Thoughts & news about the future of classical music.

Tag: audiences (Page 2 of 2)

A Guy Named George – Part 4: Secrets Hidden in the Royal College of Music

Note: I originally wrote this blog post series about George Grove (my classical music hero) back in 2016 on an old blog. I’ve lightly updated these posts from their original form. This is Part Four of Five and I’ll post the rest of the story in coming weeks. If you’re just joining me, here are the other parts:

A Guy Named George – Part 1: The Book That Changed My Life

A Guy Named George – Part 2: The Man Who Changed My Life

A Guy Named George – Part 3: The Engineer Who Brought Classical Music to the Masses?

If you’ve been following along with the previous posts then you’ll know I’d ended up in London in April 2016 trying to work out the secret of George Grove’s success in the classical music field. In the last post, I described how looking at George’s biography and a bit of sleuthing around Wikipedia led to the astonishing conclusion that in the latter half of the 19th century, Grove – a non-musician, from a working class background, running a series of concerts with an (arguably) second-rate orchestra with the same conductor every week, performing for an audience so unsophisticated it didn’t even know to sit down while the music was playing – was able to out-perform his more sophisticated rivals, the Philharmonic Societies (the Royal and the New).

I was madly curious to know what actually happened at these concerts of his in the Crystal Palace to make them so successful. For that, the internet wasn’t helping so much. So there was only one place to go – the closest thing that you could call a “home” for George Grove in London – The Royal College of Music, still regarded as one of England’s best music schools.

The Royal College of Music, defying being photographed in the London midday sun.

I had lined up a chat a few weeks before with Dr Peter Horton, who worked in the RCM library. He was amazingly helpful, and a fount of knowledge on all things to do with concerts in the 19th century. I know musicologists and researchers are probably used to these sorts of things, but as a lay person completely new to any sort of historical sleuthing, being able to chat to people who are full of knowledge and stories about a past era is nothing short of astounding to me.

Down the library corridor …
The beautiful stained-glass windows of the RCM library.

After our discussion, I got to visit the Reading Room of the library. This itself, was a powerful experience. Because as well as being a charming old-school academic reading room right there, sitting on top of a bookshelf overlooking the reading tables – was Grove himself.

bust The Grove bust, just sitting there on top of a bookshelf in the reading room.

It’s a slightly larger-than-live carved wooden bust (there’s a matching one in the room next door for Elgar) with no name caption – but there is no mistaking those mutton-chops. It was George and it was like he was waiting for me.

George Grove.

I only had a few hours, so I decided to check out a couple of books on Grove and the Crystal Palace days, some of the old Crystal Palace programmes and a couple of examples of Grove’s  “commonplace books”.

The commonplace books took my breath away, because I’ve never been connected with someone from the past so intimately before. To look at, a commonplace book is just a small hardbound book with blank musical staves in them. But this was more than blank sheet music – this was the equivalent of George Grove’s iPod favourites playlist. (Substitute whatever personal device you listen to your music on nowadays.)

In the 19th century, when recorded music was still several decades away, what did you do if you really loved a piece of music, especially a symphony or something that required a large number of musicians? You might be lucky to hear it half a dozen times in your lifetime. And so, almost as a way of carrying the experience around, Grove had his commonplace books.

Any time Grove came across a musical idea that he particularly liked, he would make his own copy of the sheet music. Never the whole thing – you would have had to buy the sheet music for that – but maybe a theme that caught his ear. His favourites were clearly Beethoven, Mendelssohn and Schubert because they cropped up again and again. So here, for instance, is the majestic French horn opening of Schubert’s Symphony No. 9 (“The Great”). Which sounds like this for those who can’t read music.

I can just imagine Grove, flicking through his commonplace book, seeing that notation of the opening of the Schubert symphony and hearing the French horns firing up in his imagination. It made me wonder how many times he got to hear that symphony live in his lifetime. Did he listen extra closely every time he heard that theme, knowing that it would be several years before he’d get to ever hear it again. And, later in life, did he listen to it wondering if this would be the last time he would ever hear it?

The whole thing was utterly moving.

And there were little quirky things – on one of the blank pages inside the commonplace book, he had written out in full the words to a hymn “Lead Kindly Light”. Why did he do that? Did he like that particular hymn tune? As a man who dug into his faith intellectually (he was a huge enthusiast for Biblical archaeology when he wasn’t doing music) but struggled with doubts, were these words a comfort for him? We’ll never know 100%, but it was fascinating.

And then on to the programme notes:

I love the warning at the bottom – clearly this was an audience that was used to tromping in and out of things, regardless of what was happening on stage.

