • Without orchestras and opera companies, musicians would have to depend upon small ensembles, mainly ad hoc or part time, attracting small audiences. It would not be possible to make a secure living let alone a good one, and the personal investment in 15 or more years of training would make no sense. The supply of musicians would be at risk.
  • Government subsidies depend ultimately upon the consent of the governed. A majority of voters are not classical music listeners.
  • Governments may be susceptible to arguments that a large proportion of music subsidies go to subsidise music that is of interest only to a minority – furthermore, it is often asserted, a financially privileged minority.
  • The claim (STRENGTHS 1) that classical music is the West’s greatest musical achievement can be taken as derogatory of the (majority of the) population’s personal musical preferences. The scythe comes out against ‘elitism’ and tall poppies. This is a dilemma because if we cannot support our claim for a disproportionate share of subsidies with an assertion of special cultural value, we lose because we do not serve the interests of a majority in a democracy.
  • While classical music rewards concentrated listening, for inexperienced or unmotivated listeners, at least some classical music is too complicated, too opaque, the listening experience is not a pleasure and their negative experience may be communicated to others.
  • Australian subsidies to classical music are not especially generous when compared to the norms in Europe. This does force Australian classical music organisations to address the market more realistically, but also limits their abilities to take artistic risk or to embark on developmental programs.
  • The emphasis in funding agencies has been on building artistic innovation and Australian identity, with the former possibly leading to the latter. The assumption is that we are weak in these areas and therefore they need special support. Some funding agencies have tended therefore to be lukewarm in their support to traditional classical music which is not new and therefore not innovative, and is almost totally not Australian.
  • The major record industry has pretty much abandoned Australian classical music. This deprives classical music of the industry’s marketing power.
  • In Australia classical music broadcasting seems to survive well (although it would be interesting to see audience and subscriber numbers). In the USA, however, some classical stations have closed. (Elsewhere?)
  • There probably is a decline in critical coverage of music in the major media and a loss of space for coverage of classical music to other musical genres. Some papers seem more susceptible to classical music human interest and puff stories.
  • Recent MCA research produced these statistics (Graham Strahle in Music Forum November 2007 reproduced on the knowledge base) They show a wide disparity in space devoted to music criticism in major Australian newspapers (Strahle Table 1), but also that classical music attracted the largest quantity of column meters, followed by rock/contemporary music (Strahle Table 2).
  • Many of Australia’s best classical musicians do not live here.
  • Part of the reason they do not is that the market is too small to afford them a good living and it is not much enlarged by touring possibilities to our near neighbours.
  • The classical music sector may have been to an extent wrong-footed by some of its own promotions. In emphasising the value of music education for building enjoyment of classical music, there is clearly a sense among many people that it cannot be enjoyed by the musically uneducated. One often hears them say so. This in turn can feed the idea that classical music is for an elite, or at the least for someone else in some other sphere of life.
  • There are those in Australia who say that the formality of concerts and concert venues is forbidding for the young. Some advocate the use of alternate venues. But this is a dilemma because the advantages of skilful acoustic design are lost.
  • While, as shown in STRENGTHS 6, attendances at live classical music events have grown substantially over the last eleven years, there is a decline in the participation rate for the young. Assuming that the sampling methodology was sufficiently uniform over the period, 73% of the classical audience in 1995 was younger than 55 but in 2006, only 63% was younger than 55. Most of the very substantial increase in audience came from the age group 45+; indeed, this increase was 74%! The increase in numbers for those aged 15 to 24 was only 4%, and aged 15 to 34 was only 5%, not keeping pace with the overall population growth rate. Is this cause for worry? Observations that the classical audience is ageing are often met with counter-observations that people come to classical music later in life. This seems to be borne out by these statistics. However, the numbers needing conversion in their late forties seem to be growing dramatically on the top of static numbers for lower age groups.
  • Parenthetically, inspection of the tables shows that participation rates for live popular music performances not only are falling, but that the greatest falls were in the age cohorts under 45 years and, more markedly, under 35 years. Could this possibly relate to a loss of interest by younger people in live performance? Just a thought. If this is true, perhaps the concerns about the formal venues of classical music are somewhat misplaced, because they are not used by the pop industry.
  • The classical repertoire that is presented and enjoyed by the core audience is not of our time. Large classical institutions need large audiences to survive, but the long reign of modernism alienated the large audience. At a time when everything else was changing, the classical repertoire retreated to the 18C and 19C. This probably loses the connection with the young. The decline of modernism makes a new opportunity but it has not yet been convincingly grasped.


