For a brief time in my childhood, my afternoon routine was regular. I’d come home from school, swipe a cold snack from the freezer, drape myself over the sofa, and turn on the television. On free-to-air, the options were slim. Between stale cooking shows, soap operas, and re-runs of grainy war comedy-dramas, my first selection was always the same: Judge Judy.
This was the 2000s. Judge Judy Sheindlin was unlike many other female personalities portrayed in the media at the time. She was intimidatingly sharp; a merciless straight-talking prosecutor in the American small-claim justice system. The petty cases were all part of the entertainment and offered the perfect platform for Judge Judy to showcase her ability to slice curtly through baloney. From time to time, she would show a little heart to whichever plaintiff or defendant she was more sympathetic towards (after all, she is still human), but it was her abrasive, cut-throat personality that catapulted her into the pop culture stratosphere.
I’m ashamed to admit that many years had lapsed after I’d stopped watching Judge Judy when I realised that the show’s opening theme was a remixed version of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. At the time of the epiphany, I was more astounded by the pervasiveness of classical music in my day-to-day life. There I was: a young girl growing up in the outer suburbs of Perth, and this is how I became acquainted with Beethoven’s music. How was it that the great canon of Western classical music was so embedded into my life that I wasn’t even conscious of it?
Beethoven’s music alone seemed to be everywhere on television. Later in the evenings, on the same channel as Judge Judy, his Ninth Symphony would blare on primetime programming. Its chorus would track the heightened scenes of a suburban American family household as overbearing family members approached from across the street – an unwelcome disturbance to the domestic bliss within. It was the opening theme of the sitcom Everybody Loves Raymond. At school I’d already learned to play a simplified version of the tune on the recorder and only knew it as ‘Ode to Joy’. (Beethoven who?)
During the ad breaks, I’d hear another familiar classical tune: O Fortuna from Carl Orff’s Carmina burana, spoofed into a high-budget advertisement for beer. ‘It’s! A! Big! Ad!’ was chanted across the school yards for weeks. I thought it was a tune from an opera. At the time I would have been able to recall the name of the beer in a second (and I still remember it), and yet I didn’t know who Carl Orff was or what ‘cantata’ meant.
Classical music lives on in the media that permeate our lives – to such an extent that it’s almost inescapable. It has a way of overcoming the access barriers of the concert hall and appears in so many facets of our cultural lives. Film, television, video games, and the plethora of new video content uploaded and consumed every minute – they all have power in sharing the wonders of classical music in incidental moments outside of live performance spaces. It’s in these moments where great works of music get a chance to live on to find new audiences.
What’s intriguing is that this wide, casual listenership fails to engage deeply with the music beyond the moving picture. Can you imagine the average bloke listening to Orff on the way to the pub? In the language of popular culture, classical music is used only as a vehicle of simplified meaning-making in the current world. There is little space to appreciate the details and artistry of a composition when it is appropriated in new media.
I’m willing to bet that if you’re someone who doesn’t deeply engage with classical music, you have likely forged a handful of associations to this entire category of music: danger and villainy; privilege and pomposity; or perhaps, calm and serenity. And when I reflect on the music of my childhood TV viewing, that makes sense. In each of the instances I’ve mentioned, the music was carefully curated to reinforce these ideas through affirmation or subversion. Of course, Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony painted Judge Judy as the menacing ruler of the court. Of course, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony was ironically underscoring a moment of stress and displeasure. Of course, beer was heralded dramatically in the tradition of ‘high culture’ for something that’s likely to be enjoyed in suburban backyards or slimy pubs. Of course.
It’s not surprising, then, that the more you listen, the more you notice that classical music has been used in these ways.
