Thoughts & news about the future of classical music.

Category: Audience Theory (Page 2 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?

Multi-Purpose Music (Part 5 of A Wild Theory About the Future of Classical Music)

Music Stand

In my last post in this series, I was talking about the first P in my three Ps of Musical Taste: Purpose. We have certain purposes for listening to music and music that lends itself to those purposes is music we like.

I talked about the idea of a mismatch of purposes that might occur in a concert hall. The musicians and conductor might be performing a work of music for more intellectual reasons. It might be to showcase their performance excellence and/or the quality of the composition. Some of the audience members, however, might be there for a different purpose. They might just be there to hear some big tunes and have a good time.

Which leads to a fascinating idea that I haven’t heard explored much – but there may be research out there – and that is the concept of multi-purpose music.

Everybody Loves Beethoven

Musicians and audiences frequently disagree over the merits of many composers. A well-educated musician might think that Webern’s music is phenomenal. A member of the audience, however, might consider it unpleasant ‘modern’ music that sounds dreadful. In fact, they might even dispute the word ‘music’.

But then there are other composers that everybody loves, musicians and audiences alike. And to illustrate my point, I can’t think of anybody better than that King of the Classical Charts: Ludwig van Beethoven.


Beethoven is amazing among classical composers because nearly everyone loves his music. We may not like all of the same pieces, but Beethoven always gets plenty of entries on any sort of popular vote of Top 100 Classics. By the same token, every serious classical musician and conductor worth his or her salt also loves Beethoven. You’re not a ‘serious conductor’ until you’ve released at least one Beethoven CD – if not an entire symphony cycle.

And it’s got nothing to do with musical sophistication, either. I’ve taken people who are relatively new to classical music along to hear a Beethoven symphony and they have just as much fun as the musicians and conductors performing. (Perhaps even more so – audience members don’t have to worry about playing wrong notes or reading scathing reviews the next day.)

But take a composer like Boulez, Schoenberg or Carter and the audience doesn’t like it half as much.

What’s going on?

Multi-Purpose Music

Essentially, the music of Beethoven – and most of the composers of the 19th century – was multi-purpose. If you were a layman off the streets and your purpose for listening was altering your mood and having a good time, Beethoven would do it for you. However, you could also listen to Beethoven on a structural level or from a musicianship angle. His music has both big tunes and extraordinary depth and brilliance. Magically, his music fulfills multiple purposes at once – both emotional and intellectual.

Many composers of the 19th century seemed to work this amazing line – satisfying the masses and the musicians simultaneously.

The Crystal Palace

Likewise, concert experiences appeared to be multi-purpose as well.

On an older blog of mine, I wrote about my explorations into the Crystal Palace concerts of George Grove. These were a series of concerts in London in the latter half of the 19th century that – arguably more than anything else at that time – exploded the fan circle for classical music in that city. You can read all about it in my other post, but when I did research to look at the concert programs of the old Crystal Palace concerts, to my great surprise, they looked very different from classical concerts today.

A massive concert at The Crystal Palace.

Granted, this was in the 1850s, so they didn’t have any of the 20th century music that our audiences hate so much. Nor did they have the massive symphonic works such as Mahler and Bruckner symphonies that can quite happily chew up to 80-90 minutes of the concert running time without batting an eyelid.

But even allowing for that, the concerts were unusual. They would start with an overture to a ballet or operetta, them some light fluffy short works. (The kind of thing we’d consider ‘lollipops’ nowadays.) Somewhere in the middle they would have one major work (e.g. a Schubert symphony, a Beethoven piano concerto). This would then be followed by more light works, including some popular opera arias and songs sung by opera singers. Finally, they would have another big rousing overture to finish.

Multi-Purpose Concerts

While I have yet to come across some documentation to examine the purpose behind this arrangement of music – though it may exist, and would be a fascinating research project for anybody reading this in London with access to the Royal College of Music (hint, hint) – I can take a pretty strong guess. The Crystal Palace concerts were trying to be multi-purpose. Lots of simple, crowd-pleasers to warm the crowd up. One serious work to expose them to one of the Great Works. Then more crowd-pleasers to send them out in a good mood.

