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Whatever happened to Brahms? (Classical Music 2.0 – Part 6)

Johannes Brahms

Classical Music 2.0 is a 10-part blog series putting forward a possible vision for the future of the classical music industry – imagining a time where we might have larger audiences, more revenue, and play a bigger role in society. (Previously: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5)

So we’ve been building the case that the audience and their familiarity (or otherwise) with classical repertoire is the primary driver of concert attendance (and thus revenue). I’ve suggested that what we have been seeing as an ageing audience crisis could also be seen as a crisis of familiarity. In short, that audiences have less of a knowledge of what used to be known as “the canon” – the great masterpieces that (at least supposedly) everybody knew.

The barometer of this (at least in Australia) is the ABC Classic Top 100 countdowns, and I mentioned in the last blog post that when ABC last polled people on their favourite piece (“the music you can’t live without“) Brahms didn’t make the top 100. This is one of those strange discrepancies between audience and musicians / conductors. Among the latter, Brahms is considered one of the greatest composers of all time. So why are audiences not on the same page? How did Brahms fall so far out of fashion?

Education as an aid to Processing Music

The mostly likely main culprit in Brahms’ decline in popularity is a lack of musical education. However, this lack is perhaps not for the reason most of the classical music industry thinks of. Often when the classical music world thinks of musical education (especially with classical music) the goal in the past has been to keep the “great works” of the past alive, or perhaps to generate an enthusiasm for classical music – music appreciation.

But one of the most important aspects of learning about classical music, particularly musical theory, is that it provides a guide for our brains in how to process the music. In Part 4 of this series, I mentioned the work of Professor David Huron and his work Sweet Anticipation, which details how we tend to experience music as pleasurable when our brains can anticipate where the music is going.

One of the things that I don’t think we’ve appreciated fully in the classical music world – even perhaps when we have been the beneficiaries of such knowledge ourselves – is that some of the basic points of music theory work to guide our listening. And not only that, but not having that knowledge makes it much harder for a listener to process the music.

Brahms Symphony No.3 – the Pre-Requisite Knowledge
Let’s take Brahms Symphony No. 3 for instance. I want you to consider the level of knowledge that the typical die-hard classical music fans would bring to bear to listen to a piece like this. For instance, if a person with some classical training found themselves at a concert with Brahms’ Third Symphony, even if they weren’t immediately familiar with the music and hadn’t listened to it before (or not for a long while), they would know to flick open the program booklet. In that booklet, they would find a program listing that contained something like this:

Johannes BRAHMS – Symphony No.3 in F major, op. 90 (1883)

I. Allegro con brio
II. Andante
III. Poco allegretto
IV. Allegro — Un poco sostenuto

35 minutes

I’m not sure what a newcomer would make of this listing, what with its Roman numerals and Italian language (for music written by a German?). But the classically trained person, almost without thinking about it, would pick up the following:

Level 1 Knowledge

  • That Brahms was a famous composer from the Romantic era. (They would pick that from the 1883 date.)
  • That this is a symphony, meaning a large-scale work for orchestra.
  • That Brahms wrote multiple of these symphonies and that this is his third one.
  • Despite this being only his third symphony, this is his opus 90, meaning the 90th work he had published. So we can already presume he wrote a ton of music before this, making this something he wrote later in this career when he had his style fairly styled.
  • The key is in F major, indicating that – at least for the opening – the mood will be in a more “happy” major key rather than a darker minor key. (Though a classically trained person will expect a lot of variance in mood for a Romantic piece.)
  • This symphony, like most symphonies, is broken into sections called “movements”, rather like courses in a meal.
  • There are four movements, indicated by the four subsections with Roman numerals.
  • The Italian wording refers to the speed of the movement. Allegro con brio means fast and lively, for instance. Andante means a more moderate speed.
  • That all four movements together will take about 35 minutes to get through.

Level 2 Knowledge

If they’re even more advanced with their musical theory, and have listened to a few symphonies, they might also know:

  • That symphonies from Haydn onwards (i.e. for most of the 18th century) usually had four movements – though this isn’t a hard and fast rule.
  • That the first and fourth movements of these traditional symphonies would usually be fast.
  • That the two middle movements would consist of a slow movement (to contrast with the opening and closing movements) and a lighter movement usually with a one-two-three beat known as a minuet or a scherzo.
  • From which the advanced listener could look at the Italian speeds above and deduce that Brahms’ symphony, even though written towards the end of the 19th century is, at least in form, following the basic pattern of many, many symphonies written before it.

