Thoughts & news about the future of classical music.

Tag: audience theory (Page 1 of 2)

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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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?

People Who Don’t Like Classical Music

(Part 2 of A Wild Theory About the Future of Classical Music)

Thumbs Down

Sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

So in my last post I touched on the fact that the audience for classical music is getting older and we need new people to replace them. The question is: How do we do that? How do we grow our audiences?

Now, the job of audience growth will look different for every organisation, so at best anything I say will be a generalisation. But from looking at the literature and attending conferences, it seems like the strategy that many classical music organisations are taking, whether consciously or not, is to find more people that like classical music and get them along to concerts.

People Who Like Classical Music

This is a great strategy – if there is a steady stream of people out there who like classical music. But if, in fact, the underlying market conditions are shifting – if there are overall less people in society who like classical music – then basing all or even most of our operations around performing and marketing to these people is going to cause problems. Essentially, we’ll hit a point where each year it gets increasingly costly to acquire and retain the same amount of people. With a smaller and/or shrinking pool of classical music fans out there, we will have to spend more to reach further and dig deeper into that pool.

So what do you do about that situation? The way I like to think about it is to start with a question. What if we went to people who don’t like classical music and tried to persuade them to come to concerts?

People Who Don’t Like Classical Music

I’ve deliberately phrased this in an over-simplified manner to provoke some thought. At first glance, what I’m suggesting is utterly ridiculous. If people don’t like classical music, why would we waste money and effort trying to make them come along? They don’t like the stuff, right?

And that’s correct. In some ways. I’m not suggesting that any classical music organisation abandon its strategy of chasing classical music fans. That would be marketing suicide.

But, as a thought experiment, let’s pretend we were going to chase people who didn’t like our music. What would that look like?

It seems to me that you would end up having to ask two massive sub-questions:

  • Why don’t some people like classical music?
  • Can you make someone like a particular type of music?

The Brick Wall of ‘Liking’

Both those questions contain the word ‘like’, which is somewhat of a curly word. In this Facebook-dominated society, a Like is more of a dichotomy: you either Liked or Didn’t Like something. The reality is, of course, that Liking (at least for music) is more of a scale with 1 being ‘Hate Intensely’ and 10 being ‘Favourite Music In The World’. So it would be perhaps more accurate to say that it’s not so much about people Liking or Not Liking classical music, so much as people Not Liking It Enough to go to live performances of it.

But nonetheless, this concept of Liking – whether it’s a scale or a dichotomy – fundamentally underpins the success of all our efforts. Many classical music organisations have surveyed their customers over the years and almost without fail, the #1 reason for customers’ repeated attendance at concerts is: hearing music that they like. If they don’t like the music, or don’t like it ‘that much’, then they’re not going to come along too oftenin the future.

We in the industry haven’t always given a great deal of thought to how powerful this concept is. But ‘Liking’ is the brick wall constraint that your organisation faces. The amount of success or otherwise that any of us will have in presenting classical music in society is directly proportional to the amount of Liking that is out there for what we have to offer.

In the past, nobody had to worry much about why people Liked classical music or how to make people Like classical music. They just Liked it. All we had to do was perform it at a level of excellence and keep up the variety and they were there. In fact, up until the 80s, they couldn’t get enough of it. Liking was working in our favour. But now it’s become a major hurdle.

So, in my next post, I’ll dig further into the concept of Liking: Why do people like certain types of music? And if we knew that, is Liking something we can influence?

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