Seeing this up-ended everything I’d ever thought about classical music. Today, classical concerts are either fun or serious, but rarely both at the same time. But here were a bunch of concerts deliberately aiming at the broadest base of audience (you could even argue the lowest common denominator possible). And lo and behold – classical music took off in London and now, to this day, it is a city with a thriving classical music scene.

The 20th Century – A Shifting of Purpose

But something seemed to shift in the 20th century. Somewhere in that time period classical music concerts shifted. They went from being multi-purpose crowd-pleasers to being relatively serious forms of entertainment.

Don’t get me wrong – there are still plenty of people in the audience who come along for the fun stuff. The big tunes, the sweeping cathartic emotions. But these are those people who are sitting in the audience wondering why you’re playing all that ‘horrible’ music for them that they don’t like.

I’m sure there are many connoisseurs in the halls who appreciate the new turn music has taken. But what about the ordinary person on the street – the kind who used to get so much out of the old Crystal Palace concerts? Have they been left behind by the new concerts of the 20th century?

It doesn’t happen so much nowadays but there used to be stories that went the other way as well – of audiences who came for serious stuff being disgusted when their concerts suddenly started trying to please the masses. My favourite story about this is the one that composer John Adams tells regarding his work Grand Pianola Music, which premiered at a contemporary music festival. At the end of the work, he got ‘a substantial and … shocking number of boos’. As soon as you hear the piece, the reason is obvious. It’s fairly tonal and, about two minutes into the final movement, he introduces a hugely crowd-pleasing Big Tune. In short, he included something that the masses would like.

Now that story may not be representative of what has been going on all the time. But it does seem to indicate that the multi-purpose musical experiences have perhaps become less popular. Playing to those who want a good time as well as those who want a serious experience is not pursued in the same way.

Purpose-Driven Listening

While this is far from the only reason – and I’ll be exploring others as the series continues – I hope you can see how something like a shift in the purposes of both the music and the performances may well have been part of the drift away from classical music.

Because what purpose does even traditional classical music play for a person not into classical music? If someone listens to music for fun, does classical music sound like fun? If someone is into music for altering their moods, does classical music create the kind of moods people want? Could it meet more of these purposes under the right circumstances?

(An interesting footnotes to this is that one place where classical music is still going strong today is on music streaming services such as Spotify. But where they are going strong is in certain classical playlists. Guess what kind? They are purpose-driven classical music playlists: classical music for relaxation, classical music for study, classical music for reading, etc.)

Clarifying Purposes

I’ll return to Purpose again in a later post.  (After I’ve introduced the other two points of the Music Liking triangle: Personal Connection and Pattern Matching. But for now, here are some questions to contemplate.

For performers and performing organisations, can you explicitly name the Purpose/s behind how each performance is put together? More importantly, do you understand the purpose of the audience? If that purpose was different from the audience’s purpose for attending, what would you do?

Coming Up Next

In my next post on this Wild Theory of Classical Music, I’ll talk about Personal Connection. This is about how if we feel personally connected to a certain type of music, we like it more.

Personal Connection and The Music We Like (Part 6 of A Wild Theory About the Future of Classical Music)

A series of posts dedicated to understanding why people like (or dislike) certain types of music and how that could help us shape the future of the classical music world.  In this post, I’m looking at the 2nd P in my 3P model of Musical Taste: Personal Connection.

Hands at a Concert

Photo by John Price, sourced from



Personal Connection

What do I mean by Personal Connection? I would describe the idea of Personal Connection like this: We are more prone to liking music if we have a personal connection to the music itself.

The Enigmatic Robert Jourdain

So where did this idea come from? Well, a few years ago, I read a fascinating book called Music, The Brain and Ecstasy by Robert Jourdain, published in 1997. Jourdain is somewhat of a mystery to me. He’s listed on the back of the book as being a musician and a composer, but – apart from this one book – I can’t find a trace of him on the internet anywhere. Maybe he’s a guy who tinkered with music in his spare time and decided to write a book about the brain and music? I’m not sure. But it’s well worth reading.

