August 15

On Fear of Classical Music

Your standard upper class elite doesn’t really understand classical music in any substantial way.  And they will never be able to either.  This is, in part, a matter of a lack of early education and hard work.  Here’s a depressing thought for you.  It turns out, if you were never given the right education from birth until college, there are all sorts of wonderful things that you will never be able to do.  So, for instance, it turns out, if you were never given a sufficient math and science education from birth until college, you will, in all likelihood – even if you try very very hard – never even be a mediocre particle astrophysicist.  This isn’t the worst thing ever.  It turns out there will be many many things in life that you won’t be able to accomplish, because of limitations in early education, or because of general limitations on time.  Of course, you don’t have to be a particle astrophysicist.  You also don’t have to be the world’s greatest pearl diver, or even a competent line cook.

But classical music creates a problem for upper class elites, because your standard upper class elite is obsessed with the idea of culture.  This obsession manifests itself as a form of entitlement.  I was at a gathering of rather wealthy people one time, and someone in conversation put it very succinctly, “upper class people are just more cultured than the general population, right?”.  And classical music, very rightly so, has taken its place as a kind of symbol of high culture.  After all, classical music has the distinction of (1) exhibiting intellectual and emotional sophistication and depth, (2) reaping aesthetic rewards for appreciation, and (3) requiring substantial education and skill in order to reap those aesthetic rewards.  Unfortunately, because of (3), there isn’t a very high correlation between understanding classical music and being upper class.  And this leads to cognitive dissonance that manifests itself in a variety of ways.

I was working an internship at a certain liberal think tank a few years back, and a co-worker of mine (herself a radiant member of this elite class) was giving me a rather tone deaf speech about classical music, when I mentioned my classical music resume.  Her response was pretty typical.  She attempted to assert expertise by informing me that she “knew an Asian kid in high school that was also very good at the violin,” after which she continued to “educate” me about the wonders of classical music.  Typical response from an upper class elite.  The cause of the response is cognitive dissonance, and a fear of classical music.

Fear of classical music takes a number of forms.

  • The aforementioned anecdote is an example of pretend expertise.  Pretend experts may assert a connection to someone with expertise as evidence of expertise.  Pretend experts may read a lot of articles and then use words from the articles in conversation to feign expertise.  Pretend expertise is the main reason why classical music reviews (that sham that it is) is still a thing.  Reading casually through the music reviews of even some major publications, you get the idea that the writers have absolutely no idea what they’re talking about.
  • Poptimism essentially was invented as a way of creating cultural sophistication out of thin air for people who didn’t want to put the time and work into earning it.  It’s why a lot of indie records (fronted by upper class elites) get glowing reviews for mediocre work.  Poptimism exists to help address fear of classical music by telling upper class elites that whatever they already listen to is already highly sophisticated.  Poptimism addresses elite insecurity of high culture.
  • Denigration is, I think, the last form that it takes.  I was talking to a writer who implied that classical music was unemotional.  (It’s another classic response I hear all the time.)  The response is a sort of spoiled grapes reaction – like when Sarah Palin says that fruit fly research is ridiculous.  Alternatively denigration results from a lack of sensitivity interpreted as the non-existence of emotion rather than inability to perceive.

How does one confront and deal with Fear of Classical Music?  One easy way is to simply give up on entitlement to high culture.  (This can be very difficult for some people).  After all, it’s the entitlement approach that generates Fear of Classical Music, and this fear is actually an obstacle to appreciating it.  You do this by changing the way that you approach listening to it.  I often tell people there are two types of people that make for the best music listeners.  Expert musicians and self-proclaimed beginners.  (Upper class elites generally fall into neither category.)  Self-proclaimed beginners are great listeners because they listen to music honestly and without pretension.  It’s actually how really good expert musicians listen to music as well.  If you want to learn how to listen to classical music – if you want to address Fear of Classical Music – you should approach it like the self-proclaimed beginner does.