Level 3 Knowledge

If they are really, really advanced in their musical knowledge (and I think most classical fans were up until the 21st century), they might also know that often the opening movement in a symphony (and some of the later ones) is written in a form called sonata form, which is a form where several themes are stated (in different keys) in an opening section called the “Exposition”, then the themes are mixed up and played around with in a section called the “Development” before the themes return in a section called the “Recapitulation”.

Now, you’re either reading this and thinking “Yeah, isn’t that obvious?” in which case, chances are you’re a part of the classical music business or a long-time audience member. If you had no idea that die-hard classical music fans bring this much knowledge to the listening experience, then congratulations, you’re probably an ordinary person who stumbled across some classical music and decided you loved it, even if you didn’t know all the stuff I’ve mentioned.

The Importance of a Listening Framework

Here’s the important thing – the points I’ve mentioned above aren’t necessarily terribly interesting, or of themselves necessarily going to make you like Brahms Symphony No.3 better than any other symphony. But they do give you a guide as to how to listen to the music. This knowledge, which as far as I know was well-known to most classical music audiences up until the mid-20th century, was the framework which guided people to be able to know how to listen to different pieces of classical music and how to anticipate what was likely to happen.

This does not make classical music a cold clinical thing, just because it utilised these sorts of frameworks. It was simply a way to create length. In the same way that the typical structure of a song (verse, chorus, verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus, etc) allows a songwriter to create a song that is 3-5 minutes long, the above structures of movements, sonata form, etc allowed composers to create works that run anywhere from 15 minutes to 100 minutes (!) without the audience getting lost. (Mostly. There are some long symphonies that do get a lot of people lost.)

Another analogy might be to say that the rules of a sport allow spectators to follow the action – they know roughly how long the game is, whether their team is winning or losing, whether a particular shot or goal was successful or not. Or consider film, where we have an instinctive knowledge that most films have a three-act structure with all the problems being worked out in the finale. These frameworks exist all the time in arts and sports (and many other areas of life) so that we can make sense of what we are processing.

Brahms to the Untrained Ear

So now I want you to consider a hypothetical situation: Let’s say a listener knows no classical music theory at all. They don’t even know what a “symphony” is. They encounter Brahms’ Third Symphony. How are their brains likely to process the work?

There may be better research out there that can shed more light on this, but I would say – based on Huron’s work and my own personal experience when I was younger and know a lot less musical theory – that the listener is likely to only be able to grasp onto simpler things:

  • How the music makes them feel
  • The melodies
  • The rhythms

Most music listeners with no knowledge can pick up on these elements. But the harmonies, the symmetrical structures, the journey that Brahms created, the cleverness of the way he creates something that sounds similar to the symphonies that have gone before and yet different, the difficulty and challenge for the musicians and the conductor – many of these will not be perceived. Now you might say, “But does this matter? What’s wrong with listening to Brahms for the tunes or the feel?” And this is a fair point, except that sometimes, for some composers, creating a catchy tune wasn’t the top priority for the piece. In many cases, symphonies can be far more about how themes are changed or developed over time and combined in different ways, than whether the themes themselves have a good hook.

Tune and Mood

In my years in the business, I have spoken to many, many audience members that I ended up sitting next to at concerts or met in the foyers or attended some of my pre-concert talks. And it has become apparent that the depth of knowledge that used to guide extensive and deep listening of classical music has started to dry up. As the music education part of the pyramid has dried up, people have started listening to classical music in simpler ways.

This, I believe, is the driving force behind the shape of the ABC Classic 100 and the connection between familiarity and sales in orchestras around the world. Left to their simpler listening devices of tune and mood, the pieces that are staying firm on the favourites lists are those pieces with either clear “hook” tunes that everyone knows (e.g. Beethoven’s Choral Symphony, Bolero, Saint-Saëns Organ Symphony) or pieces with a clearly defined mood / theme that is easy to grasp (e.g. The Four Seasons, The Planets). Pieces that require more knowledge of structure and form, with less easily memorable themes – like most things by our friend Brahms – are disappearing from the mental canon of our potential audiences.

