Thoughts & news about the future of classical music.

Category: Audience Theory (Page 1 of 2)

Posts on my Wild Theory About the Future of Classical Music. How can we use the latest research on why people like music to help build up classical music audiences?

A Wild Theory About The Future of Classical Music

Photo by Larisa Birta via

Welcome to the first post for this new blog! To set the tone, I wanted to talk a bit about my writing topics for the next few months.

In short, I’m interested in the future of classical music. All the indicators seem to be pointing towards an ageing audience crisis (this post by Greg Sandow explains it well): a moment in time where so many of the audience will have stopped attending because of old age that the classical music industry itself may not be able to be sustained. I’m sure it will exist in some form or other, but our current levels of classical music culture, where nearly every major city has at least one orchestra, plus small ensembles, opera and ballet companies – all of this may be under threat.

So what do we do about it?

I had the chance to deliver a five-minute talk on this very topic called ‘A Wild Theory About The Future of Classical Music’ at the 2016 Tessitura Learning and Community Conference in Washington D.C. It was part of a set of talks with a challenge – you could speak on any topic that you were passionate about, but you were only allowed five minutes and 20 Powerpoint slides – and the slides would auto-advance every 15 seconds.

Needless to say, with a challenge like that, those five minutes were the most challenging piece of public speaking that I’ve ever done. But the talk was really well received and it was great in helping me articulate some ideas that have been running through my mind about where things might head in the future in the classical music world.

I don’t think there are video recordings of the conference speech, but over the next few weeks, I’m going to expand on a few of the ideas that I covered in the talk and also, as time goes on, I hope to turn this blog into a news site where I can share new and innovative things that people and organisations are trying around the world.

So if that sounds like something of interest, sign up for email updates and I’ll look forward to discussing the issues with you further.

Next post, I’ll be looking at a somewhat provocative question: what would happen if the classical music world went to people who don’t like classical music and tried to make them like it?

People Who Don’t Like Classical Music

(Part 2 of A Wild Theory About the Future of Classical Music)

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Sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

So in my last post I touched on the fact that the audience for classical music is getting older and we need new people to replace them. The question is: How do we do that? How do we grow our audiences?

Now, the job of audience growth will look different for every organisation, so at best anything I say will be a generalisation. But from looking at the literature and attending conferences, it seems like the strategy that many classical music organisations are taking, whether consciously or not, is to find more people that like classical music and get them along to concerts.

People Who Like Classical Music

This is a great strategy – if there is a steady stream of people out there who like classical music. But if, in fact, the underlying market conditions are shifting – if there are overall less people in society who like classical music – then basing all or even most of our operations around performing and marketing to these people is going to cause problems. Essentially, we’ll hit a point where each year it gets increasingly costly to acquire and retain the same amount of people. With a smaller and/or shrinking pool of classical music fans out there, we will have to spend more to reach further and dig deeper into that pool.

So what do you do about that situation? The way I like to think about it is to start with a question. What if we went to people who don’t like classical music and tried to persuade them to come to concerts?

People Who Don’t Like Classical Music

I’ve deliberately phrased this in an over-simplified manner to provoke some thought. At first glance, what I’m suggesting is utterly ridiculous. If people don’t like classical music, why would we waste money and effort trying to make them come along? They don’t like the stuff, right?

And that’s correct. In some ways. I’m not suggesting that any classical music organisation abandon its strategy of chasing classical music fans. That would be marketing suicide.

But, as a thought experiment, let’s pretend we were going to chase people who didn’t like our music. What would that look like?

It seems to me that you would end up having to ask two massive sub-questions:

  • Why don’t some people like classical music?
  • Can you make someone like a particular type of music?

The Brick Wall of ‘Liking’

Both those questions contain the word ‘like’, which is somewhat of a curly word. In this Facebook-dominated society, a Like is more of a dichotomy: you either Liked or Didn’t Like something. The reality is, of course, that Liking (at least for music) is more of a scale with 1 being ‘Hate Intensely’ and 10 being ‘Favourite Music In The World’. So it would be perhaps more accurate to say that it’s not so much about people Liking or Not Liking classical music, so much as people Not Liking It Enough to go to live performances of it.

