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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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As if they could read my mind after my last post on Purpose and classical music experiences, San Francisco Classical Voice came out with the following article on the New Music Paradox. Some of the language used is fascinating.

“One reason why,” says Deborah Borda,” the L.A. Philharmonic’s president and CEO, “is that contemporary music is not nearly as doctrinaire as it used to be. As great as they were, the years of Milton Babbitt, Elliot Carter, and Roger Sessions are over. It’s a different ethos now that crosses borders and is more accessible. I don’t mind saying that a new work is accessible. We want people to come. I also think,” she adds reflectively, “judging by the period we’re entering, there are going to be a lot more pieces with a distinctly political message.”

I love the way Borda has phrased this. By saying explicitly, ‘We want people to come’ and also ‘there are going to be a lot more pieces with a distinctly political message’, she is being upfront about the Purpose that their audience might have for listening to the music. (And also slyly inferring that the older generation of contemporary music composers may not have had audience access in mind.)


Future of Classical Music: Coffee Reading Round-Up (14 February 2017)

One short link worth reading this week:

  • Classical Music: The Definition – Greg Sandow came back with an answer to his recent question: What is classical music? The concept I really like is his idea of ‘music laid out in advance’. This also ties in with one of the Three Ps that I’m yet to write about – Pattern Matching. (We’ll hopefully get there soon!) He’s also got a lot of other great things to say about what goes wrong with some of our current definitions.

The Three Ps of of Music Liking

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

La La LAnd

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

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

La La Land on the Ageing Audience and Musical Liking

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

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

‘When I hear it, I don’t like it.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Three Ps of Music Liking

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

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

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

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

Coming Up

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

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