Thoughts & news about the future of classical music.

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

Archives Bookstore – my favourite second-hand bookstore and the place where I was to pick up The Book That Changed My Life. (Photo Copyright Google 2016, sourced from Google Maps.)

Note: I originally wrote this blog post series about George Grove (my classical music hero) back in 2016 on an old blog. Back then I had been in the industry a few years and was thinking about a lot of big questions like: How do we make people like classical music? How do we grow audiences? But it was theoretical back then, and not yet practical. But now after 5+ years of running an orchestra Marketing team, I have tested ideas and seen how they work. The years have reinforced the lessons I have learned from George Grove, not diminished them.

Also, there is a power to story. I have found when I’ve been trying to explain ideas (particularly to musicians and artistic types) that marketing speak and audience data can make people’s eyes glaze over – but this story seems to connect. Hope you enjoy it.

I’ve lightly updated these posts from their original form. This is Part One of Five and I’ll post the rest of the story in coming weeks.

In March 2016, when I first wrote this, I was just over a month away from making my first-ever (and still first-only) trip to London. While I was going for a wedding, I decided to seize this rare opportunity to go hunting for any information that I could find about a particular person – namely, a guy named George Grove.

I’ll get back to why I was interested in George. But let me start with a question: Have you ever had a life-changing moment? Something that, perhaps, you could look back and say, “Yep, that’s one of the major turning points in my life right there.” In some cases, you might have known right at that moment that this was a big thing (like births, deaths and marriages). But sometimes life changes in major ways and you didn’t realise it was happening until much, much later.

It was this kind of change that happened to me just after the turn of the century, and it all started in the building in the photo above – Archives Bookstore in Brisbane. And precisely because I didn’t realise that this particular visit to a bookstore was going to be so momentous, I actually can’t remember the year or even the time of year. I suspect it was 2000 or 2001, but I couldn’t be entirely sure.

Archives, if you ever find yourself in Brisbane, is a big old rambling bookshop where you can find everything from old rare editions through to shelves of pre-loved sci-fi and fantasy, and piles of odd stuff everywhere.

Somewhere up the back, if you wander far enough, is the music book section. Possibly, the reason I was interested in music books was because back then I’d been reading through Phil Goulding’s Ticket to the Opera, which is a fantastic friendly guide to learning about different operas and I wanted to read more like that. Whatever the reason, that day in Archives I stumbled across a little blue paperback that looked brand new amidst the piles of otherwise well-loved books.  (Maybe it was donated by some music student who was supposed to read it but had never bothered to crack the cover? I’ll never know.)

This was the book:

The book offered to take you through the music of Beethoven’s symphonies, almost note by note and – perhaps the most friendly aspect of it – in the preface, Grove said it was written for amateurs.

Of course, when Grove was writing his book (and this was in the late 1800s), the definition of an “amateur” was a bit different. An amateur was somebody who could read music (the book is filled with many musical score examples) and understood music theory – so stuff like sonata form, major and minor keys, movements in a symphony (all of which I feel would need to be explained to amateurs today), were all assumed to be understood by his readers.

So when I first started reading it, I had to work hard consulting music dictionaries and such-like stuff to try to understand what the heck he was talking about. (And I can only thank my father and his piano lessons for teaching me how to read music, otherwise I don’t think the book would have meant anything at all.)

But I persevered, and as I read, something jaw-dropping happened.

The book solved a problem I didn’t realise I had with Beethoven symphonies.

To explain: A few years earlier, I had seen and loved the famous Gary Oldman Beethoven film, Immortal BelovedAnd I’d enthusiastically bought the soundtrack awhich I still think, to this day, is the greatest single Beethoven album anyone can own.

Then, thinking that I should expand my horizons and get into all of the Beethoven symphonies, a bit later I bought – because it was always the cheapest set of Beethoven symphonies back in the late 90s – the recordings of Herbert von Karajan conducting Berlin Phil. In fact, this exact box set here:

But I seemed to run into difficulties listening to it. All the Beethoven symphonies have four very distinct movements (except for the “Pastoral” Symphony, No. 6, which has five movements). But instead of hearing 37 distinct movements, the CDs always seemed to sound like this:

Symphony 1 – Nice Orchestral Background Music (NOBM)

Symphony 2 – More NOBM

Symphony 3 – First five minutes I heard off Immortal Beloved followed by another 40 minutes of NOBM

Symphony 4 – NOBM

Symphony 5 – Opening famous bit; another 25 minutes of NOBM

Symphony 6 – Some NOBM with that bit with the storm and the country dance – this one was a little easier because the tunes were vaguely familiar from Fantasia

Symphony 7 – NOBM – that great second movement (the Allegretto) where Beethoven’s nephew tries to shoot himself – More NOBM, albeit a bit more up-tempo

Symphony 8 – NOBM leaning towards random

Symphony 9 – What, a whole hour of NOBM before I get to the famous part with the choir? Why can’t he just skip to the good bits? (That said, there are possibly still hugely educated music fans that ask the same thing about the Choral Symphony.)