But nonetheless, this concept of Liking – whether it’s a scale or a dichotomy – fundamentally underpins the success of all our efforts. Many classical music organisations have surveyed their customers over the years and almost without fail, the #1 reason for customers’ repeated attendance at concerts is: hearing music that they like. If they don’t like the music, or don’t like it ‘that much’, then they’re not going to come along too oftenin the future.

We in the industry haven’t always given a great deal of thought to how powerful this concept is. But ‘Liking’ is the brick wall constraint that your organisation faces. The amount of success or otherwise that any of us will have in presenting classical music in society is directly proportional to the amount of Liking that is out there for what we have to offer.

In the past, nobody had to worry much about why people Liked classical music or how to make people Like classical music. They just Liked it. All we had to do was perform it at a level of excellence and keep up the variety and they were there. In fact, up until the 80s, they couldn’t get enough of it. Liking was working in our favour. But now it’s become a major hurdle.

So, in my next post, I’ll dig further into the concept of Liking: Why do people like certain types of music? And if we knew that, is Liking something we can influence?

The Three Ps of of Music Liking

(Part 3 of A Wild Theory About The Future of Classical Music)

La La LAnd

Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone debating my question: Why do we like some types of music and not others?

Let me start by saying a Happy New Year to all my readers! I don’t know what you got up to over the holidays / vacation period, but one of the things I did was go and see La La Land. I quite enjoyed it, with its mix of chirpiness and melancholy, but I’m aware it may not have been to everybody’s taste.

La La Land on the Ageing Audience and Musical Liking

What was of interest, however, was a great exchange of dialogue between Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling that dealt with the topic that I’ve been discussing on this blog. Sadly, with no copy of the screenplay in front of me and no clips on YouTube, this will have to be an approximation of the dialogue from my memory, not a word-for-word reproduction.

The scene starts on the Warner Brothers studio lot. Our two leads are Sebastian (Gosling), a pianist who wants to open his own classic jazz club and Mia (Stone) an aspiring actress who bombs out on audition after audition and who is currently working in the coffee shop at the WB lot. We’re 45 minutes into the film, and they’re starting to like each other. Sebastian is asking Mia lots of questions, she’s telling him about her acting dreams. And then she suddenly says, ‘Oh, by the way, I have to tell you that I hate jazz.’

‘When I hear it, I don’t like it.’

He comes to a dead halt, stops walking and says, ‘Sorry, what did you say? You hate jazz?’

Mia: ‘Yeah. When I hear it, I don’t like it.

We then cut to a fantastic conversation in a jazz club where Sebastian is desperately trying to sell Mia on the intricacies of jazz. Meanwhile, Mia throws out all sorts of entertaining interjections, such as: ‘Well, what about Kenny G? Is he okay? Or back when I came home, we had a station that played smooth jazz. That was pretty good. You just put it on and listened to it in the background.’

Finally, Sebastian gives up in despair and says: ‘Jazz is dying. The only people who want to listen to it are over 90 years old. It’s dying and no one cares if it dies.

Thank you, Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone. In five minutes of great scripting and acting, they managed to sum up the whole of my last blog post.

Like jazz, classical music is a type of music that also has most of its fans in their older years. (To be fair, they’re not all in their 90s, though.) There are a lot of people who don’t care if it dies out. Many people don’t like it when they hear it. And is it okay to just listen to classical music in the background? What about crossover artists? Why aren’t they counted as ‘classical’?

So this leads us back to the original question: what makes people like a certain type of music? Why does Mia hear jazz and not like it, when the music is so powerful to Sebastian?

The Three Ps of Music Liking

There is no definitive consensus on why people like some music and not others. In fact, even defining what should and should not be counted as music is a tricky question. (I’m currently reading a book called Music and the Mind by Anthony Storr that attempts to tackle some of these issues.)

