Can Classical Music Be Cool?

04/13/2015 12:11 pm ET | Updated Jun 13, 2015

Like many other kids, I was pushed to learn an instrument when I was growing up. Once a week I would be carted off to piano lessons at my teacher's studio, where I would sit reeling off scales, or studying a piece of music to which I had no particular personal connection. It was by no means the most cumbersome of my scholastic pursuits, but I struggled to take real pleasure in an activity not of my choosing. My first real exposure to classical music was one that is all too common: it was forced.

I grew up in a musical household. The soundtrack of much of my early life was the precise melodic lines of Bach, who my father is especially fond of. According to my mother, I was born to "Spring" from Vivaldi's The Four Seasons. My brother is an avid composer and talented percussionist, as well as a virtuoso beat-boxer. Yet despite all this, once I entered my teen years and the parental pressure relented, I was quick to discard the piano at the first chance. The association of the piano with hours of unwanted exertion was one not easily broken; for years I barely ever touched the piano -- and what's more, I didn't really miss it.

It wasn't until college that I discovered a love of classical music on my own steam. I was up one night and happened to come across a recording of Debussy's Clair de Lune, when I was seized by a sudden urge to play it for myself. All at once, memories of my piano-playing days came flooding back, and I was excited by the prospect of playing something that genuinely appealed to me, rather than to satisfy my teacher or pass an exam. I spontaneously took the subway into Boston, bought the first keyboard I could find, and hauled it back to my room. That was the last night anybody in my dorm enjoyed a good night's sleep.

From that point onwards, I immersed myself in classical music as much as I could, listening to it in my free time, attending concerts and even taking a number of electives on music history and composition. For the first time, I took the time to sit down and really listen to the music as opposed to merely have it playing in the background.

It occurred to me then how rare it is for people to take the time to devote their full attention to classical music. All too often it has taken its place in society as background noise -- we listen to it while we work, we hear it playing unobtrusively in hotel lobbies and bars, in advertisements or movie soundtracks (case in point: whenever I play Clair de Lune people tend to identify it as "the Ocean's Eleven theme"). Despite the relative complexity of classical music compared to modern popular music, in most contexts we actually devote less of our focus towards its appreciation. In addition, pop music has a number of ways of drawing in the listener that aren't really available to classical music. We sing along to our favourite songs, and we dance to them. The songs of the moment tend to be ubiquitous -- we hear them constantly and they become intimately familiar to us.

Of course, concerts still provide a much-needed forum in which people devote their full attention to classical music. Every time I go to a concert however, I can't help but notice the same thing -- where are all the young people? I always seem to be confronted with the same scene -- a sea of gray hair -- and when I try to enlist my friends to join me, there are never many takers. Classical music, I've come to realize, has a major demographic problem.

Having attended many concerts over the years, I've begun to understand why this is the case: the whole institution of classical music is run in such a way as to appeal primarily to those who already have a passion for the genre, rather than to attract newcomers. Concerts, for the most part, can be formal, dare I say occasionally stuffy affairs. Imagine, for example, going to a pop concert and experiencing it in total silence, without any dialogue between the performers and the audience, with the lights on full blast and no production value to speak of. It's no coincidence that classical concerts offering a livelier ambiance -- such as those held in festivals or open-air venues -- tend to draw a younger crowd. To make matters worse, classical concert programmes often mix relatable music with more esoteric pieces, likely to appeal to only a subsection of the audience. Even as an ardent classical music lover myself, I have to confess that more often than not when I go to a concert I do so because I'm brought there by just one or two specific pieces on the programme. It's an experience I'd equate to sitting through a supporting act during a pop concert before the main event -- something most people end up chatting through or skipping altogether.

Can classical music be cool? In my opinion, the answer is a resounding yes. After all, classical music has played a profound role in shaping what we all listen to today. Pachelbel's famous Canon in D for example, has directly influenced the songs of artists ranging from the Beatles, U2, Aerosmith, Green Day, Avril Lavigne and Kylie Minogue. British music producer Pete Waterman, whose label produced some of the biggest chart hits of the 80s, went as far as to describe Pachelbel's Canon as "the godfather of pop music." In order for classical music to achieve the popularity it deserves however, we need to allow people to discover it on their own initiative, and provide easy and engaging ways in which to do so.

Ever since college, it has been a personal mission to help revitalize the standing of classical music among the younger generations. So when one of my college friends reached out to me last year to ask if I'd send him a weekly digest of classical music along with some contextual information, I jumped at the chance. After spending several hours carefully selecting some pieces by Bach, I was about to send my first installment when something unexpected happened -- I decided to share my new project with my friends on Facebook, and was pleasantly surprised by the overwhelmingly positive response I received. It simply reinforced my belief that there are many people out there keen to learn more about classical music, if only there were an easy way to get into it.

Since then, I've been maintaining a blog devoted to classical music, aimed at providing a painless way of learning about the music of some of history's greatest composers. I make an effort to ensure that my writing is understandable to non-musicians, and I feature short clips of music with each post. In the future, I hope to have the means to bring together a concert series catered specifically towards enticing young people to give classical music the chance it deserves. In the meantime, you can follow my blog at