Despite its title, the book is not about the rave scene. Instead, it deals with the mysterious issue of what our brain does when it hears music and how it processes it. Towards the end of the book, Jourdain gets to the question of why people like certain types of music and not others. (And given that he mentions classical music an awful lot in the book, I’m guessing that he possibly shares my curiosity about why people do or do not like this type of music!)

Peer Pressure

In one of the later chapters, Jourdain lays out all sorts of fascinating ideas about why we like certain music. He describes how different people have different listening styles. (Note to self: I should come back to that in another post.) But in the end, he ends with this gob-smacking quote:

[D]espite all these factors, research shows that most people largely make their personal musical choices for reasons that are neither “personal” nor “musical”. Rather, they listen to conform, taking on music as an emblem of social solidarity with their peers, each generation adopting its own conspicuously different styles. There are many exceptions of course, but the gross statistics are damning. Most people acquire their musical taste during adolescence among friends of the same age, and they carry early preferences right through to the grave. This powerful force overrides considerations of individual neurology and personality. It is a shocking observation, or at least ought to be, given the complexities of music perception. By all rights, any group of twenty teenagers ought to prefer twenty kinds of music. (p. 263)

Now, there is no footnote in the book to explain the ‘damning’ gross statistics on this. So I can’t really say where he got this idea from.

But doesn’t it intuitively make sense? (Especially if you’re Gen X!)

Turn That S*** Off!

Your mind flashes back to some awkward teenage party. Some brave soul goes over to the communal sound system. (This could be a parent’s hi-fi or possibly just a cheap boom box.) They put on a CD (or a record, if you go back far enough), hoping the room will like it. Within seconds (not minutes), someone pipes up with: ‘Turn that s*** off!’ We’ve all been there, right?

Now some of us may have had a robust nature as a teenager. We persisted in maintaining our musical taste despite what everyone else thought. But how many of us tended to drift towards What Everyone Else Was Listening To? Or, more particularly, What People Like Me Are Supposed To Listen To? Isn’t that what commercial music radio is all about? Playing the music that Everyone Like You likes so you can keep up with the times?

Once you start thinking about the whole idea of Personal Connection, you can see it in a lot of places. (I was originally going to call it ‘peer pressure’ in honour of the Jourdain quote, but Personal Connection has more positive connotations, I think. Besides, it’s not always a negative thing.)

Some Familiar Situations

Consider some of these situations which you might have found yourself in:

  • You’re at a friend’s place and they start talking about a band or musical artist that they love, but it’s a genre you don’t normally listen to. You ask them to send you a link to it on Spotify. Even if you don’t like the music, you have decided to give it a listen, because you’re trying to see what your friend is so excited about.
  • You keep hearing people at work talking about some singer or band that they love. Four of them have tickets to their next concert. You decide to jump on YouTube and have a sneaky listen.
  • In case none of that was ‘classical music’ enough for you, how about this one? You’re at a concert. There’s a work on the concert program that you’ve never heard and You’re Not Sure That You Will Like It. But then the conductor gets up and gives the audience a two-minute spiel at the beginning, talking about why the music is so awesome to him or her and a couple of things to look out for. All of a sudden, you’re listening closely to the music, trying to catch the bits that you’ve been told are super-exciting.

These are just a few examples, but you get the idea. You have listened to music you wouldn’t normally have listened to (or listened more closely) because somebody expressed their enthusiasm for it. I’m not saying you loved it. I’m not saying it was an instant favourite. But you were subtly pushed up the Music Liking scale from ‘Not Interested At All’ to ‘I’ll Give It A Try’.

This is Personal Connection at work.

