There are a lot of issues that classical music has to deal with if it ever wants to become popular again (yes, it once was really popular – even with young people!). It has a terrible image problem, for instance. Most people figure it’s only for old people, rich people or as background music for expensive restaurants. There’s also an awful lot of other music out there for it to compete against. So I don’t doubt it has its fair share of problems.

But by the same token, it’s obvious that the classical music world is not being as welcoming as it could be. After all, Shakespeare is much older than most classical music, and nobody thinks we should throw that out. People still like reading Charles Dickens and, as this blog shows, Leo Tolstoy. And it’s not an intelligence thing. People of all ages love going to arthouse movies, foreign films, and Tom Stoppard plays.

So why is classical music dying out?

As I said – it’s a multifaceted question. And many people are making great steps towards addressing the question, probably none more so than Greg Sandow, who has an excellent blog on the future of classical music. Even if you have no interest in classical music, but you just like music, his site is well worth a look, especially his book-in-progress that he’s writing on the future of classical music.

I don’t pretend to have any comprehensive answers on the different topics, but I’ve been giving some thought to one particular facet of the problem – how to explain classical music. Actually, that’s a bit of an understatement. It’s been the main dilemma floating around in my head for something like the last five years.

The reason I’ve gotten so interested in this one is twofold:

  1. As someone who never learned much music theory, I’ve been struggling to understand classical music for years. I’m getting there, but it’s actually surprisingly difficult to learn about classical music without going off and getting a music degree.
  2. I’ve also seen classical music companies that will go all out – setting off fireworks in concerts, projecting pictures on the walls, getting their musicians to wear casual clothes, etc – anything, literally anything, to make their concerts seem more relevant.

I have a very simple question – never mind the fireworks and pictures – why don’t we start explaining classical music to people? Maybe – just maybe – the reason they don’t like it, is because they don’t understand it. Certainly, I’d have been going to a lot more concerts at an earlier age, if somebody had taken the time to explain the music to me.

Up until recently, I  never had my thoughts on this in any sort of cohesive order, but in the last couple of weeks, I’ve finally been able to put my thoughts down properly. Here they are. It should be stated up front, that there’s not a large body of research to back up what I’m saying, so everything’s still in the hypothetical stage at this point in time – but I’d be very curious to see what happens if this area was investigated further by classical music companies in the future.

My Main Hypothesis: To the untrained listener, most classical music sounds random (ie they can’t tell where it’s going or how long it’s going to last) and similar (they can’t distinguish one work from another).

I thought I’d cleverly thought this hypothesis up by myself, but I was just looking around the Oxford Companion to Music recently and no – they’ve known it for ages – you can read all about it under the entry about Music Appreciation.

Anyway, that hypothesis, for me, explains why, when you simply just expose a newcomer to classical music – instead of being bowled over by the experience and eagerly wanting more – they find it all rather long and boring and exactly like all other classical music they’ve heard. Even if they like the music, they may only do so for simple reasons such as certain melodies and an overall mood. And I believe that type of shallow listening leads to the “chocolate box music”  which gets cranked out on a regular basis in upmarket shopping centres , and why there’s only 100 or so pieces being recombined in various ways in classical compilation albums around the world.

There are educational resources provided at most classical concerts – a set of annotations or progamme notes and often a pre-concert talk – but it’s quite unclear who these are aimed at, and there is a wild variance in style, depending on who writes them. Some writers will tell you all the scandals going on in the composer’s life. Others will give you a rather lengthy technical analysis. The only thing that you can guarantee in 99% of the cases is that they will assume you have six grades of music theory under your belt, and will consistently use terms that the average person on the street does not understand.

Thus, to address the problem in the hypothesis, I propose that all educational activities (or “contextualisation” as we like to call it in the industry) should be directed towards the following goal:

Main Aim of Educational Activities (including programme notes and pre-concert talks): To provide a guided listening experience for the musical newcomer that a) removes the randomness of the music (by explaining the overall structure and direction of the work) and b) points out the particularities of that composition (so they are able to distinguish it from other works).

