Every weekend, radio stations of every genre of music count down the Top 40 songs of the past week, and Billboard Magazine publishes the Hot 100, a music industry standard record chart for singles. Songs often stay in the number one spot for a few weeks at most.
Occasionally, a particularly long-lasting song will surface; “Despacito (Remix)” by Luis Fonsi, Daddy Yankee and Justin Bieber was at number one for 16 weeks, while Bruno Mars’s “Uptown Funk” was there for 12 weeks. According to Billboard’s website, since 1958, only 3 percent of all number one songs on the Hot 100 have led the charts for over ten weeks. Pop songs today appear to have a short shelf-life.
There are, however, some pieces of recognizable music that have had relatively long shelf-lives. Though it may not be topping any Hot 100 charts, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 has been around for 210 years. The distinctive four-note theme the symphony opens with is identifiable by almost anyone. George Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus, a popular piece during the Christmas season, is 278 years old.
According to Listverse’s “Top 10 Best Known Classical Melodies,” Johann Sebastian Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, written around the beginning of the 1700s, is a theme that many unconsciously know, as the theme has been used in both the Phantom of the Opera and Disney’s Fantasia.
“A lot of these composers really were geniuses, and they wrote in such a way that their songs have lasted for generations upon generations,” said UW junior and vocal performer Juliane Woodward. “They’ve lasted for hundreds of years.”
The Decline of Popular Classical Music
Why then, despite the longevity of such pieces, are they not more popular to listen to today? When did classical music go out of style?
Woodward said that the music we currently refer to as “classical” was actually the pop music of its own time period. From the 1600s to the 1800s, it was common for people to play such music in their homes; at dinner parties, everyone would play music, both individually and in chamber settings.
McGee explained the split between classical music and popular music as an originally small fissure that arose in the 1920s with the birth of jazz. However, even until the 1930s, symphony orchestras continued to be popular. Not until the 1940s did the split between classical and popular music begin to widen, leading from jazz to rock’n’roll to disco to R&B and to rap.
“You see this continuous separation; classical music got too abstract, too weird or too old fashioned in the case of the symphonies,” said McGee.
Despite classical music’s fall in popularity over the last 100 years, it retains a certain appeal for some. McGee noted that in big cities, symphony season ticket-holders often especially love the social aspect and the experience of listening to live music, while others might be extremely passionate about certain composers or pieces.
As classical music has changed over time, it has been categorized into eras, such as Renaissance, Baroque, Classical, Romantic, Contemporary and so on.
“There are so many wide, diverse genres within classical music that it’s so hard to ignore. You can listen to everything from a Baroque concerto grosso to a Classical symphony, a Haydn quartet or the Romantic era,” said Mitch Smith, a grad student in UW’s music program.
Amanda Dority, a junior and violinist in the music program, loves the experience of listening to music being played by a hundred people in an orchestra.
“It just excites me,” Dority said. “It’s a sound that’s incredible, and you can’t recreate it. I get chills when I listen to music most times.”
Smith shared another aspect of classical music that he loves:
“A lot of modern artists aim for one emotion throughout their entire work, but a lot of composers aim for these different emotions that circle through. You listen to Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique—which yes is an hour long, maybe more. And it has all of these different themes and references in it, and each section will inspire different things. It’s incredible work.”
To Listen or Not To Listen
From listening for functionality to listening for pleasure, there are many reasons to do so when it comes to classical music today.
Amanda said that though she just loves listening to classical music, she also thinks there are many different facets of it that are beneficial; for example, it opens up a lot of areas and stimulates different parts in the brain. She believes there is a kind of classical music for everyone to listen to because not only are there different genres from certain eras, but there are a variety of groups, from strings to brass to woodwinds, to listen to.
The diversity of different eras can also be a selling point for many who do not have much experience with classical music. Smith first encountered classical music in sixth grade because he was required to take a music class. He encourages others to take a step outside their comfort zone and give classical music a try.
“You never know what you’re gonna like,” said Smith. “My story is I found it in sixth grade and just kept looking for more of this music because it was really cool. So you never know what you’re gonna like. Try it out.”