But, nonetheless, there are enough books, research and anecdotal evidence floating around to put together some hypotheses on what things influence our musical taste. So we’re utterly clear, all of the following is my hypothesis on the topicNobody has currently completed a solid research project on all of this for classical music yet. (But if anybody is keen on looking at this, do let me know! I’d love to hear from you.)

From everything I’ve seen over the last decade, I feel that the secret of why people like any type of music, lies in three factors. For my five-minute version of this talk mentioned in my first post, I needed to come up with a concise way of summing up my ‘wild theory’. Perhaps it’s my Presbyterian upbringing and sitting through too many three-point sermons, but I hit upon a nice alliteration for the three factors:

  1. Purpose – people have certain purposes for listening to music and they like music that meets those purposes.
  2. Personal Connection – people like music when they have a personal connection either to the music or people who like that music themselves.
  3. Pattern Matching – people like music when their brains can make sense of the ‘pattern’ of the music.

Coming Up

Over the next few blog posts, I’ll dig into the ‘Three Ps’ a bit more. I’ll go into:

  • Some of the evidence for them.
  • How the three Ps work in combination.
  • Can we control these factors to influence people’s musical tastes?
  • What might this mean for the future of the classical music industry?

The Three Ps of Musical Taste #1: Purpose (Part 4 of A Wild Theory About the Future of Classical Music)


Photo sourced from Pixabay

So as we continue this series on the future of classical music, we’re trying to get our head around the basic question: why do people like or dislike certain types of music? I suggested in my last post that there seem to be three main factors that come into play as to why people like some music and not others: Purpose, Personal Connection and Pattern Matching.

Screenshot 2017-01-27 at 7.17.10 AM

The three are tightly connected – there might be music that ticks one of those boxes for somebody, but not two of the others. So no one factor by itself is enough to explain why someone likes a certain type of music.

So as you read this post, you may be saying, ‘Well, Purpose might be part of the reason why somebody doesn’t like classical music, but it’s not the whole thing.’ That holds true for any one factor. But understanding them first as separate factors helps us work out some of the different problems that people might have with classical music. Then (hopefully!) when we put all three Ps together, everything will make more sense.

Why Do People Listen to Music?

This first P in the Three Ps of Musical Taste (or Musical Liking, as I often like to call it) is, to me, the most basic one. If a person can’t find a valid purpose for listening to music, then you’re unlikely to make them a fan.

What exactly do I mean by purpose, though?

Well, here’s where things get a bit fuzzy. There is no standardised list out there of ‘Purposes for Listening to Music’. In fact, it’s one of those things that everybody from academics and philosophers likes to debate without necessarily arriving at definitive answers.

Performing Tasks, Intellectual Stimulation and Altering Moods

However, being a pragmatist at heart, I’m mainly interested in how the average person on the street would describe why they choose to listen to a piece of music. So for my money, one of the best summaries of the main reasons people listen to music, came from this article from 2011 in Psychology Today (which got it from an older study from 2007 which sadly has a broken link).

To quote the article:

How is it then that our musical preferences come to reveal our inner thoughts and feelings? The answer is really quite simple, namely that music fulfils three important psychological functions. Indeed, scientific research shows that people listen to music in order to: (a) improve their performance on certain tasks (music helps us combat boredom and achieve our optimal levels of attention while driving, studying or working); (b) stimulate their intellectual curiosity (by concentrating and analysing the music we hear); and, most importantly (c) manipulate or influence their own emotional states with the goal of achieving a desired mood state, e.g., happiness, excitement, and sadness.

So to sum up, we listen to music:

  • To perform tasks better
  • For intellectual curiosity or stimulation
  • To alter or trigger a certain mood

Now as soon as you put it like that, some of the problems we’re facing starting to become clearer. Let me give you an example.

A Musical Example

For this purpose, I decided to go to a normal large-city orchestra and check out their website. The Cleveland Orchestra seemed a good enough example. I then didn’t have to look too far before I found the following concert, which is a great example of the typical sort of classical concert program that symphony orchestras perform around the world.