And that mental canon is crucial for the financial future of our organisation. For the average ticket-buyer, if they see an ad for “Beethoven Symphony No. 5”, your success at selling the ticket will almost certainly depend on whether that person has a good idea in their head of what Beethoven’s Symphony No.5 sounds like already. (I would add that even for the so-called “commercial” concerts, this is important. It’s not just enough for an orchestra to create a concert of movie music or video game music. It must be movie music or video game music that, on the whole, is already familiar to the audiences.)

This type of idea does get raised in the halls of classical music organisations from time to time, but it’s not one that the industry likes to dwell on too much, because it seems to only lead to one conclusion: playing the same old Top 20 pieces that everyone likes to hear.

But I want to put forward a new framework: what if, by embracing this limitation of audience familiarity, we could chart the pathway back to larger, smarter, more diverse audiences? What if, simply by acknowledging that audiences today are not the same now as they were 50 years ago, we could see a way forward? This, to me, is what Classical Music 2.0 could look like.

More on this, in the next post.

Classical Music 2.0 – Part 3: The music pyramid today

Photo by Arindam Mahanta on Unsplash

Classical Music 2.0 is a 10-part blog series putting forward a possible vision for the future of the classical music industry – imagining a time where we might have larger audiences, more revenue, and play a bigger role in society. (Previously: Part 1 | Part 2)

In Part 2, I spoke about the ecosystem that included live classical music back in its glory days of the 60s and 70s. I likened it to a pyramid with live classical concerts at the top, but a whole raft of other layers that supported it.

The helpfulness of considering the industry like a pyramid is that if we look at the state of that pyramid today, we start to see what might be going wrong at the moment. I believe it also points forward to interesting opportunities. Here’s the situation as I see it today:

Starting at the bottom and working up:

  • Orchestral Music in Pop Music (almost entirely gone). By the time we reached the 80s, the sounds of orchestral instruments had started to disappear from pop music. Possibly it was budget-related – a producer and record label that decided to bring in a session orchestra would have to pay a fair few people to lay down tracks. Perhaps everyone was more excited by the prospect of what the new synthesizers and keyboards could do. Perhaps Gen X wanted to show they were different from their parents by showing a propensity for the more dissonant sounds of rock, with its heavy guitars and loudness. Whatever the reasons, orchestras stopped being used as part of pop songs. Fast forward to today, with the music business being even more competitive, if a bunch of musicians start a band, are they even going to consider using an orchestra? Where would they get one? Unless they happen to be friends with someone who can lend 50+ musicians for a week, most modern musicians will write for the instruments readily available to them: guitars, drums, keys, electronics.
  • Easy Listening Classical (some niches but disconnected from main industry). I didn’t completely cross through Easy-Listening Classical, because someone like André Rieu is still the exception to the rule. But in terms of music that is gaining listeners, there are very few breakthroughs to people who don’t listen to classical music already. An exception could be someone like Max Richter, who’s neo-classical style has gained a broader appearance. And I also argue that Víkingur Ólafsson, the Icelandic pianist, came to fame because many of his albums also double as Relaxing Piano Study Playlists. (But more on him in another post.)
  • Classical Music in Pop Culture (largely gone). This is unfortunate at a time when “needle drops” can be spectacular in their impact. When you consider the revival of “Running Up That Hill” from its use in Stranger Things or “Murder on the Dancefloor” in Saltburn, not to mention almost anything that appears in Bridgerton, we can see that a well-placed use of music can create a whole new audience for a song that might have been otherwise disappearing into obscurity. However, I feel this happens far less often with classical music nowadays.
  • Music Theory and History in Schools (simplified to Music in Schools). The last point about pop culture is possibly explained by the overall lower level of teaching Music Theory and History in schools. While learning about classical music in school is no guarantee that children will become fans later in life, nonetheless, if you wanted someone to learn the basic terminology of classical music (e.g. a symphony vs a concerto vs a sonata) or the basic core composers (Beethoven vs Mozart vs Brahms), where do you go? To put it more bluntly, there was a time when the existence of classical composers was as widely-known as we might know the Beatles or Elvis today. That is no longer a universal guarantee, particularly in Australia.
  • Classical Radio (looking promising and willing to innovate). At the top of the pyramid, classical radio still exists and I will say that ABC Classic (Australia’s national classical music broadcaster, for those overseas) in particular is doing the best it can to reach a broader audience and welcome the newcomer. However, radio is a good taster for classical music, but due to the nature of the medium, it doesn’t necessarily contain the same level of rigour without the educational component.
  • Populist Concerts (disconnected from the main artform). Finally, in terms of light concerts, even Populist concerts are a bit different than they used to be. 50 years ago, a populist concert would probably be mostly classical music, but simplified down into well-chosen excerpts and popular “lollipops”. These light classical concerts have gradually been replaced by what is known in the business as “commercial” concerts – so called because an orchestra or classical music organisation considers them mostly to be valuable for money-making, but less so for any artistic value. This is great if you like hearing your favourite pop star with an orchestral backing or you’re a fan of movie music, but with the loss of populist classical concerts, we do seem to have lost an arm of classical music that probably fed into the top category.
  • Classical Concerts (still strong but facing difficulties). The top category is still surprisingly strong relatively speaking, even though there are increasing concerns about audience sizes and how much growth is necessary for sustainability. It’s arguable that the performance standards – much like professional sports – are steadily climbing, with most state orchestras being able to pull off astonishingly top-notch performances most weeks of the year. However, ironically, many of the current audience that comes may not fully appreciate the quality of musicianship they are hearing, and may simply be there to hear their favourite tunes from over the decades. It is certainly fair to say that there can be a massive different in audience size between a concert that features a top 20 work and one that features something less well known. It’s also quite noticeable that even the definition of “well known” is variable. Go back 100 years and Brahms was considered one of the masters and his symphonies and concertos were on regular rotation. However, now, his music is drifting more into obscurity. (More on Brahms in another post as well.)