Classical Music Affinity: Measuring Personal Connection

Another fascinating stat that backs up the idea of Personal Connection is the idea of affinity. One of my favourite arts blogs is Know Your Own Bone by Colleen Dilenschneider. Colleen mainly writes for the museum sector, but a lot of what she says is applicable to the classical music world as well.

She recently put together an excellent set of statistics on the idea of attitude affinity. Attitude affinity is a simple one-question measure of how somebody feels about something. The question is:

On a scale of 1-10 (1 = Less Welcoming, 10 = More Welcoming), is [Cultural Organisation / Artform ] welcoming to people like me?

One of the survey questions in Colleen’s data was the statement: ‘Orchestras and symphonies are welcoming to people like me’. The result? For nearly half the adults surveyed, their perception of them being welcome was low enough to ‘pose a significant barrier to their onsite engagement’.

In short, when a large number of people think about orchestras – they don’t think they are for people like them. Now that may not be true. (I’m sure most orchestras would say they want to welcome everyone). But that perception alone is enough to stop a whole bunch of people coming in to hear the music.


So the question becomes: well, why are people thinking this music is not for them? Those of us on the classical music side of the fence sometimes get a bit surprised by this. After all, we really are happy to have anyone come along to a concert. Nearly every classical music organisation has some sort of cheap ticket deal for young people and new audiences to get them in.

In other words, we never told people that classical music wasn’t for them. We’d like to think that this music is for everybody. So where did people get the idea it wasn’t for them? And what can we do to change that perception?

This topic is getting bigger as I write about it, so I’ll end this post here, but in my next post in the Wild Theory series, I’ll talk about Unconscious Personal Connection Trigger Points: the things which, perhaps subconsciously, lead us to feel more or less connection to music.

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Are There Things That Subconsciously Make Us Like (or Dislike) Music? (Part 7 of A Wild Theory About the Future of Classical Music)

In my last post, I introduced the concept of Personal Connection as being one of the factors that crops up a lot as a reason why we like certain music and not others. Now, in some senses, this is obvious. I had a good email exchange with Greg Sandow about this topic, where he pointed out (quite correctly) that nearly all forms of music are created by and for distinct social groups.

But on the other hand, it might not be as obvious as we think.

A Neutral Music Experience?

It’s possible that in the classical music world, we can sometimes be guilty of thinking that our music is personally neutral. In fact, there’s a great deal of importance placed on the idea of the music ‘speaking for itself’. So, for instance, the way a lot of musicologists write about classical music today is in a fairly objective tone. They will explain how the music works and the history of it, but won’t go too much into why they like it.

Likewise, the concert experience is designed to present the music ‘straight’, without too much manipulation. The lighting is fairly bright without a lot of colour, and the conductor comes out and performs without speaking to the audience. The orchestra members themselves, apart from the conductor, soloists and section leaders, are trained to minimise extraneous movement.

It’s not meant to be impersonal as such, but it does seem constructed to move the personal and subjective out of the way and just leave the pure experience of the music.

Music and the Subconscious

Music ‘speaking for itself’ is fine in theory. But do we actually listen to music like that? Do we hear music objectively? Why, if classical music is just meant to be about the music speaking for itself, do so many people think that symphony orchestras aren’t for them? (Like we talked about in the section on Attitude Affinity in my last post.)

What if there are other things going on in our brains that make us like the music – not just the music itself. There are a network of patterns, connections, memories and triggers that all come together at the point of hearing a piece of music. If those patterns, connections, memories and triggers were different, would we have a different reaction to the music? And more importantly, are there ways we can change what goes on in our subconscious? Or the subconscious of our audiences?)

While you think about that for a minute, let me talk about food.

Mindless Eating

A few months ago, I read a hugely entertaining and eye-opening book called Mindless Eating, which was written by Brian Wansink, a food researcher in America. It was an awesome read because Wansink detailed story after story of ‘food experiments’ that were tried at various food research facilities in the United States. These experiments were all variations of giving people food under two sets of circumstances, to see what factors made people eat certain types of food. (Or certain quantities of food.)

