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A Symphony for the Ages: Strategies for Classical Music Amid Demographic Shifts

By Matthijs Kalmijn and Kène Henkens

Historically, concert attendance increases with age across all generations studied: Older adults were never frequent concertgoers in their youth, indicating that interest in classical concerts develops later in life.

Source: Леонид / Pexels

The Dutch Ministry of Education, Culture, and Science claimed in 2014 that interest in classical music was waning as older generations pass away and younger generations have different preferences. However, this claim warrants a closer examination. 

For decades, reports have sounded alarmed about the ageing classical music audience. Articles from De Volkskrant (2001) and Vrij Nederland (2004) highlighted the ageing audience as a potential threat to classical music's survival. This concern was echoed by Professor of Art Sociology Abbing in 2006, who predicted a rapid decline in attendance if trends continued. Despite these warnings, some experts, like Schnabel (2011), noted a growing interest among healthy and wealthy seniors.

Two main hypotheses are relevant to understand audience’s behaviour patterns: 1) the age hypothesis and 2) the generational hypothesis. The age hypothesis suggests that concert attendance increases with age due to more free time, financial resources, and appreciation for classical music. The generational hypothesis, in contrast, indicates that older generations who grew up with classical music continue to attend concerts, while younger generations show less interest due to a more diverse cultural repertoire while growing up. What exactly is happening in the Netherlands?

To answer to this question, we have constructed a dataset of performing arts attendance spanning from 1979 to 2022. This dataset includes responses from 95,124 individuals aged 25 and over and born between 1925 and 1984. The data were sourced from two surveys: The Supplementary Facility Use Survey (which ran until 2007) and the smaller Leisure Omnibus (which ran from 2007 onward). Both surveys were conducted by the Social and Cultural Planning Bureau and the CBS. Due to the consistency in many of the questions across both surveys, we were able to integrate and harmonise the data effectively, making the series comparable. The harmonization process is detailed in a technical paper (Kalmijn and Henkens, 2023).

The primary question asked in these surveys was: "Have you attended a classical music concert in the last 12 months?" Respondents who answered affirmatively were then asked how often they had attended. After 2007, the questions were combined into a single question: "And in the last 12 months, how often have you attended a classical music performance? If OP [research subject] has not done so, please enter '0'." Because both question formats were used in 2007 with a split ballot design, we could adjust for the change in question wording. Additionally, attendance at opera and operetta performances, which was assessed separately in some years, has been incorporated into our overall measure of attendance. 

Our results show that concert attendance remained fairly constant from 1979 to 2022, with around 15-20% of the people interviewed in the surveys attending annually. However, the audience is undeniably ageing. In 2022, nearly 60% of classical concert attendees were over 65, compared to less than a quarter at the turn of the century. 

The data were analysed with an APC model (Age-Period-Cohort) where period effects were captured via measures of economic growth and the Corona years. We found both age and generational differences. Attendance increases with age, peaking around 25% for those aged 75-80, before declining after age 80. Generationally, those born between 1935 and 1954, the "golden generation" are the most frequent attendees. Both older and younger generations attended less frequently. 

The different generations also reveal different age profiles (Figure 1). The oldest generations show steep increases with age but also a quick and early decline. For example, attendance starts to decline already at age 65 in the cohort born between 1925 and 1934. The golden generations (1935-1954) are also characterised by an increase in classical music attendance with age, but the decline in attendance starts much later, after ages 75-80. These generations are vivid examples of the active ageing trend. The youngest generations, in contrast, show a flatter increase in attendance with age and lower overall participation (Figure 1).


While the Dutch population continues to age, its impact on classical concert attendance is uncertain. However, our evidence gives us some hints. Historically, concert attendance increases with age across all generations studied: Older adults were never frequent concertgoers in their youth, indicating that interest in classical concerts develops later in life. 

Our research also shows where there is room for improvement. First, exposure to classic music should start early in life: According to the generational hypothesis - which is supported in our study - school age is an important time for exposure to classical music. Second, according to the lifestyle hypothesis, it makes little sense to encourage young adults to attend classical concerts. As people become more settled, have higher incomes and more time and leisure, classical concerts become more appealing. 

Nonetheless, the decline in attendance for recent cohorts does give concern. Consequently, efforts should focus on retaining interest in classical music among people in their fifties as they age. Simultaneously, investing in exposing individuals to classical music earlier in life through primary socialisation at home and school, and secondary socialisation through social networks, is essential. The future of classical music depends on consistently engaging older audiences. If this is done consistently, classical music will continue to thrive despite an ageing audience.


This article has been adapted and translated from: Kalmijn, Matthijs & Kène Henkens (2024). Het publiek vergrijst, maar het klassieke concert blijft. Economisch Statistische Berichten.



Abbing, H. (2006) Van hoge naar nieuwe kunst. Universiteit van Amsterdam: Oratie. Te vinden op

De Volkskrant (2001) De kunstconsument. De Volkskrant, 23 augustus.

Kalmijn, M., & Henkens, K. (2023). Forty years of social and demographic change in the Netherlands: An integrated harmonized survey data set, 1979-2022. SocArXiv Papers, 

Schnabel, P. (2011) Een zegen voor kunst en cultuur. Boekmancahier, 86, 6–12.

Vrij Nederland (2004) Een uitstervende kunstsoort; Hoe scholieren klassieke muziek moeten redden. Vrij Nederland, 21 februari.

Additional Information

Authors of Original Article