Screenshot 2017-01-29 at 9.51.28 PM

Because the link will probably be dead if you’re looking at this after the performance in February 2017, The Cleveland Orchestra, conducted by Matthias Pintscher, are performing a concert called Debussy’s La Mer that features the following four works:

SAINT-SAËNS – Piano Concerto No. 5 (“Egyptian”)
SCHOENBERG – Chamber Symphony No. 2

Now, as anyone who works for an orchestra can tell you, a concert like that will divide the audience. There will be, without fail, a number of people grumbling that they come to the concert hall to hear classical music, not nasty modern stuff. (And for those who aren’t sure – on the above program, the Pintscher – if it sounds anything like his previous compositions – and the Schoenberg would be the modern stuff that gets complaints. The Saint-Saëns and the Debussy, meanwhile, are relatively tonal, with big melodic sweeps and crowd-pleasing endings.)

So it will be a program that will please some people overall, but there will be a part of the crowd that only likes bits of it. What does that have to do with Purpose?

The Purpose for Performing

We could get into an endless debate about the merit of the works being performed. But let’s ask a more fundamental question: why are those four pieces in the same concert? Looking at it, what would you say is the artistic reason for presenting those pieces on the same night?

It’s not stated explicitly, but I could hazard a guess. Those four works of music showcase the orchestra’s talent and capability. They are expertly composed (at least the three older works have that reputation). They will demonstrate Maestro Pintscher’s range as a conductor. (And make no mistake, to do four works that broad in one night shows quite a range, indeed.)

So we could list some of the Orchestra’s purposes as:

  • Showcasing great orchestral playing and conducting
  • Presenting brilliantly-composed works of music

The Purpose for Attendance

But let’s swing the microscope round to the audience. What are some of the reasons they might give for attending? Some of them might be:

  • Hearing great orchestral playing and conducting
  • Experiencing brilliantly-composed works of music

Which is awesome – if you are in the audience for that reason, you’re going to love the concert. But there are other reasons the audience might be there. Some other reasons they might give are to hear:

  • Music that makes me happy.
  • Music that I am familiar with.
  • Grand, triumphant music that makes me feel ecstatic.

There are all sorts of reasons and we could make a massive list. But can you start to see the problem? The composer or conductor might be performing the music for the serious purpose of showcasing an orchestra, i.e. the purpose is about the excellence and musicality. But someone watching the show for the feeling and the tunes, they’re not guaranteed to enjoy the experience. Some music which is phenomenal in terms of its composition and musicality can be difficult to appreciate if all you’re after is big tunes and sweeping emotions.

Likewise, there is plenty of music out there that listeners might consider great tunes or emotional mood lifters, which are exceedingly dull to perform and bland in terms of their composition and structure.

A Mismatch of Purpose

In short, we can have a mismatch of purpose. To put it in the same categories of reference as the Psychology Today artilcle, it’s possible that a particular concert experience might be crafted more along the lines of the Intellectual Curiosity purpose, but some members of the audience might be there more for the Manipulating/Influencing Emotions purpose. The end result: you have a certain segment of your audience that doesn’t fully appreciate what you are doing.

None of this is a value judgment about either the musicians’ reasons for performing or the audience’s purposes in listening. None of them are inherently bad reasons. But in conversation we know there is the concept of ‘talking at cross purposes’. I think that can happen in the performing / listening realm as well.

And this can be causing problems with people who like coming to hear an orchestra. Imagine what might be going on with people out there who don’t even like classical music at all?

Coming Up Next on the Topic of Purpose

Hopefully you can see that there could be a lot to be gained by understanding two sets of purposes:

  • The purposes of the audience in listening to classical music in the first place.
  • The purposes of a classical music organisation in presenting certain music in the way it does.

In the next post, I’ll continue on the topic of Purpose and look at the subtle shift in Purpose that has taken place over the last century. I’ll throw out some ideas on how we could use Purpose as a way of categorising audiences. And also – seeing as these posts are about wild theories: could we use the concept of Purpose to attract new audiences?

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