Future Classical

Thoughts & news about the future of classical music.

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?

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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.

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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