Wagner is particularly omnipresent in this regard, infiltrating our ears in unexpected ways. I’ve been reading Alex Ross’s book Wagnerism and am compelled by the breadth of a single composer’s impact in politics and culture. For example, if you know the tune that goes with the words “here comes the bride”, you already know a little bit of Wagner. It’s bewildering to think that his wedding march from the opera Lohengrin has become synonymous with the concept of the ceremonial bridal entrance throughout Western culture. Ironically, in the opera – spoiler alert – it’s a prelude to a short-lived, doomed marriage. Moreover, Wagner essentially revolutionised the way we experience stage theatre and created the blueprint for the modern cinema, from the aesthetic ideals of gesamtkunstwerk to the literal spatial design of the theatre.
Wagner’s work appears in some iconic films of recent decades. I recently watched The Blues Brothers, a cult hit from 1980, and was amused by an appearance of The Ride of the Valkyries, an excerpt from his epic opera cycle, The Ring. The music underscores a scene in which the titular brothers are in a car chase tailed by an angered mob of Illinois Nazis. Its placement is a transposition from its original operatic context, in which the Valkyries prepare to take fallen soldiers to Valhalla, where they’ll prepare for Ragnarok. It’s a battle cry embodying the formidable spirit of war, a precursor to a menacing victory. The drama of the music fuels the ridiculousness of the brothers’ flight, made even more comical against the movie’s tongue-in-cheek commentary on Wagner’s famously anti-Semitic views.
The Ride of the Valkyries rose high in the pop culture stakes just one year earlier in Francis Ford Coppola’s film Apocalypse Now, in which the music is blasted from a helicopter, aggrandising American military forces, as cavalry hovered over Vietnam. Decades earlier, the same musical passage makes its first major cinematic appearance in one of the two alternate original cue sheets for D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation. In this film, controversially, The Ride of the Valkyries underscores a scene where the Ku Klux Klan were glorified as a heroic force in the American civil war. So, looking at just one familiar piece of music, it’s easy to see how meanings are assigned for classical compositions and then perpetuated over cycles of appropriation and re-contextualisation.
Furthermore, these associations of danger and villainy with some works of classical music are often embodied in nefarious characters. Hannibal Lecter likes Bach’s Goldberg Variations. Alex from A Clockwork Orange is particularly enraptured by Beethoven’s music. Surely not all who genuinely enjoy classical music are evil sociopaths, but could this have established an unpleasant cultural identity that repels new, engaged listeners?
Like other genres and subcultures of music, identity plays a big part in how we engage with classical music. The Western music tradition stems from Europe, with early roots dating back about 500 years ago. It began as an emblem of European high culture, with music practice revolving around patronage and court culture. Today, classical music still struggles to shake off its elitist label, even though the practice of making and listening to music has evolved and broadened widely. This idea of privilege and elitism is another that is commonly perpetuated in some of the ways that classical music is used in new media, and quite frequently with comical intentions.
In Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Ferris drags his best friend and girlfriend to a fine dining restaurant. In the scene, Boccherini’s ‘Celebrated Minuet’ (from the String Quintet in E major, Op.11, No.5) plays in the background as Ferris convinces the waiter that he, clearly a mischievous teenager wagging school, is the famed Abe Froman, ‘the sausage king of Chicago’. Here, we see how social class and financial wealth define the exclusive realm where classical music belongs – out of reach from youth and the middle classes. In the mockumentary This is Spinal Tap, the same theme from Boccherini’s minuet is used for similar significance when it is quoted in a song spoofing the classical pretensions of heavy metal bands. The meaning associated with this singular piece of music is so ingrained in the popular hivemind that if you look for the piece on Youtube, you’ll find that its comments section is full of jokes on aristocracy or what it might feel like to be rich.
While speaking to a colleague, my suspicions here were confirmed. He remembered a particular scene in The Simpsons, his only vivid memory of classical music on television. It’s the episode in which, after joining the Stonemasons, Homer enjoys access to an underground road shortcut to beat traffic, during which, in all of two seconds, Vivaldi’s Spring theme plays in the background. We watched the clip and laughed. It seems as if we had stumbled on something that epitomises the appropriation of classical music to signify elitism, privilege, and social exclusivity. You only would have needed to recognise a mere two seconds from The Four Seasons to understand what was happening in that scene. For a first-time listener, these examples would anchor a meaning to the music void of any reference to the composer’s original intentions. The seasons of the year? Pish posh!