What Wansink found was that, despite our best intentions, the amount and type of food that people consume is based on a lot of unconscious signals that drive them to eat more. For instance, people will eat more food out of a larger bowl than out of a smaller one. They will eat more food when they can’t see how much they’ve eaten. (e.g. People will eat more chicken wings if the waitress clears the bones away than they will if the bones visibly pile up.)

The book demonstrated that there were certain factors that cause us to eat the way we do, but we’re often not aware of them.

Unconscious Personal Connection Trigger Points

I believe something like this applies to music, especially in the realm of Personal Connection. On the surface of things, we might think that we like music because we’ve got good musical taste. Or because some music sounds interesting, while other music sounds boring and we can tell the difference.

But I suspect, underneath, there are all sorts of unconscious triggers that affect our enjoyment of music. Sadly, I don’t have a research team at my disposal to investigate these things. But if I did, I’d set them looking into what I call Unconscious Personal Connection Trigger Points. These are things that are part of the musical experience but separate from the music. And these Trigger Points act by signalling to your brain that this music is for people like you. If the signal is strongly, ‘Yes, this is for you!’ then you enjoy the music more. If the signal is strongly, ‘This musical experience isn’t for you!’ then we enjoy the music less.

violin top

Via Pexels

Some Potential Triggers

Here are some of the things that I think could be Unconscious Personal Connection Trigger Points. They’re all hypothetical, so it could turn out that some of these have no significance at all. Others might be quite important. But in all cases, I can think of at least one anecdote where someone has said, ‘I would like the concert experience more if [X] was different’ and that’s how I compiled the list.

You might think of others. (And I’ve love to hear from you if you do have more to add to the list!)

  • Spoken Introductions.  The obvious one. Hearing music where somebody introduces it vs. just hearing the music. Do you enjoy the music more (even if it was performed identically in both cases) because of the intro? If so, how much more?
  • Lighting. Does lighting tell you something about whether this music is for people like you? If so, what effect does it have? Would some people feel more connected to the music if the lighting was coloured mood lighting? Would other people feel more comfortable with neutral lighting?
  • Who You Are Listening With? Do you like music more if you go with a friend who is really into it? Versus going with friends who don’t like it much more than you do? Versus going by yourself with nobody to influence you?
  • Who Is Sitting Around You? If the concert hall (or the stage, for that matter) is filled with people who are mostly in a different category of age / ethnicity / clothing styles from you, does that affect how you hear the music? Would you like the same music better if the people around you visually looked more like you?
  • Terminology and Language. If music is described with one set of vocabulary in marketing materials / brochures / posters vs another set of vocabulary (e.g. musicological and precises vs friendly and subjective), would that impact how you hear the music?
  • Celebrity Connections. If you knew a certain celebrity (that you were a fan of) liked classical music, would you enjoy the music more? Or if the music was used in a favourite movie of yours?
  • Performer Movement. If the musicians were free to move however they wanted to the music (i.e. like chamber musicians, for instance) would you pick up on their enthusiasm for the music and thus like the music more? Or, for other people, would it be too distracting and take away from the music?
  • Surrounding Music. Here’s an idea that I haven’t seen tested, but used to be done back in the 19th century at classical concerts: what if we put a serious classical work in the middle of a concert that otherwise featured popular music? Assuming you already liked the popular music, but weren’t a super-fan of classical music, would you like the classical music work more because it was surrounded by music that you did like?

The Problem and the Dream: A Personal Connection Scorecard

That’s just my hypothesising on some of the factors, but it immediately highlights a problem. We just aren’t sure how important (or unimportant) any of these factors actually are. For instance, assuming all the above things were significant, which would be the most important? Is lighting and the look of the stage more or less important than the language used? How would you rank them?

This leads to my Dream Solution, which sadly I’m not in a position to implement straight away, but would love to try: a Personal Connection Scorecard. One day, maybe, we’ll sit down and start conducting experiments on our audiences. Imagine that we are performing two concerts to audiences of a similar demographic over two nights. The music is exactly the same on Night One as Night Two, except that we vary one thing – maybe the lighting, maybe talking from stage – on Night Two.