  • Set up a collaboration across the sector to address the issues as skilfully and tenaciously as possible. The classical sector must accept cooperation as the norm; it could take a hard look at where competition is necessary. For instance, building a youth audience is a win for everyone and it may be better achieved through an industry-wide approach, even though in specific circumstances, players may compete for that audience.
  • Consider the role and possible new contribution of entities such as the performing venues as partners.
  • Create an ethos of supporting the heritage along with the new. Might need a new word for “heritage” – ask the marketers. It may be the heritage rather than innovation that is more threatened.
  • Seek to create new repertoire of high musical value and integrity but of interest to a broader audience, especially of the young. Glamorise it!
  • Give intensive consideration to how to bring classical music within the world view of young people. How to make it ‘cool’? This may require a lot of very new thinking.
  • Explore new uses of digital media to build audiences and financial viability.
  • Empower young classical musicians. For instance, conservatoria could have as an elective a year’s course in career skills and in the second term be required to produce and present a concert. Young players will capture young audiences.
  • Build a cohort of managers who are literate both musically and in business. Such people are thin on the ground now.
  • Broaden the base. Work to broaden the presence of classical music in the school curriculum, while acknowledging the existing legitimate curricular interests in diversity and in harnessing the interests of the children.
  • Broaden the base. Work to boost opportunities for amateurs to perform classical music in the community.
  • Broaden the base. Work to ensure the health of classical music in the media.
  • Take it as a new challenge to capture the minds and hearts of those in government and to ensure that government funding agencies include employees who are musically literate.
  • Consider new ways for building friendly feelings for classical music in the (voting) community.
  • have a process of continually scanning the classical music world for examples of successes elsewhere in addressing the problems identified as important to your own organisation, community, country.
  • This cannot be achieved by raising threats to its longevity as a problem that has to be solved. Whatever is done, the aura must be of a successful sector pushing towards an even greater future, not of a sector that is addressing survival problem.


  • School music educationThere appears to be a general decline in the provision of school music education around the world, although there are successful improvements in some countries e.g. UK.

    School music education used to be built around classical music. There appears to be a broad move away from classical music towards diversification of the curriculum and towards utilisation of genres that already are familiar to and of interest to children.

    In, this does leave room for classical music but it tends to be found in schools attended by higher SES children whose parents are more likely to play classical music in the home. Exposure through the music curriculum for the broader population of children has been lost.

    Therefore, as things stand, there may be an ever-decreasing systematic exposure of children to classical music and so the barriers to their enjoyment of and support for classical music are being raised.

  • Tertiary music educationIn UK and Australia, we know of campaigns to encourage students to train on ‘endangered species’ instruments such as bassoon.

    A report from Finland notes the serious decline in the percentage of male tertiary music students. Since most western societies are still male-dominated, does this have implications for the status of the profession? (This is not intended as a gender-biased statement. Australian orchestras probably are simultaneously at their highest ever standard and have the highest proportion of female players ever. Our most internationally acclaimed orchestra, the Australian Chamber Orchestra, has always had a predominance of female players.)

  • Public attitudesIt is said by some who know the world of youth that for a majority, classical music is virtually an alien life form and that their distance from it is profound. When Sinatra was king, there were clear links between musical structures and precepts of classical and popular musics. Now, there appears to be simply a gulf. This may be the greatest threat of all and probably some research is needed.
  • All musics are equal…The music I personally like is more equal than the others. (It is suggested that we need to distinguish between two propositions. Music has value only by virtue of the response of a listener; this person can find value in a classical work, that person can find equal value or at least be maximally stimulated by a country and western song. That is a perfectly acceptable proposition, not least because it is a fact. It can even be extended to perceived value by social sub-groups. The other proposition is that all musics are equal in the sense that they have, for instance, equal range and depth of expression. We seem to have no problem in accepting that within a genre, one work is more equal than the others. Why can this not be extended to broad comparisons of genres? Only because it has been made politically unacceptable by a too enthusiastic application of the first proposition.)
  • Repertoire and standardsThere is some comment from within the orchestral sector that its increasing presentation of commercially motivated pop music programming could endanger playing standards for the core repertoire.
  • Government support policiesIn earlier decades, the value of classical music was somehow accepted even by those who were not listeners. The strength of this conviction appears to be declining with possible consequences for government commitment to subsidy.

    Out of the Australia Council’s 2007 budget of $156m for all art forms, $91m went to music and of that, $81m (52%) went to orchestras and opera companies. (The Australia Council does not fund the major galleries so the proportions are somewhat distorted.) This invites a classic tall poppy scenario.

    There has long been resentment in some quarters that the majority of music subsidies go to classical music and this possibly is strengthening as the popular music industry (its profitability, marketing and lobbying power) gains more and more influence.

    While in the past, Australian state funding departments had policies and staffing structures based around arts genres, this mostly no longer is the case. An impression is gained that the staff of some of these departments have only a lay knowledge of music and indeed may be hostile to classical music, if only because they would like to redirect its subsidies to the popular forms they personally prefer.

  • Position of the music industryIn Australia, the commercial record industry has almost no financial stake in classical music.

    Important people in the recording industry are derogatory about the ‘cultural’, unprofitable and therefore somehow ‘un-serious’ side of the music sector, and perhaps especially classical music.

    It is not difficult to find hostility in the commercial sector towards classical music, often dangerously focused on the issue of government subsidy. Perhaps this is motivated in part by the classical sector’s contempt for popular music. (Less polarisation might be an advantage to both sides.)


Dick Letts, Music Council of Australia. Submitted 27 March 2008.

Dr Richard Letts AM is the founder and Director of The Music Trust, founder and former Executive Director of the Music Council of Australia (now Music Australia) and Past President of the International Music Council. He has held senior positions in music and culture in Australia and the United States, advocated for music and music education, conducted research, written policy documents, edited four periodicals, published four books and hundreds of articles.

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