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.

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.

 

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