Very quickly I found out something amazing about these programme booklets. They weren’t just a random copy of the printed programs that had been kept for posterity. These were Grove’s own copies of the booklets. Flick through half a dozen of them and you’d find his familiar handwriting (and the ink of his fountain-pen or whatever pencil he had to hand, still just as dark and clear today as it was 150 years ago) scattered throughout. Holding it, you could just see him sitting in the Crystal Palace listening to the orchestra playing. He would think of a random idea, or perhaps something that he could have said differently in his notes, whip out his pen, and jot down his thoughts. That night, he’d add the program to his growing collection of the little booklets that were the trademark of that concert series.

But the really jaw-dropping fact emerged soon after I started checking out the second page of the programmes – the list of works that were to be performed at each concert. Suddenly, the penny dropped for me; I realised how he had gotten the crowds and grown his audiences. Look at this program – it’s a typical Crystal Palace Saturday afternoon concert program:

Beginning and ending with exciting crowd-pleasing overtures, interspersed with lots of short songs and popular opera arias, and the only major work is the Beethoven Violin Concerto. A concert cleverly designed for newbies *and* classical music fans at the same time.

There were many, many concerts that had this sort of format – they would start with an overture (the opening music, if you like) from a ballet or operetta that was popular at the time. Then there would be a curious 5-minute interval. (Only 10 minutes into the concert!). Then after that a long classical work, like a piano concerto or symphony by Beethoven. Then a couple of singers would appear to do a number of popular arias from operas and others songs that are now long since out of popular rotation. There would be another 5 minute break and then one more final overture, followed by a bit of organ music for the next half hour while you got a chance to walk around (or “promenade” as they called it back then).

For those who aren’t used to classical concerts, let me say right now: this is completely different from how we do concerts today. This is the equivalent of starting a concert with 10 minutes of John Williams’ music from Star Wars VII, playing a major classical work, bringing out some singers to do a bit of popular musical theatre, and then finishing with some all-guns-blazing piece of crowd-pleasing orchestral action – like Thomas Bergersen, for instance. (If you’re sceptical, just listen to the last couple of minutes of that Sullivan “In Memoriam” overture that ends the concert. Totally designed to have the crowd roaring on their feet.)

But lest you think the Crystal Palace just sounds like a glorified 19th century André Rieu concert, flicking through the programme notes, we see that in the middle part, where they did the serious music, they were pretty determined to turn the audience into classical music nerds. They’d play the whole work, and Grove’s notes were thorough and methodical. He didn’t hold back from explaining key changes, sonata form structure and the other musicological stuff. His language was enthusiastic and he was aiming at the lay-person, but he was determined that the lay-person could learn to love this music at the same level as music aficionados.

George Grove having an enthusiastic gush (albeit a musically technical one) about how awesome he finds the Beethoven Violin Concerto. “An art which no one ever possesses, and perhaps no one ever will possess, as he did.”

In short, Grove was putting on a show that attempted to both please the crowds and yet make them more sophisticated at the same time. In short, the whole thing was built around the audience and it was designed to be fun. The dirty little secret of the Crystal Palace and their audience growth was finally out. The reason it took off was because they were giving the audience a good time. No wonder the poor old Royal Philharmonic Society couldn’t compete!

Now in the 1860s, Grove can get away with putting two major works in the concerts – Mendelssohn’s “Reformation” Symphony and Beethoven’s E Flat Major Piano Concerto (which, interestingly enough, is not nicknamed the “Emperor” Concerto, as we would do today). But the program is still padded out with lighter, crowd-pleasers.

And clearly it worked. I looked through programs from the 1850s and then some from the 1860s and in a decade, the noticeable change was that the concerts had moved from having one lengthy major work to having two a decade later. (So an 1860s Crystal Palace would still start with light fluff, end with light fluff and have light fluff in the middle, but it might contain a concerto and a symphony mixed in the middle somewhere.)

I can’t prove this without doing a lot more research, but the evidence points to Grove’s “audience-first” approach starting to pay off. It took time, but gradually, his audience was getting a longer attention span and growing in sophistication.

Next time in this series on George Grove, in my final post on him, I’ll cover off why I think his influence died out, and what we can learn from him in the 21st century.

A Guy Named George – Part 3: The Engineer Who Brought Classical Music to the Masses?

Note: I originally wrote this blog post series about George Grove (my classical music hero) back in 2016 on an old blog. I’ve lightly updated these posts from their original form. This is Part Three of Five and I’ll post the rest of the story in coming weeks.

Read Part 1.

