Why does classical music matter?

Saturday 31 October, 14.00 until 15.15, The Barbican, Silk St, London EC2Y 8DS UK Satellites

Part of the Barbican’s classical weekender, Sound Unbound. For more information and tickets, visit the Barbican website.

‘All art’, claimed the Victorian critic Walter Pater, ‘aspires to the condition of music’. For many, classical music still stands as the greatest of all: as study aid for concentration, as quick-fire emotional trigger on a film soundtrack or as cultural shorthand for sophistication and taste. In the twenty-first century, however – when music has rarely been more accessible or ubiquitous in our daily lives – it can be hard to articulate its merits. While many would say its value is self-evident, it’s not necessarily true we know quality when we hear it: when violinist Joshua Bell experimented several years ago by busking in the New York subway, he failed to make enough money to buy a ticket for one of his own concerts. Attempts to popularise classical music for a younger generation – such as the Classical Brits – can prove divisive, with existing audiences insisting its appeal is precisely because it eschews the instant gratification of pop culture.

Some look towards neuroscientific explanations, arguing that the complexity of a symphony or sonata have a beneficial effect on brain development or touch us on an innate, instinctive level. Others suggest that its power resides in its historical significance, emphasising its influence on contemporary popular forms. Yet, for others, such academic explanations still fall short of capturing the emotional resonance and power of the music, and evades the difficult question of judgement: why struggle through Sibelius or Shostakovich when the same delights may be on offer elsewhere? Few would seriously claim to Salieri really was a better composer than Mozart, but might be more hesitant to argue for Dvorak over muzak; casual listeners would struggle to judge the quality of one orchestral performance over another, yet the same differences can provoke stark disagreement between serious aficionados.

Does classical music really matter to the extent that we should invest time in appreciating it over other forms of music? Is choosing between Verdi and Clint Mansell, or Strauss and Morricone, simply a matter of preference or is it possible to draw more precise distinctions? Is it elitist to argue that some classical music pieces simply offer a richer, or even more important, listening experience than others? Where should a new listener begin – and, perhaps more importantly, why should they bother?

Dolan Cummings
associate fellow, Academy of Ideas; author, That Existential Leap: a crime story (forthcoming from Zero Books)

Dr Alexandra Lamont
senior lecturer, psychology of music, Keele University

James McVinnie
organist; latest release, Cycles

Raymond Yiu
composer; conductor; jazz pianist

Cara Bleiman
teacher, Arnhem Wharf Primary School

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Next year's festival will be packed with more debates like this one. If you would like to come, get your ticket now via our 2016 tickets page.
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