While we discuss the use of music in fictional works, it’s bemusing to see this representation bleed into real cultural spaces. It’s a particular challenge for arts administrators to draw audiences into the concert hall when they’ve been conditioned to believe they don’t belong there.
On the opposite end of the spectrum you have classical music being stripped of any meaning at all. I’m talking about the labelling of classical music as ‘calming’, ‘relaxing’, or a soundtrack for ‘focusing’ – a suggestion that music has little value other than to provide ambience. While the association of classical music and languor sometimes occurs in film and television, I find this labelling of music more prevalent in music compilations and curated playlists (looking at you, Spotify). I don’t deny that music has the power of aiding mood regulation, but much of the music in the classical canon is written with a dynamic spectrum of style and expression (yes, even within a single piece). The music’s value lies in the demand for active listening and careful attention. How could the average listener fully appreciate the imagination of Tchaikovsky or Mahler when they only hear the andante and adagio movements of every other symphony? Such curations of serene classical music tend to de-contextualise great works from the composers’ intention and this time, by design, treat them as white noise.
There are far too many other examples that I could harp on about, but between them all is a common denominator. Classical music is now cemented to very particular functions in popular culture: as a shorthand to fixed meanings and concepts – ideas of villainy, elitism – and as ambient background music. In either case, the artistic intent of the composer and the value of live performance is diminished. Once appropriated, that music produces meaning within its new context, whether it be a film, a TV show’s opening theme, or an ad. There are few works for the screen that authentically honour their selection of pre-existing classical music. (Disney’s Fantasia  – an animated introduction to classical music aimed for children – is a rare example.)
As I dwell on this, I also think about Theodor Adorno’s critique of popular culture: that the cultural industry is a mechanism of churning standardised cultural products that, in turn, manipulate mass society into passivity. Popular entertainment soothes as a form of escapism, and by nature of its intended mass appeal, must be understood the same way by all. Meanings are subliminally coded within symbols, representations, tropes, stereotypes, and music, and they are baked into entertainment media simply for the ease of our increasingly mindless consumption. The continuous recycling of classical music in screen media is economically more efficient than writing new original scores. The music doesn’t need to be written, and the audience already knows how to interpret it. The substance of the music is naturally at odds with the way it’s delivered and heard.
Perhaps then, the seeming pervasiveness of classical music in contemporary cultural media gives us a false impression of its value for today’s audiences. Speaking generally, great works of the Western classical canon exist in the current zeitgeist as an accompaniment to something else, rather than standalone creative works. While there’s new value generated for classical music through pop culture, our capacity to listen to and appreciate long-form musical works is diminishing. We see this reflected in half-full auditoriums; live performances of magnificent works struggle to attract a crowd. It’s disheartening to think of a shrinking audience for concert art music: a symptom of the loss of the art of listening. What will happen to the practice of composing for the sake of music performance when there are few willing to listen? Will screen media prolong the longevity and authenticity of works by the likes of Beethoven and Wagner, or will it suppress them to their finest, most recognisable extracts?
Reflecting on my own habits of cultural consumption, I’ve found that it helps to be a critical listener. Like my childhood self, I will still indulge in entertainment for entertainment’s sake, but I no longer take music for granted in all the ways it’s presented to me. By listening actively and understanding the linguistic function of music, we can regain the power to find richer meanings embedded within music regardless of its placement, whether it be in a cinematic film, or a short video such as an ad or even, yes, a TikTok. It’s only through inquisitive, active listening that we keep classical music alive and relevant. Listening actively is supported by listening widely. And if we know classical music already pervades us, then we should take it as a call to action to listen to more of it.
Krista Tanuwibawa is an alumnus of the Words About Music program, AYO National Music Camp 2021.