Read Part 2.

One of the great things about reading history is that, if a historian is a particularly good writer, a window can open on the past, and the people and situations start to rise off the page and you can picture them and understand them. But then there are other times, where the writer just doesn’t tell you what you’re burning to know. Or he or she might write about something that’s exciting to you in such a dry style that you just can’t grasp the excitement.

This is what I felt when I was reading the only biography of George Grove that I could get my hands on – George Grove by Percy Young.

Percy Young’s rather dry take on a most un-dry person …

While the book was certainly comprehensive in giving me an overview of George’s life (I slogged through it a few years ago), it never seemed to capture the feeling of Grove himself. From all accounts I’ve read of the man, he was simultaneously one of the most hard-working but also personable people that you could meet. And it’s that open generosity and enthusiasm that comes through in Grove’s writing, but not so much in Young’s prose.

In other words, I believe it was George’s love of music combined with his love of people that made him so determined to connect one with the other. This is what marked him out (and still marks him out, in many ways) from the other musicians and musicologists of his day. Other people were just in it for the music. But George wanted to get it to the people.

Don’t get me wrong –  Young talks about all this stuff in his book, but more with the understatement of an academic, rather than the enthusiasm of a story-teller.

As you might remember, I was heading to London in April of 2016 for a wedding but I had also contacted the Royal College of Music before I’d gone and been put in touch with a librarian there that was a specialist on Grove. So on the plane over, I started skimming over the Young book again so I could come across at least somewhat knowledgeable about Grove and his activities! Rereading it, I did find lots of useful information on why Grove explained music the way he did, and how his background shaped his approach to music. But one thing eluded me and wasn’t really covered in the book: what was the competitive landscape of the classical music industry in Grove’s day?

The Crystal Palace

It’s well documented that in the 1850s, the Crystal Palace opened and that by 1855, George Grove (who was on the committee that put on events in the Palace) had been part of organising a Crystal Palace Orchestra. Which then proceeded to play there every Saturday for seven months of the year for the next 50 years.

But what I wasn’t sure about was this: was this just one of many orchestras? After all, we know that London has many orchestras nowadays – London Symphony Orchestra, the London Philharmonic, the Philharmonia, the BBC Symphony, etc. Was the Crystal Palace all that special? Was classical music popular in general and Grove was just famous for his dictionary and program notes?

In the end, to get a better feel for the landscape, I started to make a timeline, trying to work out where all the other orchestras fit into the Grove landscape. What I discovered was jaw-dropping (at least to me).

I hadn’t realised this, but all the major orchestras that we think of today when we think of London – almost none of them were there in Grove’s day. London Symphony, BBC Symphony, London Philharmonic – none of them were in existence. They all cropped up in the first 50 years of the 20th century.

So who was presenting classical music in the 1800s? Well, not many places, actually. When Grove was a boy (he was born in 1820, son of a butcher, so he wasn’t from the upper class), it appears that the main place people went for live music was to concerts put on by a few choral societies that got together to perform choral music. A lot of this was Handel’s Messiah, which seemed to have hit the sweet spot of being very musical and very religious, thus ensuring its success in the England of that day.

The Royal Philharmonic Society

But with regards to orchestra music, there don’t appear to have been very much options for public concerts. The most famous organisation that was doing anything along these lines was The Royal Philharmonic Society (which, incredibly, is still in existence). The RPS was set up by a bunch of professional musicians, most of whom had trained in Europe and its aim was to perform serious classical music. The RPS website puts it like this:

The aims of the fledgling Philharmonic Society were ‘to promote the performance, in the most perfect manner possible, of the best and most approved instrumental music’ and to ‘encourage an appreciation by the public in the art of music’. This was at a time when most concerts consisted of a hotch potch of vocal tit-bits and virtuoso show pieces. The Philharmonic Society was determined to make a case for serious symphonic and chamber music, ‘that species of music which called forth the efforts and displayed the genius of the greatest masters.’ And these ‘masters’ were the living European composers of the time, BeethovenCherubini and Carl Maria von Weber.

I would need to do some more research on this (if I ever get a chance to go back to London, one thing I’m going to do is try to chase up some of the concert listings for the RPS and find out what their concerts were like). But what it sounds like, quite simply, is that it was music for serious classical music nerds. They were expensive, they were bringing out the biggest name composers and unlike these other concerts which were a “hotch potch of vocal tit-bits and virtuoso show pieces”, they were quite clearly designed to be serious.