So on the whole, the industry’s currently shaky audience for classical concerts layer is arguably because classical music organisations are trying to get the same level of concert-going as they had in the 70s – but without being able to draw from a much broader base of people listening and learning about classical music and instruments from the layers below

Viewed at from this perspective, I think a new and exciting challenge opens up for the industry. During the last 20 years, there has been a great focus on how we can use audience growth initiatives (usually focused around sales and marketing) in order to break down barriers and reach new audiences. This type of promotion has had some great success – and is certainly met with less opposition than it was when I started in the business and there was a fear that too much audience-friendly marketing would dumb down “the brand”.

But I say, why stop at the marketing? If the core issue is a half-collapsed ecosystem, why not set to work rebuilding it? Why not rebuild all the levels, in order to have a thriving classical concert scene at the top?

Later in this series, I’ll talk about what this might possibly look like in the future and some of the obstacles that might exist to getting started. But for the next few posts, I want to take a deep dive down an issue that every classical music marketer and artistic programmer has encountered in their time, but is talked about surprisingly little: the tyranny of familiar music.

More soon.

Classical Music 2.0 – Part 2: The music pyramid

Classical Music 2.0 is a 10-part blog series putting forward a possible vision for the future of the classical music industry – imagining a time where we might have larger audiences, more revenue, and play a bigger role in society. (Previously: Part 1)

In my last post, I suggested that rather than thinking of classical music organisations as separate entities, rising and falling on their own steam, we should instead think of them all as being part of an ecosystem. And then I suggested that we need to think of the ecosystem as being a lot bigger than just organisations playing classical music. It’s actually something like a pyramid.

The best way to illustrate this is to consider the ecosystem of orchestral music – by which I mean, all the places where you encounter the use of an orchestra (or orchestral instruments, if you prefer – I won’t quibble!). When we consider this definition, going back to the 60s or 70s, the ecosystem would have looked something like this:

At the top in the Classical Concerts layer are orchestras and elite chamber music groups, performing concerts of new and old classical music. This would be the kind of live classical music as we think of it today: orchestras performing concerts with three works – an overture, a concerto and a symphony (and most likely no clapping between movements). And it is still this level that most people in the classical music business think of as “real” classical music. This is the high art, the pinnacle, the reason the ensemble exists.

However, there were other layers.