On both nights, we ask the audience to rate the music. From then, it’s a simple question of statistics: assuming the audience were a similar make-up on both nights, did the one thing make a difference? Did the audience enjoy the music more on Night Two vs Night One?

If we went through, testing Trigger Point after Trigger Point, eventually we would have a scorecard of what things make people like music more and what things don’t. And then, assuming all the above worked, it might be possible to carefully construct musical experiences that are designed, from top to bottom, to make people like the music more.

Imagine if you could speed up the conversion rate on people starting to like classical music? Imagine if you could get a few per cent more of the audience coming back because they felt super-engaged with the music they heard? What if it was possible to increase engagement, just by tweaking a few externals? It’s all a theory, but I find it tantalising.

But What If I Hated All Those Things?

Now, coming back to reality, you may also have read the list above and thought, ‘No way! I don’t want fancy lighting.’ Or ‘I don’t want my classical music to be surrounded by popular music.’ Or even ‘You could do all those things, but I still struggle to find the music interesting.’ These are perfectly valid responses. The reality is that one person’s positive trigger could be another person’s negative trigger, which again would be a fascinating area to research as well.

Ultimately we can tackle the issue of positive and negative triggers if a) we are committed to creating different musical experiences for different audiences and b) we have a good understanding of what things make some people light up while others fade out. And we’re seeing a move among many classical music organisations today to better grasp the different audiences (plural) they are servicing and working out what to offer them, so I’m hopeful that many of the questions I have will start to be answered in the near future.

But I Still Don’t Like It

However, this still leaves us one with last great unexplored area: music we don’t like, no matter how personally connected we feel to the musical experience.

For instance, going back to something a few posts ago, we know that many classical music fans struggle to listen to 20th century atonal music. So they can be sitting in an audience surrounded by their peers, in a concert that is otherwise filled with music that they love. But then that one piece of music comes on and it just sounds like noise. Even if we have all the Personal Connection in the world, and our Purpose in being in the concert hall is to hear great orchestral music: why do some pieces of music that we should like just not grab us and, in fact, often alienate us?

For that, we need to move to the fascinating area of Pattern Matching, which I’ll explore in a couple of weeks.

Music Your Brain Can’t Make Sense Of (Part 8 of A Wild Theory About The Future of Classical Music)


When we listen to music, our brain is trying to make sense of the patterns.

A series of posts dedicated to understanding why people like (or dislike) certain types of music and how that could help us shape the future of the classical music world.

So over the last few posts, we’ve been talking about the three Ps that impact our musical taste: Purpose – why am I listening to this music? And Personal Connection – do I feel personally connected to this music somehow?

Today I want to talk about the third P: Pattern Matching. Pattern Matching means that our brain wants to know where a piece of music is heading; if it can’t make sense of the pattern of the music, we tend not to like it.

Pattern Matching

I always have an uphill battle persuading people in the classical music industry about this factor. The usual response is: ‘I don’t think people need to know (or really care much) about the structure of music.’ And it’s certainly true that only a handful of hardcore people study music theory or read scores. Meanwhile, there are thousands of classical music fans out there listening to classical music without knowing how to read a note of music. So what do I mean when I say that pattern is important?

Well, let me tell you a personal story and then share a fascinating news article and I’ll see if I can persuade you.

Only The Bits From Immortal Beloved


Gary Oldman as Beethoven in Immortal Beloved

When I was in my teens and early 20s, I had a problem with Beethoven Symphonies. I’d seen the famous Gary Oldman movie Immortal Beloved in the mid-90s, loved it and rushed out and bought the soundtrack album. (Which – quick plug here – is still probably the best single-disc Beethoven sampler album you can buy.) Because the use of the music in the film was so evocative, every track would conjure up some piece of imagery from the film for me. And I still can’t get through Georg Solti’s rendition of the Ode to Joy chorus on that CD without getting cold chills.