One other quote from the RPS website bears quoting:

It represented a new spirit of egalitarianism, attracting an audience unified in ‘one great object: the love of their art.’ It was noted by the press that this commitment made them an impressive audience: ‘silence and attention are preserved during the whole performance’, an uncommon phenomenon at the time.

In short, if this report is to be believed, the RPS concerts were the forefather of our modern concert experience. The audience comes in, sits down in mostly perfect silence and attention, and listens to a concert experience that is deliberately devoid of any kind of crowd-pleasing tricks like “vocal tit-bits” and “virtuoso show pieces”. Well-behaved, familiar with the expectations of the concert environment. But the shows were expensive.

So in 1852, a new group popped up called the New Philharmonic Society – which are so obscure nowadays they don’t even have a Wikipedia page – who started doing cheaper concerts, bigger showpieces and – almost to be a bit spiteful – they brought out Berlioz as their chief conductor for their first season. This, too, is a common thing in the world of classical music. Your orchestra is is regarded as great … until another orchestra brings out a bigger-name conductor to boost their reputation.

A Spectacular Location For Concerts

But then, in the 1850s, George Grove arrives on the classical music scene. If you remember, the man had been an engineer up to this point, building lighthouses and bridges, etc. However, he does seem to have been a good networker. While working on the construction of a bridge in England, he’d met some men who were helping organise events to take place in one of the newest and most spectacular buildings in London – the Crystal Palace.

The Crystal Palace -home of a classical music revolution.

Through that connection, Grove became secretary of the Crystal Palace Committee and, before too long, he was suggesting that the brass band that used to be the musical highlight of visiting the Crystal Palace should be expanded out and turned into a full orchestra. By 1855, the Crystal Palace had its own orchestra which you could hear live in rehearsal during the week and which would perform a concert every Saturday for about seven months of the year.

What The-?

At first glance, none of this sounds terribly unusual. You don’t have to go too far in many cities before you find a few amateur orchestras that get together to play music for people in the suburbs – at a cheaper ticket price. Was this what Grove was doing? Just giving people a cheaper ticket compared with the battling Philharmonic Societies back in the main part of London?

I’m not so sure. After reading Young’s book more closely, several peculiar features about the Crystal Palace concerts started to jump out.

A Working Class Audience. We know the concerts were aimed at amateurs. But Percy Young’s book says:

Thoughout its life … the Crystal Palace performed a singular service for music, and it is unlikely that any building ever did more to accustom working people to the enjoyment of music. (p. 59, emphasis mine)

Working people? When was the last time we saw working class people at a classical music concert?

An Unsophisticated Working-Class Audience. And by all accounts, the audience was pretty inexperienced in the ways of classical music. Listen to this quote:

An attempt was made politely to discipline the audience towards accepting a new-style concert behaviour. The programame contained this note: ‘Visitors are requested to keep their seats during the Performance of the Music. An interval will be allowed between the Pieces, and between the Movements of the Symphony, which can be taken advantage of by those who wish to move.’ (pp. 66-67)

I can tell you now, if you had people like that in our current concert setting, walking around and chatting during the music, the current audience would be up in freaking arms about it. We harrumph somebody just for clapping in the wrong spot – but the Crystal Palace audience was moving around between every movement? And how different does this sound from the rapt attention and silence of the RPS audiences?

One Conductor. For the modern orchestra today, standard practice is to have a different conductor come along for every concert program. There will usually be a chief conductor, who sets the tone for the orchestra and conduct more concerts throughout the year than any other conductor, but for the most part, it’s a different guy (and it’s still nearly always a guy) every week.

But Grove only had one conductor at the Crystal Place, a fellow called August Manns. While the Royal Philharmonic Society made a huge ballyhoo about its latest guest conductors – “We’ve got Wagner this year!” – for nearly 50 years, the Crystal Palace got by with just the one man conducting.

And Grove Was More Famous Than Him. An unusual story appears about 15 years into Grove’s career at the Crystal Palace. He writes a letter to a friend in which he talks about the Crystal Palace conductor August Manns. Apparently, Manns was a bit upset. In Grove’s words: “Manns is in a terrible state of grief owing to various remarks in the Papers recently which seem to give me more credit than is due – or rather to give him less – in reference to the Saturday concerts”. (Young p.128). Grove then goes on to ask if his friend Bennett, who was a music critic of the time, could write some nice stuff about Manns in his next notice for the newspapers.

But let’s stop and think about this for a moment. In what symphony orchestra anywhere in the world would the manager of the organsation, much less the person who writes the program notes, be considered more important than the conductor? What’s going on here?

