Putting the Spin on Classical Music

May 10th, 2007   •   17 comments   

Classical music never looked this good (Courtesy of www.tangquartet.com)

As a marketer for the arts and heritage, I am often faced with a conundrum when promoting culture. How far should we go to attract the masses? Is there a way to balance popular appeal with artistic finesse?

For the purposes of this post, let me focus on classical music which is a request by my heritage kaki Oceanskies who plays a mean double-bass. How does classical music, long considered the poorer cousin (at least in album sales) of other genres like rock, pop, jazz and electronica, make the mark with the masses?

Let me hazard a few guesses and let me know if you agree with me.

Firstly, it needs to bring down the “intimidation” factor. Have you noticed how classical music performances are usually done in grand and imposing concert halls? Resplendently decked in the finest wood and leather, these venues usually come with great acoustics. Most of its patrons and guests are dressed to the nines, in their suits, evening gowns, Manolo Blahniks and Pradas.

One way to make classical music more accessible is to perhaps to groove in the ghettoes. Go to where the people naturally are – HDB heartland malls, neighbourhood centres, and maybe even playgrounds and basketball courts. Think street magician David Blaine as opposed to David Copperfield. That will bring you greater affinity to the people.

Classical musicians should also show some skin…. flesh and bones. They need to unwind, get rid of that stiff upper lip and party. They need to develop fun and friendly personalities which can connect with your average Joe. In Singapore, Tang Quartet (above) has done a wonderful job in this area. Few would dispute that they are critically acclaimed musicians winning rave reviews, yet it is their unique sense of style which captures people’s attention.

The other point is that classical musicians need to look at multiple channels – especially online ones – to get their music out. A good source of reading is The Long Tail by Chris Anderson. Explore ways and means to get your music online, through music e-tailers like iTunes, Soundbuzz or Amazon.com. Offer listeners a little sample of your music to reduce that psychological barrier before they make a purchase.

Being bold and experimental also helps. Look at the commercial success of Vanessa Mae Nicholson and Charlotte Church, both of whom are classically trained yet wiling to explore new ways of making their music relevant to the masses. Just today, I read about the Singapore Festival Orchestra which will be playing to sell out crowds at the Singapore Arts Festival. While they are undoubtedly a professional orchestra, part of their success is due to the fact that they will play music from video games like World of Warcraft, Final Fantasy, Sonic the Hedgehog and Super Mario Bros.

Finally, classical musicians should focus on their unique selling points. The more different and special you are (in a positive manner of course), the better. Is there a signature touch which each group embody that can be played up? How different does Kanon in “D” sound when your quartet plays it compared to a run-of-the-mill group? Give it that personal twist and spill the beans to your listeners and audiences so that they know what makes you special and distinctive.

Of course, you need to be prepared for flack from the traditionalists. They may claim that you are selling out, dumbing down, and pandering to the lowest denominator. However, the reality is that one does need to step out of the boundaries and take some risks in order to be famous. Ali should go to the mountain and not the mountain to Ali right?

You will be surprised how such little touches add marketing magic to music.

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  1. karenyiau
    posted on May 10, 2007 at 3:16 AM

    Hi Walter, thanks for dropping my my blog. It’s interesting to read a daddy’s blog too, keep up your good work. :)

  2. posted on May 10, 2007 at 7:54 PM

    Used to play the piano(oh well, I was born in THAT generation which the parents want kids to go art, ballet and piano lesssons!!!) and got NO appreciation for TRADITIONAL classical music at all till today. I had to memorize all the Bach, Beethoven, Chopin to handle those theory exams. :( Even after SO MANY years, I find that TRADITIONAL classical music can “put me to sleep”.

    And you’re right, classical music -“Ali”, needs to “go to the mountains”. I think even Richard Clayderman is out-dated!

    One of my favs is Maksim. Have you listened to his piano techniques on classical music before? You MUST listen to samples you can find online…If V-Mae is the one that revolutionize pop violin, then I think Maksim is pop-piano!!!

    Music has gone many ways – classical music need to be “up-tempo-ed” and be contemporary to appeal to the other masses. But those songs/music that appeal to the “hip” and modern (so-called “pop”) – has also gone for an oriental twist and face-lift to appeal to the more traditional. Eg. some of Jay Chou’s music creations has oriental flavors in them too 😀

  3. posted on May 10, 2007 at 11:39 PM

    Hi Cool Insider, thank you for this post. I find the points on making classical music more accessible, and focusing on the unique selling point fairly relevant to the musical groups that I play in.

    When Blogger rectifies the problems that I have been having with publishing new posts on my blog, may I put a direct link to this post?