But, after reading Grove, I discovered that the Beethoven symphonies came into sharp focus, and all of a sudden I felt like I understood a) what Beethoven was trying to do and b) why the music was the way it was. So now listening to the Beethoven Symphonies became like this:

Symphony 1 – Movement I: Energetic opening with the first chord that shocked listeners; Movement II: beautiful little movement with the heartbeat on the timpani; Movement III: Beethoven’s first symphonic scherzo, so fast and furious it could never be mistaken for a traditional minuet (even if that’s what Beethoven called it); Movement IV: The joke with the slow scale at the beginning, like a nervous rodent poking its head out of a hole, clearly Beethoven’s sense of humour.

Symphony 2 – Movement I: unmistakable because of its fiery violin parts; Movement II: The slow movement with the intense climax at the end; Movement III: the scherzo where snippets of the tune get thrown between different groups of the orchestra like a football; Movement IV: The awesome one that sounds like a particularly crazy episode of Bugs Bunny or The Roadrunner.

Symphony 3  – Movement I: 15 minutes of epic grandness, with a huge sweep from the opening theme to the barricade-storming final minutes of the finale; Movement II: One of the greatest funeral marches ever written; Movement III: The scherzo with all the flash and fire of a cavalry charge; Movement IV: One of the most clever things Beethoven ever wrote, a theme and variations, with a theme at the beginning that sounds so light and fluffy, you wonder why he put it at the end of such a heroic symphony – until it spectacularly transforms into a thing of majesty and light at the end.

You get the idea.

But I found something had changed as well. Now having a knowledge of what the music was doing, combined with the enthusiasm of George Grove’s prose, all of a sudden, my enjoyment of the music – which up until then I had already thought was pretty high on the scale – increased tenfold. I now understood that previously when I had thought I was listening to classical music, I actually wasn’t. I was only hearing it. But now, for the first time, I understood what that sound world was that was inhabited by musicians and conductors and long-time fans of classical music. I understood why they went back to it time and time again.

As I pondered a bit longer, a theory began to crystallise in my mind: Perhaps people aren’t ignoring classical music because they’ve had a listen and it’s not for them. Instead, what if they don’t actually really know what it is they’re hearing. The music is like a foreign film with no subtitles or a spectator sport where you don’t know the rules and can’t follow the game. Classical music is just meaningless sounds.

So – what if you could turn the subtitles on? What if you could teach the rules of the game to the ordinary person on the street, in language they would understand? Would more people then have the epiphany that I got from reading Grove?

It took several years for this idea to emerge, but that idea so took hold of me that I left behind my career path in mathematics and statistics, which I had studied at university, and spent two years trying any which way I could to get into the classical music industry. When I eventually got in (and I’ve been in this business since is 2007), I still regard it was one of the best life decisions I ever made.

So looking back, you could definitely say it was that trip to the bookstore, and picking up that book, that changed my life.

But it wasn’t until I’d been in the business for several years that I got curious about the man who wrote the book. Who was George Grove? Clearly, he had a drive to share classical music with people as well, but where did that come from? How did he act that out?

I’ll talk about that in my next post about A Guy Named George.

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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Coffee Reading: Cross-Purposes in Music When Stravinsky Hits a Washington D.C. Nightclub

A great story just appeared in the Washington Post a couple of days ago that is the most perfect example I’ve ever seen of the importance of Purpose in our musical experiences. In my earlier post on the topic, I suggested that there can be problems when musicians have one Purpose for performing their music – and the audience have a different Purpose in being there to listen to it.

So in this (I will admit) highly amusing tale, journalist Anne Midgette describes what happened when a ‘Stravinsky Rave’ was hosted in a Washington D.C. nightclub. The idea was that Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring would be performed by a live orchestra with dancers in a nightclub. But the night, at least as far as Midgette describes it, seemed to have been rather an awkward affair. The conductor, on several occasions, told the audience off for taking photos. Or for talking during the music.

That right there is a classic mismatch of Purpose. It seems pretty clear, from the way the conductor acted, that his chief Purpose was to present the Stravinsky Rite as a serious piece of music for the audience to appreciate. And certainly it sounds like there were people there for that purpose as well.

However, by the sounds of it, there were also a bunch of people at the club who assumed that if you put something on in a club, surely, the rules are a bit more relaxed? After all, why can’t you take photos and talk during the music at a nightclub? You would for any other band, right?

In short, there was a clash between the Purpose of ‘presenting serious music’ and the Purpose of ‘let’s have a fun night at a club’. None of which was probably thought out explicitly by either the performers or the audience, but it well and truly played out on the night.

 

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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