Thoughts & news about the future of classical music.

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Classical Music 2.0 – Part 2: The music pyramid

Classical Music 2.0 is a 10-part blog series putting forward a possible vision for the future of the classical music industry – imagining a time where we might have larger audiences, more revenue, and play a bigger role in society. (Previously: Part 1)

In my last post, I suggested that rather than thinking of classical music organisations as separate entities, rising and falling on their own steam, we should instead think of them all as being part of an ecosystem. And then I suggested that we need to think of the ecosystem as being a lot bigger than just organisations playing classical music. It’s actually something like a pyramid.

The best way to illustrate this is to consider the ecosystem of orchestral music – by which I mean, all the places where you encounter the use of an orchestra (or orchestral instruments, if you prefer – I won’t quibble!). When we consider this definition, going back to the 60s or 70s, the ecosystem would have looked something like this:

At the top in the Classical Concerts layer are orchestras and elite chamber music groups, performing concerts of new and old classical music. This would be the kind of live classical music as we think of it today: orchestras performing concerts with three works – an overture, a concerto and a symphony (and most likely no clapping between movements). And it is still this level that most people in the classical music business think of as “real” classical music. This is the high art, the pinnacle, the reason the ensemble exists.

However, there were other layers.

There were Populist Concerts (or “pops” concerts), known for their, well, populist music. Nowadays this would probably be something more like a movie music or video game concert, but back 50 years ago, it might have been a concert that featured excerpts of famous classical works, rather than full works. It was still “classical” in the sense of that’s where the repertoire came from, but giving people excerpts of longer serious pieces and/or light works (often known as “lollipops”) meant that it was generally agreed that this was classical in a sense, but a bit dumbed-down for a less sophisticated audience. (Though then as now, you would never put that sort of line in the marketing copy!)

Meanwhile, classical instruments could be heard in many other places. Consider the next layers down:

  • Classical Radio. It’s well known that thousands more listen to classical music on radio than ever attend in the concert hall, so it was clear that this was a part of the ecosystem that created a large enough critical mass of fans that some of them would shell over cash to hear the music live in a concert hall.
  • Music Theory & History in Schools. There are many debates of how necessary music education is to enjoying classical music. I personally don’t think musical education necessarily guarantees someone will like classical music or become a future ticket buyer, but there are nonetheless connections between music education and being able to get deeper enjoyment out of classical music. For instance, if you get a music education that teaches you that a concerto is a piece of music for solo instrument and orchestra, often broken into three movements, etc. – that will allow you to listen to many different pieces that have the word “Concerto” in it. Ditto for symphonies. Basic music theory provides a road map for knowing how to explore classical music, in much the same way as knowing a little bit about wines or degustation can open up a world of exploring the culinary world. (I have a lot more to say on this topic, particularly when it comes to the idea of listener familiarity with repertoire, so I’ll revisit this in future posts.)
  • Classical Music in Pop Culture. We also need to recognise that below the surface of music education, classical radio and concerts, classical music was audibly everywhere. It featured in movies (e.g. David Lean’s Brief Encounter, which is scored exclusively with Rachmaninoff’s 2nd Piano Concerto, the soundtrack to 2001: A Space Odyssey with all its Strauss music – Johann and Richard). Not to mention the thousands of hours of original orchestral music composed for almost every soundtrack from movies and TV. (Much of it as rich and lush as anything being created for the concert hall.) You almost couldn’t consider using any other types of instruments to highlight the emotion on screen. Classical music also featured in commercials and, of course – perhaps more successfully than anywhere else – it featured in cartoons. Bugs Bunny cartoons regularly riffed on the great orchestral classics and I still say one of the funniest Disney cartoons is “The Band Concert”, the first colour Mickey Mouse short where the mouse tries to conduct the William Tell Overture while being traumatised by a flute-playing Donald Duck. In short, classical music was as prevalent as, say, the music of the Beatles or Elvis Presley or Taylor Swift is today. Yes, it might seem unusual that 100-year-old music was used everywhere, but society wasn’t yet at the stage where it felt a need to ditch music that had wowed audiences for decades.
  • As if all that wasn’t enough, it’s also important to understand that the sound of orchestras or classical instruments was present everywhere. There were whole ensembles set up to playing “Easy Listening” Orchestral Music – the Mantovani Orchestra being the most famous – often covers of popular old-time pop songs – performed in slow dreamy “cascading strings” arrangements. It’s somewhat schmaltzy stuff and nowadays you mainly find it for $2 on vinyl at op shops (because there is not really a thriving vinyl market for your great-grandma’s Mantovani records!). But up until the early 80s, it was everywhere. I still remember hearing that sort of string sound being used in shopping centres as piped-in music or played on easy-listening stations as a kid.
  • Finally, there was an awful lot of Orchestral Music in Pop Songs. From the Beatles to Neil Diamond to the regular addition of strings in disco (or even what sounds like an oboe in Sonny and Cher’s “I Got You Babe”), classical instruments were everywhere.

In the next post, I’ll talk about what the music pyramid has become today, but the main point is that the bottom of the pyramid makes the top of the pyramid possible. In other words, if classical instruments and sounds are everywhere – in pop music, in pop culture, catering to easy listening audiences as well as highbrow – and most people are familiar with the basic composers, canon and musical structures, it is that ecosystem that allows the music at the top to thrive. It becomes a numbers game which benefits elite music-making.

But, sadly, over the years, the pyramid has started to crumble. More on that in the next part.

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 Pexels.com

 

 

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.

Why?

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.
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