  4. posted on May 11, 2007 at 1:02 AM

    woah..I always wanted to play the violin when I was young but erm..didn’t get round to doing it..

    then after that I started listening to rock, rap, etc and Bam!! no classical music to me. but hey..perhaps with some good marketing at my HDB..you would probably see me there enjoying classical music.

    Interesting post you have there brudder…never saw it that way… :)

  5. posted on May 11, 2007 at 5:34 AM

    karen, thanks for popping by and glad to know that there are more parents who blog too! 😉

  6. posted on May 11, 2007 at 5:38 AM


    You have identified a very critical part of the problem – kids being forced from young to learn classical music, so much so that they loathe them later. Perhaps the whole process of learning music can be made more enjoyable and this may reduce the aversion in later life.

    Now that you have mentioned it, I do notice that Jay Chou’s songs have Chinese instrumentation blended with his hip hop sensibility. Must go and check out Mak Sim!

  7. posted on May 11, 2007 at 5:39 AM


    Thanks for your encouragement. Hope that there are at least some ideas above for you to chew on! I also seem to have some problems with blogger at home. Its fine in the office though when I check out my blog during lunch.

    Will be more than happy for you to link to me.

  8. posted on May 11, 2007 at 5:46 AM

    jason, most folks (including myself ashamedly) do not listen to classical music on a regular basis. My favourite music is a mix of chill out jazz, progressive house, trance (yes the mind numbing kind) and some ambient music. I also enjoy good vocals and funky tunes (the Lush 99.5 kind).

    Having said that Classical music – or rather those played by symphonies, philarmonics, ensembles and quartets – can also be very inspiring and uplifting.

    Musicians can actually use movies as a big way to revive interest in such music. All the John Williams compositions for Star Wars, Superman, E.T. (my all time favourite), Indiana Jones, Jaws, Schindler’s List…. etc are so good that they always make me sit up and listen.

  9. posted on May 11, 2007 at 8:51 AM

    I adore the Tang Quartet! They are so fun. If more classical musicians could perform like them, then classical music would become as popular.

    My parents couldn’t afford to send me for music lessons, yet when I could afford to send Jaymes for music lessons, he’s not interested. I don’t force him to learn, I just hope he can appreciate music more for his enjoyment.

  10. posted on May 11, 2007 at 11:30 AM


    I think you made the right choice for Jaymes. Sometimes, the less you do of something, the more you learn to appreciate it. Somehow classical music has a stigma that it is associated only with the rich which is peculiar to Asian societies. In the West, everybody enjoys it.

  11. posted on May 11, 2007 at 2:23 PM

    coolinsider, classical music is not my cup of tea.
    but i do envy those who can hv their fingers dancing on the black n ivory keyboard, producing beautiful tunes. So tigerfish.. dun complain. i wish my folks had forced me to piano lesson when i were young. =( Ooh,, Maksim, i will check it out!

  12. posted on May 11, 2007 at 6:00 PM

    Make sure it’s the right Maksim

  13. posted on May 11, 2007 at 10:23 PM


    Let me share a secret. My interest in classical music came partially because of my son. When he was really young, we used to play such music in the car in the hope that it will help develop his IQ. You heard of the Mozart Effect in kids? Essentially, the idea was that early stimulation of a child’s developing brain through music helps him or her become smarter.

    Of course, we stopped doing that for some time already. As to whether it really worked or not, I think only time will tell though I must say that he definitely isn’t dumb.

  14. posted on May 12, 2007 at 4:55 PM

    Sorry, had a problem placing the link. Here it is.

  15. posted on May 12, 2007 at 4:54 PM

    Hi Cool Insider, this articlehttp://www.northwestern.edu/newscenter/stories/2007/03/music0.html might be a good read for you: Research Finds Musical Training Can ‘Tune’ the Auditory System… then you may start getting your child to play music. *winks*

    I overheard over the radio that listening to music can help improve spatial thinking of the mind. I believe that there is some basis to it.

  16. posted on May 12, 2007 at 11:03 PM


    Thanks for the link and the article. Its an interesting read about how music affects the primitive brain, which is what the brainstem is often called.

    I have included a link to a wikipedia entry on the Mozart Effect for those of you interested to read about it. Just like the earlier Northwestern University study, it shows that music can improve certain pattern recognition intelligence (spatio-temporal). However, there are also lots of counter arguments which says that these claims only apply to a single dimension and not the entire scope of human intelligence. What’s more, the long term effect is still debatable though we know that many great leaders do have a strong musical background.

  17. posted on May 13, 2007 at 8:49 PM

    We shall see as Ethan grows.. =)

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