Discussions about what keeps people from listening to classical music generally pick up on the attributes of live concerts---the musicians' formal dress, the formality of concerts, the stuffiness and religiousity of concert halls, concerts starting too early or too late, being expected to dress up, and on (and on). Anything unique to the music itself tends to be left out, and that's a shame, because I think a pretty strong case could be made for listeners having a hard time finding a way in to classical music simply because of what pieces of music are called. The naming system of classical music is so far removed from popular music, or any other art form, that it's difficult to get a grip on what you are about to hear.
What if paintings weren't called by their titles, but by their materials? You'd have entire galleries stretching for miles, and each painting inside would be called "Watercolor." Monet would have a grand series titled Watercolor I, Watercolor III, and so on, and maybe some of them would be subtitled "Haystack," so that there would be Watercolor I ("Haystack"), the way we now write Symphony No. 6 ("Pastorale").
As far as I know, Franz Liszt and everyone else involved in the 19th century tone poem revolution wasn't revolting against the title scheme imposed by sonata, symphony, quartet, trio, octet, cantata, rondo, and more. It was more of a philosophical goal, and a desire to reflect a more literary taste and take a chance to tell a story. By the 20th century, it wasn't expected to use the old Beethovenian titles, so most people didn't. Yet as those forms fell out of favor, it became more of a challenge for listeners to know what was what on a concert program. And now today, when most of us enter phone numbers into our phones and don't bother memorizing those numbers anymore, it probably takes a little bit of effort to learn and retain the fact that Aaron Copland's Third Symphony is the one with Fanfare for the Common Man in it. You also have to learn what Fanfare for the Common Man is. Anyone want to contribute a mnemonic device for remembering what makes Mozart 40 different from 41, for someone who doesn't have a musical background?
I know how confusing this can be for someone with such a non-musical background only anecdotally, but it's pretty telling, regardless. It was a concert of the Israel Philharmonic at Orchestra Hall, and I'd given my extra ticket to an Australian commercial pilot who lived in Hong Kong, who was visiting Chicago on vacation. Andre Watts was playing Beethoven's "Emperor" Concerto (or Concerto Number 5 in E flat Major), and before Watts started in, the pilot noticed the last movement was titled "Rondo."What's 'Rondo'?" he asked. I explained that it was a five- or seven-part form, usually (preceded by a brief description of musical form), and that it was usually humorous or at least lighter in character than other forms. He was satisfied with that answer, but I can't imagine he's the only person in the world who's mystified when he looks at a program and can't decipher three-quarters of it, and the other one-quarter isn't much easier.Now, by the mid-20th century, you'd think this naming business would have been entirely sorted out. But this was the era of Darmstadt Titles, and everything was named in the plural, and usually an abstract noun at that, so you had works being named, as Alex Ross memorably put it in The Rest Is Noise: "Perspectives, Structures, Quantities, Configurations. Audiences enjoyed Spectrogram, Seismogramme, Audiogramme, and Sphenogramme." Where did the plural come from? The first Perspective was where, exactly?
Or for a better and funnier example, this exchange between composer Sir Roy Vandervane and a critic in Kingsley Amis's Girl, 20:
"I can't see what so cosmically disastrous about this little Elevations 9 caper. You talk as if-"
"What's happened to the other eight elevations?"
"Oh, they're not real."
Compare this to pop music. You usually have a text, and the text gives you a title, and you can remember that title and associate it with the song after you've heard it. Chances are, it's reasonably memorable, and if it isn't outright catchy, there's some production element that focuses your attention and then ends up getting wed to the song in your brain. So, you remember. How many rondos do you have to listen to before realizing that they're generally light, and how many people will ever learn that they're in five (or seven, or whatever) parts without studying a score or reading a book on musical form? (Few.)
When I was in high school, I had a trumpet-teacher who mainly played jazz. As we (or I) worked through an etude book, he complained about the lack of titles. Each four-line etude was numbered, but no title was in sight. "This one's Red, this one's Yellow, and, I don't know, call this one Green," he said. No reason or inspiration could be found for naming them after colors, but that wasn't the point; his hope was to give them sort of character that each listener (I mean, aspiring trumpeter) could associate with it.
I don't know the answer to acquainting people with the varieties of forms long-dead composers used, and which form the bulk of instrumental music's repertoire even today. Maybe it just takes time, but I wish it was as easy as visual art to write "American Gothic" and have people know exactly what you meant when you write Symphony No. 5. (I know Mark Rothko changes this all up, but leave him alone.)
Whose Symphony No. 5? Who wrote five symphonies? What makes Sibelius's different from Bruckner's and different from Vaughan Williams's? People with musical backgrounds can take that for granted, but it might be something worth investigating in pre-concert talks or events or panel discussions or garden parties or program inserts or pages or monographs or...maybe those are the only ways it can be addressed. But it's worth looking into, because it feels good to know that Mahler's Fourth Symphony shares only a title with Bruckner's, and that the similarities end there. It's hard to wrap your mind around these names, but a way ought to be found to help all the curious concertgoers out there, and reward that curiosity.