Are recordings killing classical music?

recordingClassical music is too often thought of as background music—something to put on when you’re doing something else or trying to fall asleep.

I listen to classical music recordings, but I also listen to popular music recordings. There’s no question that the pop recordings are more satisfying to listen to; they are heavily produced, compressed, and balanced to create a wide range of levels and exceptional clarity. Too often, classical recordings sound quiet and stale. (How many times have you switched to the classical station in the car and had to turn the volume all the way up?) Many classical recordings that have been made in the last five years or so are still not on par with the pop releases from the same year. Why is that?

For one, I think the classical music world values the “traditional,” and doesn’t always see the need to forge new paths in music production. That being said, many popular classical recordings are over 10 years old, and naturally the technology is not the same as something released in the last year. But what bothers me the most is how different classical instruments sound when they’re recorded. As a baroque cellist, I always find that recorded baroque cello sounds vaguely like a muffled, whiny walrus. That’s not how it sounded in the concert hall! Once I was talking to a harpischordist friend about how I hated the harpsichord when I was 16. “Had you heard it live?” he asked. “No…” I replied sheepishly. “Oh, that makes sense then. The harpsichord doesn’t record well.”

Classical music is best experienced live. Watching a performer can be illuminating and informative, especially when certain repertoire may be hard to digest for a listener. A performer’s body language, expressions, and demeanor can give us a lot of information about a piece, and can also enhance our experience as listeners. This is true of all music, though I think classical music is dramatically more effective with this crucial piece.

There are, of course, great classical recordings. I have a special place in my heart for Jordi Savall’s L’Orchestre Du Roi Soleil, an album I can listen to on repeat for hours while hanging on every note. I self-produced my own solo album, and it’s a wonderful tool to share my music with others worldwide. But it upsets me that many old, tired recordings become to the general public what “classical music” is. Especially for those on the fence about whether or not they like this stuff, it is absolutely worth it to take the risk and go see something live. And maybe not a huge symphony orchestra concert from the back of the concert hall—to me that’s much like listening to a recording, but that’s another topic.

What do you think? How do classical music recordings compare to live concerts? If you wanted to turn someone on to classical music, would you give them your favorite recording or take them to see your favorite ensemble live?


8 responses to “Are recordings killing classical music?

  1. Definitely live. All things being equal, the same piece is more captivating live and because there are no other distractions (assuming all cell phones have been turned off) you pay better attention and hear more because you are there just to listen. i like the Kodaly sonata because the first time I heard it, it was a live performance. I think I would have not liked it as much if I heard it first as a recording.

  2. Today’s studio and mastering engineers are brilliant at creating the illusion of live presence. It’s extremely frustrating how little-utilized they are in classical music. It seems like those involved in recording classical music believe it is more “authentic” to distance-mic using a simple A-B configuration ( ). Those aren’t a pair of poll-mounted ears, despite how easy it is to imagine the giant, invisible head floating between them. Even the highest-end microphones can’t be used in that way to faithfully record the “audience’s experience.”

    One counterexample is the rather nontraditional early music ensemble, L’Arpeggiata. They actually do proper studio recordings and even close-mic when recording live performances. Their albums are a real pleasure to listen to, and I haven’t heard one that doesn’t have outstanding production values. And, hey, audience coughs don’t show up in their tracks, either.

  3. Recorded music is not a replacement for live music–it is its own art. The well-produced pop music you speak of does not sound like that artist sitting at home singing and strumming a guitar. The pop recording industry has built a production toolbox–those production tools and techniques are as much as part of the instrumentation as the instruments used to play and the voices that sing. Technology is not yet able to reproduce live sound. It can only simulate, and provide an live-like ambience.

    The best-produced classical recordings often come with hundreds of edits, retakes and other audio polish—as do the best produced pop recordings.

    A live performer consciously or unconsciously responds to their audience. A recording has to stand up to thousands of re-listens in a number of environments—it is truly a different form of art.

    But also what you speak of—poor classical production quality— is made of two elements 1) budget 2) attachment to “tradition” & purity.

  4. Pingback: Why don’t you play something “cool”? | Historically Incorrect·

  5. For me, part of the enjoyment of listening to classical music, whether in the concert hall or at home listening electronically, is the pure sonic and sensual beauty of the sound of the instruments themselves.

    I grew up in a era when “high tech” was a hi-fi stereo system. Manufacturers were constantly trying to build products that could reproduce the sound of the music as close to the original as possible.

    Now when I ask young classical music performers, including original instrument musicians, what they and their friends listen to music with, the answer is as often as not “earbuds”. What’s going on here?

    High quality recordings are, of course, important, but isn’t they way they’re played back equally as important?

  6. As far as quality goes, not every live classical performance is in the ideal acoustical venue, especially for baroque music played on period correct instruments. Case in point, my favorite baroque ensemble loves to play in an old cathereral; apparently they love the acoustics up on the stage in the open part of the building, but the audience sits in the pews where the sound doesn’t penetrate very well. In this case, a better quality recording presented with high quality sound, either speakers or headsets, can sound much better. I will say the best live performance will definitely beat out any recording; however, in the real world we don’t always get the perfect venue.

    As far as introducing someone to classical music, I say start with recordings first. Who doesn’t love the Star Wars theme, or music from the Lord of the Rings? Or modern twists like Apocolyptica and Two Cellos. Then it easy to transition to some hand picked pieces from the classical eras, particularly those that are more exciting and easier for a modern ear with no understanding to enjoy. Then if someone is interested, they will open up to learning more and enjoy more. Then they are ready for a full two hour classical performance they may enjoy.

    If you take them straight to a standard classical performance with no prep at all is akin to taking a friend you want to get into running to a marathon and expecting them to finish and enjoy it! Especially the slower movements where an untrained ear can get bored quickly, then it will feel like a marathon and you can risk turning them off forever.

    I love live performance, and if I could afford to book the Emergence Quartet to play at my house, for me and my friends every weekend, I would; however, in today’s realities, recorded classical music definitely has a valuable role.

    • Great comments, Andy. I think it’s a valid point that sometimes great engineering will trump a live acoustic, and that recordings allow new listeners to take in a small bit at a time instead of sitting through a whole concert.

  7. Totally agree. It’s not just the dynamic tendré that annoys me, the quality is noticeably poorer.. so when you do have to turn up the volume to hear what is being played clearer it sounds distorted, distant and most importantly flat and.. “stale” as you described it. When you listen to a pop recording I’m listening to a pop recording immediately after, firstly it bursts your eardrums because of how much louder it is mastered and the clarity is exceptional, acoustic guitars sound so clear and detailed it is almost like you’re sat right next to the artist. And I never have to turn my phone to the “high volume” range on the phone as it is perfectly adequate 🙂

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