So one day I was in a CD store – I know, remember them? – and I saw the old Berlin Philharmonic / Herbert von Karajan box set of Beethoven Symphonies and decided to buy it. I was expecting to enjoy listening to all the symphonies, but that’s when I ran into my problem: I only really liked the bits off the Immortal Beloved soundtrack. The other bits were okay, but I’ll be honest – they all sounded the same. Just a sort of wall of orchestral noise. It was pleasant but it never really grabbed me.


Von Karajan’s Beethoven set: a masterpiece for everyone else, a blur of sound for me.

Then one day I stumbled across an old book on Beethoven symphonies where the author walked through each movement, explaining the structure. It was initially a bit of a struggle; things like sonata form, expositions, developments and recapitulations were all new to me. But reading the book taught me to listen more closely to the symphonies. And as I started listening closely and hearing these patterns in the Beethoven symphonies, something magical happened.

I started to like Beethoven symphonies a lot more. The only way I can explain the difference between listening to Beethoven before I knew the structure and hearing it afterwards is to compare it to watching a foreign film with no subtitles vs watching it with subtitles. Or watching a sports game where you don’t know the rules to suddenly being told what’s going on. It was like a massive light bulb went on.

Why People Hate Schoenberg’s Music

Sometime after this (but still about 12-13 years ago) I heard Daniel Barenboim speaking on the radio. Someone asked him a question about what he thought would happen in the future to classical music audiences. And he gave a reply which I’ve never forgotten. He said that audiences in Brahms’ day knew certain things about music and listened to the music differently. A hundred years later, he was concerned about the future of classical music audiences, because he wasn’t sure that audiences were listening to music in the same way.

This fascinated me because it backed up my own experience – when I knew a little bit about music theory and the structure of Beethoven’s music, I enjoyed it a lot more. Plus it opened up a great deal of other 19th century music. So was all this a music education problem? Was the issue just one of getting more people to learn music theory? And given that sonata form is buried six grades down in current music theory teaching, is it realistic to expect people to learn that much theory just to really like a Beethoven CD?

But pondering on it over the years, another thought occurred to me: what if it’s not really the rules of sonata form that is the important thing to know? What if the issue is simpler than that? What if our brains just like music to have a pattern? (Any pattern at all, really.) Thus was born the first corner of my three Ps triangle, but at the time I had no idea whether it was just me that found music easier to listen to if I could fit it into a pattern or whether it was a real thing that other people experienced.

Until I stumbled upon this fantastic article in 2010: Audiences Hate Modern Classical Music Because Their Brains Cannot Cope. 

According to the article:

A new book [The Music Instinct by Philip Ball] on how the human brain interprets music has revealed that listeners rely upon finding patterns within the sounds they receive in order to make sense of it and interpret it as a musical composition.

No Pleasure From Accurate Prediction

A bit further down, the article quoted from another book by David Huron of Ohio University, who had done particular research on the music of Schoenberg and Webern particularly. He found

“We measured the predictability of tone sequences in music by Arnold Schoenberg and Anton Webern and found the successive pitches were less predictable than random tone sequences.

“For listeners, this means that, every time you try to predict what happens next, you fail. The result is an overwhelming feeling of confusion, and the constant failures to anticipate what will happen next means that there is no pleasure from accurate prediction.”

Now, sure, Huron was talking about Schoenberg and we’ve already discussed on this blog that many people struggle with atonal music. But assuming Ball and Huron are correct about patterns, why wouldn’t it logically hold true that an ordinary person, unfamiliar with classical music, might not be able to make sense of a Beethoven symphony? 

In short, is there a divide in society between two broad classes of people? On one side, people whose brains can latch onto the sounds of classical music and follow along – and thus enjoy it. And people on the other side, who hear what I used to hear: a wall of vague orchestral sound? Could this be one of the reasons that explain why less people like classical music nowadays?

In my next article on this topic, I’ll look more at pattern matching, how this used to be a commonly recognised problem in the 19th century – and also why we tend to underestimate it as an issue nowadays.

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