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Proms 2019
The 11 obstacles to liking classical music (and why they're all in your mind)

Nowadays, the snobs who dismiss classical music as elitist or irrelevant outnumber the classical music snobs themselves. There's something in classical music for everyone, and there's no better time to find out for yourself. It's Proms season, so let us puncture some enduring myths and misconceptions when it comes to watching and enjoying classical music.

1. Concerts go on for too long

Two hours might be long time to sit still without checking your phone, but it's no different to watching a film at the cinema - and a good classical concert can be just as engrossing. Admittedly some of Wagner's operas push the four-hour mark, but that's only the equivalent of binge-watching four episodes of your favourite TV drama back-to-back, and we've all done that. Most Proms concerts are broken into manageable chunks, complete with intervals. If you want to start with a variety of shorter works, why not see Prom 44 on 18 August, which offers eight different pieces taken from stage and screen adaptations of Shakespeare, or Prom 10/12 on July 23/24, which features DJ Mr Switch remixing snippets of canonical works, as well as performances of perfect introductory pieces, like Vaughan Williams's The Lark Ascending and Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D minor.

Mr Switch with the BBC Concert Orchestra
Mr Switch with the BBC Concert Orchestra

2. Concerts are too expensive

Promenaders queue outside the Royal Albert Hall in 1945
Promenaders queue outside the Royal Albert Hall in 1945

Some classical concerts can be expensive, but no more so than big pop gigs. And show me a pop concert in a venue as plush as the Royal Albert Hall where you can turn up just before showtime and get in for £6. That's how much a standing, or Promming, ticket costs and there are 1,350 available for each concert. If you look at it like that, classical music can be one of the cheapest and most accessible genres of music to go see, and in terms of splendour, offers the most value for money.

Promenaders queue outside the Royal Albert Hall in 1945
Promenaders queue outside the Royal Albert Hall in 1945

3. It's elitist

It's a misconception that all classical concerts are black-tie or boater-worthy events. With few exceptions, people come as they are. At the Proms, anyone can walk in on the day wearing anything they like. Sir Henry Wood, the founder credited with establishing the Proms' character, set them up as an informal festival where newcomers could get to know classical music. Smoking and drinking were encouraged, and refreshments were made available during the concert, not just at the interval.

Sir Henry Wood
Sir Henry Wood

If you get a Promming ticket on the night, you can stand as you might at a gig, or even lie on the floor. People have been known to shut their eyes to better appreciate the music, and no one would judge you if you nodded off. This year, there's even a Prom in a Peckham car park (Proms At… Bold Tendencies Multi-Storey Car Park on 3 September). It doesn't get much more informal than that. But by all means wear a boater if you want...

4. There are too many rules

There are a few points of etiquette. It never used to be the case, but you shouldn't clap between symphonic movements (just follow the rest of the audience if you're not sure) and don't make noise during the music. But really the only rule worth observing is to be respectful of those around you. Some Proms concerts are designed to be more informal; last year's Radio 1 Ibiza Prom was a full-on rave. This year, you can watch the stars of Strictly dance to a live orchestra at Prom 8 on 21 July, indulge in the sound of David Bowie's hits played by an orchestra (Prom 19, 29 July) or take the kids to the CBeebies Prom on 28 August.

[WATCH] Jon Jacob investigates barriers to concert going

5. Newbies aren't made to feel welcome

Actually, you'd be surprised how welcoming classical fans can be; the Prommers in the gallery are especially inclusive. But if you're still nervous about mingling with the passionate cognoscenti on their own turf, why not try out some unconventional venues away from the Proms heartland of Kensington, such as at the Bold Tendencies Car Park event mentioned above, or Proms At… Roundhouse, Camden on 20 August which takes place in an established pop and rock venue.

6. I won’t know the tunes

[LISTEN] Strauss: Also sprach Zarathustra (extract)

Maybe you don't know them by name, but you'd be surprised how many classical pieces you recognise. The theme tune of The Apprentice is taken from Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet (Prom 16, 27 July), while Prom 11 on 23 July showcases Wagner's cinematic Ride of the Valkyries, which was featured in Apocalypse Now, and at Prom 29 (6 August) you can hear Richard Strauss's Also sprach Zarathustra - used brilliantly by Stanley Kubrick in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

In any case, a lack of familiarity with the repertoire need never be the obstacle to enjoyment of classical music in the age of YouTube. If a piece of music is well known enough to have been played live, you can guarantee you'll be able to hear a version of it online. Now is the time to enrich yourself.

7. Nonetheless, the music's not for me

Classical music is only as off-putting as you want to make it, and there's no reason why most of it can't be enjoyed on the most basic level. There are few things closer to pure pleasure than Elgar's Cello Concerto (Prom 1, 15 July), as close to unadulterated joy as Mozart's Jupiter Symphony (Prom 21, 31 July) or as heavenly as most big vocal works by Bach (Prom 42, 16 August). So think about it like this: do you identity as a curious music fan? The Proms offer a wild selection music from across many centuries, right up to the present day. You will find much that you'll love.

[LISTEN] Anthony Payne unlocks the secrets of Mozart's Symphony No. 41 in C 'Jupiter'

8. The music is all written by dead white men

Helen Grime
Helen Grime

Not all classical music is by dead white men, though there's always going to be a backlog of those pieces. At the Proms, premieres of new works by actual living people are mixed in with the classics, and six premieres this year are by female composers. Parts of a large work by Helen Grime are split between Prom 27 on 5 August and Prom 30 on 7 August; German composer Iris ter Schiphorst kicks off a concert including Holst's Planets with a new work (Prom 29); and Emily Howard's Torus is given its world premiere at Prom 53.

Helen Grime
Helen Grime

9. It's irrelevant to the modern world

Not so. Contemporary classical composers are constantly engaging with the modern world. Last year Australian master Brett Dean premiered a pastoral work about climate change at the Proms. This year at Prom 39 on 14 August, Sakari Oramo conducts the BBC Symphony Orchestra in a premiere of Charlotte Bray's Falling in the Fire - a work written in response to so-called Islamic State's destruction of the some of the ruins of Palmyra in Syria. Following this event in 2015, the composer's outlook completely changed.

10. It's hard to find an entry point

[LISTEN] Quincy Jones: The Jazz House Pocket Legend

Not when it comes to the Proms, whose calendar is full of crossovers that puts music from other genres into a classical setting. Prom 36 on August 11 finds Jamie Cullum offering new takes on well known pop songs with a full big band. Prom 6 on 19 July explores well-known gospel tunes. Prom 49 on 22 August celebrates the music of Quincy Jones and, as mentioned, Prom 19 on 29 July is a tribute to Bowie.

11. Classical music is boring and conservative

Try telling that to French composer and conductor Pierre Boulez, who believed that all opera houses should be blown up. Boulez died this year at 90, but you can still hear the young firebrand in his dissonant music. Go see his work conducted by Sir Simon Rattle and performed by the Berlin Philharmonic (Prom 64, 2 September) - respectively the most lauded English conductor and the finest orchestra in the world - before you call classical music boring.

[LISTEN] Tom Service speaks to Pierre Boulez in 2011

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