Thoughts & news about the future of classical music.

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How would you defend Beethoven?

I know it’s been a while between articles on this site, but I’ve come out of blogging semi-retirement because I’ve been fascinated by the various thought-provoking interactions between members of the classical music community as we try to process everything the year 2020 has thrown at us.

At this stage, the winner for summing up the year does appear to be David Taylor, who I suspect shall be regarded as the prophet of the industry after his insightful prediction for how the year would pan out.

Amongst other writers, some see hope for change, many see devastation, but one of the most well-written articles I read recently was this one by Peter Tregear entitled “In Defence of Lost Chords: Classical music’s struggle for relevance and survival.

First up, I’ll pay it just for the reference to “The Lost Chord”, one of my guilty pleasure favourite songs. (Which you can read about on my personal blog.) Tregear is on the money about many of the difficulties facing the Australian classical music industry and he is also upfront about the risk of the ageing audience, something I haven’t seen acknowledged for a while:

As the public conversation about classical music has faded, so have the audiences. There is a common notion (indeed, it is again doing the rounds on social media) that people generally grow into appreciating classical music; that house-music ravers in their twenties and thirties become connoisseurs of symphonies and string quartets in their fifties and sixties. The hard statistics tell us otherwise. People do not, by and large, ‘convert’ to classical music as they age; our children and grandchildren are only to feel further and further estranged from the sounds of an orchestra or an opera.

Tregear arrives at the insightful point that there has been a distinct lack of advocacy for the music itself. This year is the 250th anniversary year of Beethoven’s birth. If it had been a normal year, most classical music organisations would have played a lot of Beethoven. (In fact, it’s almost a distant memory when the worst thing that we were facing was that some people thought we were playing too much Beethoven. Oh, to only have that problem to worry about!)

Tregear uses Beethoven as an example to make his point:

Is it not possible to determine what musical performance cultures we wish to support at least partially in musical terms alone, that is with reference to the music’s actual, material, musical substance? Let us consider one example. This year, but for the pandemic, we would have been celebrating the 250th anniversary of the birth of Ludwig van Beethoven. In advancing programs of his music, there was an opportunity to draw wider public attention to the mesmerising intricacy of Beethoven’s musical constructions, his way of building large-scale sonic structures from the obsessive development of curt musical motifs. This is music, surely, that invites us to think musically, to partake of a heightened kind of listening.

He concludes by throwing out a challenge to the industry:

The answer, then, to the question (were we to ask it) ‘Who is the Beethoven of Australia?’ is, of course, ‘Beethoven’. Such music can, and should, be properly understood, as Edward Said once wrote, as ‘part of the possession of all … humankind’.

It is rare, however, to hear a director of one of our classical music institutions, let alone an arts minister (in those government arenas where such a portfolio still exists) stake out such a naked claim for this music’s value …

The case for classical music’s ongoing relevance to Australia, and thus the argument for ongoing support, must now be made, first and foremost, as a proposition of musical value. The Covid-19 crisis gives us both the opportunity, and necessity, to do so. The underlying argument we should all be pressing is that great music in all its forms, in all its genres, wherever it is found, and however it is ultimately labelled by us, should be understood as belonging to, speaking for, and challenging each and every one of us.

What I find interesting, though, is that if you read this by itself, you would think that no one is speaking up for classical music. Whereas, I actually think we have more voices speaking up for classical music than ever before, often quite successfully. But (and this is important) they are often not academic or industry voices and thus we perhaps discount them.

Let me list a few examples:

Exhibit A: InsideTheScore

A YouTube channel started up in December 2017 by the name of InsideThe Score. I’m not even sure of the name of the well-spoken young English gentleman who runs the channel but he (much like myself) got into classical music after understanding a bit more of the theory behind the music. He now makes video after video, explaining musical concepts to help fans of film music become fans of classical music.

For years, I’ve been hearing that nobody ever jumps from being a movie music concert attendee to being a classical music attendee, but did any classical music institution or organisation anywhere in the world attempt to explain things as clearly and simply as InsideTheScore does? He now has 177,000+ followers to prove that there is indeed an overlap between film and classical audiences and runs regular online music listening sessions with his fans.

Exhibit B: That Classical Podcast

The year before ITS took off, two young twenty-something Brits sat down to create a podcast called That Classical Podcast, a podcast aimed at introducing its listeners to new composers, instruments and styles of music. (But without the stuffiness.) Winningly informal, with many bad jokes along the way, it is surprisingly eclectic. The hosts of the show (and they have had one personnel change since beginning the podcast) often dive into spikier music by more diverse composers than can be found in many an orchestra subscription brochure. They simply love the music and their enthusiasm is infectious.

Exhibit C: TwoSet Violin

Several years ago, two young conservatory-trained violinists from Brisbane, the city I am living in, started posting a few video gags on Facebook. The humour immediately struck a chord with music students around the world and slowly but steadily, the popularity of TwoSet Violin has grown to be an immense juggernaut. At a staggering 2.73 million followers on YouTube, they have overtaken even André Rieu, as the classical music internet phenomenon.

And while many might in the industry might regard some of their humour as a bit on-the-nose, there are many heavyweights of the classical music world who are happy to be associated with them, including superstar violinists Ray Chen and Hilary Hahn. Also, lest you think the only brand they are building is themselves, I was recently watching a YouTube video of Richard Strauss’ Death and Transfiguration. In the comment ssection, somebody had asked, “Who’s here because of TwoSet Violin?” No less than 22 people responded with a yes. Who else in the world is encouraging Richard Strauss listening on that scale?


So what do these three have in common? Quite simply, these young people have been unafraid to experiment with how they talk about classical music. The reason I bring them up is because Peter Tregear asks a good question about who in the industry is prepared to talk up the music on its own terms. But my challenge to myself as a marketer and everyone else in my field, is that there is also a question of how we talk about the music as well.

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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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.


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.

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