Now there is some indication that Manns may have been a bit second-rate. There’s a story told about the famous Wagnerian conductor Hans von Bülow who “on hearing what Manns was doing to the Coriolan Overture threw the score he was following to the ground and shouted, ‘What can you expect from a bandmaster?'” (Young p. 104) But still [when I wrote this in 2016] take a look at the typical cover of an orchestra marketing brochure and there’s a strong chance the front cover will be a photograph of the conductor. So for Grove to be seen as important to the success of the thing is almost unique in the history of classical music.

To Compete With The Crystal Palace …

But the story that almost made me fall off my chair was when I decided to research on Wikipedia where Grove fit into the eco-system of the other orchestras. As far as I could tell, in those days, the lay of the land was that you had your two Philharmonia Societies, both of them stocked up with the best musicians, the best international conductors of their day coming over from Europe and leading the charge – guys like Berlioz, Mendelssohn and Wagner. And then you’ve got Grove, with his bandmaster conductor, and his second-rate orchestra, playing concerts for – let’s be honest – 19th century cultural Philistines in a rather fancy exhibition building that’s outside the CBD.

Given that situation, you would expect therefore, that Grove and the Crystal Palace concerts would be a bit of a struggling operation. Somewhat like an amateur musical society nowadays – they might be able to put on some of the same shows with tackier sets and costumes, but if you want to see Wicked or Phantom of the Opera performed with a great cast and amazing set designs, you go to Broadway or the West End.

But then, almost casually, on the Wikipedia page for the Royal Philharmonic Society, it is mentioned that the RPS decided, in 1869 – so after the Crystal Palace had been going for nearly 15 years – to move from the 800-seat Hanover Square Rooms to St  James’ Hall, which was larger. And then “the Society remodelled its charges to obtain a wider audience and compete with the Crystal Palace and other large venues, and introduced annotated programmes”.

So larger venues, cheaper prices, and annotated programmes – to compete with the Crystal Palace.

The Most Awesome Classical Music Story I’ve Ever Heard

Maddeningly, there is no mention of this incident in Percy Young’s book. In fact, there is almost – in a rather mystifying way – not a lot of mention of the Royal Philharmonic Society and its competition with the Crystal Palace, full stop. This means that what I’m about to say is somewhat speculative, and perhaps someone can research it more fully.

But this is what it looks like to me:

Before Grove, classical music in London was, quite simply, only for a handful of elite people. If you were a musician, or you moved in those circles where you had the money to afford it and you knew a bit about European music, you might have come along to the Royal Philharmonic Society concerts. The fact that there were no annotated programmes for the first 50 years of its existence means that the RPS were pretty much assuming that you knew your music theory before you walked in the door, and thus were au fait with what went on at a classical music concert. (And probably dropped turns of phrase like “au fait“, for that matter.)

Then Grove comes along. He’s not a musician. He’s not a conductor. He’s not from that set at all. He’s from a working class background. He’s a civil engineer who, through sheer force of his personality and connections, gets the chance to be involved with the running of a concert series at the Crystal Palace. His audience consists of ordinary people who are completely unfamiliar with the music (after all, there were no recordings) or even just general concert etiquette.

And yet, within 15 years, the big high-brow organisations back in the main part of town are copying him. An engineer layperson has run rings around organisations being conducted by the most famous composers of the 19th century. That’s freaking impressive and almost unimaginable in today’s day and age. If that’s what actually happened, it is, without doubt, the most awesome story about the classical music industry I’ve ever heard.

If I understand correctly the number of concerts that the RPS performed was about a modest eight concerts a year. Whereas Grove performed every Saturday for about seven months of the year. So assume around 28 concerts a year – almost triple the performances of the RPS.

I can’t state this strongly enough, but nearly every major orchestra playing today is competing on the grounds of who can attract the best conductors and soloists to come and perform, because it is assumed (even if it’s an unspoken assumption) that this is the way to boost attendance at orchestras. But if I’ve understood the story of Grove correctly, his calibre of conductor and soloists was a lot lower than that of his competitors. And yet Grove was the one that grew the audience. What does that say about the way we’re approaching things today?

And all this was just what I could glean from looking through the one biography of Grove and having a poke around the internet. But what I couldn’t tell – and it was going to take a trip to the Royal College of Music to shed more light on it – was what actually went on at these Crystal Palace concerts? Were they just like our classical concerts, but cheaper and in a cool venue? Were Grove’s programme notes as enthusiastic in tone as his Beethoven book?

Well, my trip to the RCM did shed light on that particular subject – and totally blew my mind – but now that I’m at the 3,000 word mark, I’ll leave that for another blog post.

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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