Why new audiences are deaf to classical music

One important reason why classical music is failing to attract a new young audience is being ignored - today's much sought-after digital natives are fast becoming tomorrow's hearing loss natives. As the Clínic de Barcelona explains, until recently, hearing loss had always been related to age: the older you are, the worse your hearing is. This situation, however, has changed in recent years, as increasingly younger people are suffering from hearing loss. There are many reasons for this widespread hearing loss. There are now high levels of ambient noise - for instance the average daytime ambient noise without PA announcements inside a US airport terminal is 66 decibels which approaches that of a a washing machine. Then there is the noise from the headphones, earbuds, etc used for long periods with digital devices. In addition the overlooked widespread use of ototoxic drugs, including macrolide drugs and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), contributes to hearing loss. 

The World Health Organisation reports that by 2050, nearly 2.5 billion people worldwide are projected to have some degree of hearing loss, and over 1 billion young adults are at risk of permanent, avoidable hearing loss due to unsafe listening practices. In the UK more than 40% of over 50s have hearing loss, rising to 70% of over 70s. By 2035, it is predicted there will be around 14.2 million adults with hearing loss greater than 25 dB HL across the UK. Similarly, 13% of the population of the United States ages 12 or older have hearing loss in both ears. 

The difference in peak sound levels for a mid-audience seat between classical and rock concerts is around 30 decibels. This means both that appreciating the all-important nuances of classical music needs more acute hearing, and the 120 dB peaks at rock concerts are hastening the onset of hearing loss among the young cohort. But a vitally important take home point is that increasing hearing loss does not impact solely on the much-discussed new young audiences for classical music; it actually has a greater impact on the genre's core audience of senior concertgoers. 

For several decades in its search for a new younger audience classical music has been trying to solve the wrong problems. Progressive hearing loss across the classical audience, established and new, is an inescapable, irreversible, but ignored fact. Classical music is slowly accepting the need for change, But change is still controlled by dogma literally dating back centuries. Sound levels in a concert hall in the 21st century are defined by the sonic output of musical instruments designed in the 18th century and acoustic conventions dating from the late 19th century. Yet any discussion of adapting concert hall sound levels to 21st century expectations and auditory capabilities is always howled down by the purists. 

I am only too aware that mention of, for instance, amplification is heretical. But back in 2010 the sadly-missed Jonathan Harvey hit the nail on the head when he told us "Young people don't like concert halls... and wouldn't normally go to one except for amplified music. There is a big divide between amplified and non-amplified music... The future must bring things which are considered blasphemous like amplifying classical music in an atmosphere where people can come and go and even talk perhaps.. and certainly leave in the middle of a movement if they feel like it. Nobody should be deprived of classical music, least of all by silly conventions."

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