Future Classical

Thoughts & news about the future of classical music.

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Book Review – Sweet Anticipation: Music and the Psychology of Expectation (by David Huron)

This is an outstanding piece of musical scholarship about the psychology of music, but also really important if you’re in my line of work, which is classical music marketing. I first heard about David Huron’s work a decade ago, when I read that he had done experiments that proved that audiences hated Schoenberg’s music because it was harder to follow than random music. (Which was the article that first inspired my concept of Pattern Matching, which you can read about elsewhere on this blog.)

I finally bought his book about four years ago and only now – which shows the speed of my reading pile – am I getting around to reading it. I should have done it a lot earlier! But better late than never.

The book is longish, with some complex ideas (but certainly not incomprehensible, as long as you have some knowledge of how music works). But Huron’s central thesis is this – that one of the fundamental things that makes music “work” is the way it plays with our (often subconscious) sense of expectation.

In other words, over time, we acquire an instinctive knowledge of how music should sound – what note should come next, where the next beat will land, what is the next chord we’re about to hear, etc. Part of this internal expectation will be acquired from a lifetime of listening. But there might also be elements acquired from study as well. Whatever its origin, we carry a set of statistics in our brains so that any time we hear a piece of music, we’re trying to predict what will happen next in it. 

Huron’s fascinating idea is that the reason we think certain notes, chords and phrases sound attractive is actually because they land where our brains statistically think they should. So consciously we think the music sounds “nice”. But really it was the happy vibes of our brain congratulating us on an accurate prediction. The term for that is “misappropriation” where your brain attaches the stimulus from a prediction response to the thing itself. In this case, the notes.

Huron then introduces the concept of surprise – and how pleasant surprises are so much better than just having positive expectations that are met. (Likewise, negative surprises are a lot worse than simply expecting a negative outcome and having it met.) So you know when you’re listening to a piece of music, you’re expecting a big moment and then it’s even better than you expected? That’s part of the prediction effect.

I’ve not heard too many other people reference this research, but I think Huron’s theory is groundbreaking because it actually explains what has happened with classical music over the last 50 years and why the audience has died out. (He doesn’t actually explain this explicitly but his theory backs this up.) 

In other words, 100 years ago, an audience would know a bunch of music theory and this would allow them to accurately predict and enjoy most classical music. Thus the artform was growing and composers could be more adventurous.

50 years ago, the situation was slightly different. With the advent of the gramophone, a whole bunch of people were able to develop expectations, not by learning music theory, but by playing a piece on repeat until it stuck in their brain! However, as you can imagine, if you suddenly hear a piece that’s not one of the ones you had on high rotation, then you would expect not to like it as much.

And if, say, 99% of your listening was taken up with very tonal works of, say, Mozart and Beethoven, imagine what you’re going to do when you encounter the music of Arnold Schoenberg? (His chapter on modernism has some great stuff on this and describes how Wagner, Schoenberg and Stravinsky were all working to confound our sense of expectation.)

So this is a fantastic explanation of why we see the common phenomenon of the “conservative audiences” at classical music organisations who seem very wary of the organisation presenting “modern music”.

It also throws down the challenge – in this current day, where it’s not at all likely that many people are still familiar with the forms and structures of classical music and it’s even less clear whether many people are listening to complete classical works on endless repeat – what might we need to do to help the audience predict more easily what this music will do? If this is true, it’s not just enough to get potential new audiences in the concert hall and hope the music will speak for itself. I think we need to work out how to give them mental tools that will make processing the music a more easy task.

Much food for thought, and I hope this research comes to be discussed widely in the classical music world.

Coffee Reading: What attracts people to classical concerts?

Great little article from the Irish times about what attracts people to classical concerts. I would argue, of course, that whether you are coming for a conductor or soloist is probably more tied in to your purpose for going to the concert in the first place.

Irish Times: Who comes first: the conductor, the composer, or the orchestra?

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

patterns

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

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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.

Karajan_Beethoven_Symphonies_1963

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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Coffee Reading: Different doors for different audiences

So this post from Joe Patti inspired me – which in turn references this TEDx talk from Nina Simon. I’ve obviously talked a bit about thinking about the purpose for performing, and the purpose for the audience being there.

You only have to think about it for a while and you realise that different people have different purposes for listening to music. So instead of trying to fit everyone in the same musical experience – or at least offering them the same invitation – maybe we can think about what that door in looks like.

 

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