There were Populist Concerts (or “pops” concerts), known for their, well, populist music. Nowadays this would probably be something more like a movie music or video game concert, but back 50 years ago, it might have been a concert that featured excerpts of famous classical works, rather than full works. It was still “classical” in the sense of that’s where the repertoire came from, but giving people excerpts of longer serious pieces and/or light works (often known as “lollipops”) meant that it was generally agreed that this was classical in a sense, but a bit dumbed-down for a less sophisticated audience. (Though then as now, you would never put that sort of line in the marketing copy!)

Meanwhile, classical instruments could be heard in many other places. Consider the next layers down:

  • Classical Radio. It’s well known that thousands more listen to classical music on radio than ever attend in the concert hall, so it was clear that this was a part of the ecosystem that created a large enough critical mass of fans that some of them would shell over cash to hear the music live in a concert hall.
  • Music Theory & History in Schools. There are many debates of how necessary music education is to enjoying classical music. I personally don’t think musical education necessarily guarantees someone will like classical music or become a future ticket buyer, but there are nonetheless connections between music education and being able to get deeper enjoyment out of classical music. For instance, if you get a music education that teaches you that a concerto is a piece of music for solo instrument and orchestra, often broken into three movements, etc. – that will allow you to listen to many different pieces that have the word “Concerto” in it. Ditto for symphonies. Basic music theory provides a road map for knowing how to explore classical music, in much the same way as knowing a little bit about wines or degustation can open up a world of exploring the culinary world. (I have a lot more to say on this topic, particularly when it comes to the idea of listener familiarity with repertoire, so I’ll revisit this in future posts.)
  • Classical Music in Pop Culture. We also need to recognise that below the surface of music education, classical radio and concerts, classical music was audibly everywhere. It featured in movies (e.g. David Lean’s Brief Encounter, which is scored exclusively with Rachmaninoff’s 2nd Piano Concerto, the soundtrack to 2001: A Space Odyssey with all its Strauss music – Johann and Richard). Not to mention the thousands of hours of original orchestral music composed for almost every soundtrack from movies and TV. (Much of it as rich and lush as anything being created for the concert hall.) You almost couldn’t consider using any other types of instruments to highlight the emotion on screen. Classical music also featured in commercials and, of course – perhaps more successfully than anywhere else – it featured in cartoons. Bugs Bunny cartoons regularly riffed on the great orchestral classics and I still say one of the funniest Disney cartoons is “The Band Concert”, the first colour Mickey Mouse short where the mouse tries to conduct the William Tell Overture while being traumatised by a flute-playing Donald Duck. In short, classical music was as prevalent as, say, the music of the Beatles or Elvis Presley or Taylor Swift is today. Yes, it might seem unusual that 100-year-old music was used everywhere, but society wasn’t yet at the stage where it felt a need to ditch music that had wowed audiences for decades.
  • As if all that wasn’t enough, it’s also important to understand that the sound of orchestras or classical instruments was present everywhere. There were whole ensembles set up to playing “Easy Listening” Orchestral Music – the Mantovani Orchestra being the most famous – often covers of popular old-time pop songs – performed in slow dreamy “cascading strings” arrangements. It’s somewhat schmaltzy stuff and nowadays you mainly find it for $2 on vinyl at op shops (because there is not really a thriving vinyl market for your great-grandma’s Mantovani records!). But up until the early 80s, it was everywhere. I still remember hearing that sort of string sound being used in shopping centres as piped-in music or played on easy-listening stations as a kid.
  • Finally, there was an awful lot of Orchestral Music in Pop Songs. From the Beatles to Neil Diamond to the regular addition of strings in disco (or even what sounds like an oboe in Sonny and Cher’s “I Got You Babe”), classical instruments were everywhere.

In the next post, I’ll talk about what the music pyramid has become today, but the main point is that the bottom of the pyramid makes the top of the pyramid possible. In other words, if classical instruments and sounds are everywhere – in pop music, in pop culture, catering to easy listening audiences as well as highbrow – and most people are familiar with the basic composers, canon and musical structures, it is that ecosystem that allows the music at the top to thrive. It becomes a numbers game which benefits elite music-making.

But, sadly, over the years, the pyramid has started to crumble. More on that in the next part.

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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