Thoughts & news about the future of classical music.

Category: General (Page 1 of 4)

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.

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?

Coffee Reading: Different doors for different audiences

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

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


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