Why the public dislikes contemporary classical music in the 21st Century

In my view, about 100 years ago many composers of contemporary music did much to successfully alienate audiences through the use of techniques that brought music further and further away from musical sounds that human beings are able to process and enjoy. Largely self-indulgent, composers often wrote for themselves and their peers, insisting that listeners rise to their standards as they pursued atonality and other complex techniques, many of which are beyond the scope of what we as humans can hear and appreciate.”


Music is love.

Music stimulates the brain in the same way we feel love for others. The human experience is that wonderful feeling of love when great music comes into our brains. It enables us to feel connection with others that also feel love through the joy of listening and knowing that others feel the same way. Music brings us to a better place.

Over the course of the last 100 years the world of classical music lost a significant portion of what was for centuries a much larger audience than we have today. The record buying and streaming public for this part of the music world is hovering at around 3 ½ percent. We didn’t have the same kind of statistical tracking capability in the years 1915 to 1920, but from all accounts, classical music was a much more prominent part of world culture.

During this period, Igor Stravinsky completed his three great ballets, Bela Bartok and Paul Hindemith formulated their new musical languages, a young Aaron Copland emerged with his fresh approach to composing music, and a number of other great talents.

What drove audiences away?

Another type of new music also emerged. This music often involved complex systems and mathematical manipulations the result of which was music the human brain could not decipher. Audiences rejected the music of these composers, and shunned concerts in which these pieces were performed, and still do today. Audiences and record buyers continue to turn their backs on composer's works of this nature. This trend of elitist composers using systems became entrenched at universities and contemporary music groups, driving a further wedge between audiences and the creators of new works.


Why doesn't this music work? Some may be familiar with an innovative 20th century French composer by the name of Olivier Messiaen. Messiaen experimented with harmony, seeking out new ways of creating sound combinations in a contextual sense designed to elicit unexpected emotional responses. He sought out new paths for creating beauty.

Messiaen authored a treatise published in the 1940’s called The Technique of My Musical Language. In the Preface, he wrote “ The Technique of My Musical Language is language from a triple point of view, rhythmic, melodic, and harmonic. This work is not a treatise on composition“.


The significance of this statement lies in the recognition of the distinction between musical language, and compositional technique. These are not the same. Since the beginning of the early part of the 20th century, and until the present day, the distinctions between language and technique, for many composers, and teachers at universities throughout the world, are indistinguishable. This IS the heart of the problem. Consequently, much music over the last 100 years is deficient or even devoid of compositional technique, essential for listener enjoyment. Today, talented young composers are not provided reasonable access to the great art and techniques of musical composition. These techniques first emerged in the late works of Haydn, then carried forward through the centuries - by Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Stravinsky, Bartok, Britten and others.


The compositional techniques utilized by composers of western music, regardless of style; classical, jazz, commercial songs, broadway shows, film scores, and more are actually quite straightforward.

Solid compositional techniques plus musical language equals great music. One without the other simply doesn’t work.


I hope to encourage composers to return to the compositional techniques that once made music great. It is my mission to enable composers and audiences to reconnect in the joyful experience of making and listening to great works of art.


Yes, music is love and brings us to a better place.


Steven Lebetkin, composer, has developed an innovative and compelling approach to music composition. Lebetkin’s musical goals are to reach a broader set of audiences through using traditional compositional techniques in western music and the joyous interplay of classical music and modern day cultural media, and to bring to non-musician audiences what makes music beautiful and timeless. He is a classically-trained composer with a gift of melody for commercial music, songs, and orchestral works. His website is www.stevenlebetkin.com, Youtube channel is https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCV1RReLen9zY8weDDpe4bEw. For more information, commissions, and speaking engagements please write to stringsandbrass@gmail.com.


This post was published on the now-closed HuffPost Contributor platform. Contributors control their own work and posted freely to our site. If you need to flag this entry as abusive, send us an email.