Again, I thought this was a novel new idea that I’d arrived at, but it was in the Oxford Companion under Annotations. That’s apparently why they invented programme notes in the first place – because the ordinary man on the street didn’t understand what he was listening to.

If that was the overarching goal, how to run and evaluate contextualisation activities would become quite clear. However, over the decades, I believe presenters have lost touch with that purpose. As I said, it varies greatly from writer to writer exactly what they’re going to focus on. In addition, audiences don’t come equipped with the same musical knowledge that they used to have. So classical music presenters in the 21st century are left with three main problems to overcome.

Problem 1 – High Entry Point: Because newcomers don’t have the musical training that they used to, many of the terms and concepts that the classical music world takes for granted – terms that are, in fact, essential for understanding the music – aren’t known by new people. So thus we assume that people know about sonata form, Italian tempo markings, etc. when quite clearly, there are less and less people who do understand it.

Problem 2 – Missing Audio Hooks: Even where descriptions of classical music works are provided to listeners, one of the biggest problems is that it’s really easy to get “lost” in the middle of a work. Nothing is worse than listening to a 15-20 minute movement and have no idea what’s going on or what’s coming up. I think programme notes used to provide complete walk-throughs of music that helped people follow things, but increasingly notes either provide only a cursory overview of the piece or mention specific highlights and assume that the audience will know when they’re up to the second theme or the recapitulation. The way this used to be dealt with (looking at some of the classic old books that explain music, such as George Grove’s Beethoven and His Nine Symphonies or Joseph de Marliave’s Beethoven’s Quartets, for example) was a) to write quite a lengthy description that provided a wall-to-wall description with no gaps and b) to quote examples in musical notation so that audiences (most of whom could read music) could listen out for the bits and know where they were in the music. Obviously, this is not still an appropriate way to deal with the problem, because it’s not realistic to assume that new audiences are going to be able to read music. However, it does show the importance of providing audio hooks for listeners to follow through the music.

Problem 3 – Emotion vs Analysis: If you go back to the old books, like the Grove and the de Marliave I just mentioned, you’ll notice they weren’t afraid to express their emotions about music. If they found something beautiful or stirring, they said so. While this may provide a subjective approach to the music, I believe it encourages active listening, because you want to hear what these guys hear. If they say something is beautiful, you listen more closely to see if it is. If they say that a passage is terrifying, you listen out for it. However, most writers on music in the last 50 years or so have retreated to a very academic position, and it’s quite difficult to work out from many musical writers if they actually enjoy the music they’re writing about. Who wants to hear from someone who doesn’t like something? (Unless it’s a reviewer . . .)

Even die-hard classical music fans don’t think this way. Just hear the crowd talking on the way out from a concert or read user comments on CDs on Amazon, and listeners are regularly reporting their subjective emotional reactions to the music. So why aren’t the music explainers?

So, the upshot of that is, my thoughts on how to present music to a) provide a guided listening experience and b) to overcome the three problems above, are as follows:

1. Provide an introduction before the work begins, that covers off any terminology or concepts the listeners need to know before they begin. This covers off Problem 1. While this could be done in a pre-concert talk, I’m not sure that most new listeners would show up for this kind of thing. After all, is it essential to show up for a talk 45 minutes before you see Beyonce, Justin Timberlake or U2 perform? (There might be a market for it with, say, Bob Dylan, but that’s a different discussion . . .)

I think ultimately, the necessary pre-requisite knowledge needs to be explained by someone on stage before the work begins in front of the entire audience (not just the 10% who came to your talk).

2. This is a more radical idea: Provide a written running commentary throughout the work while it’s playing. If you’ve got a very clever writer, you could do it in the programme, but it would still be sensible to have some visuals to indicate where you’re up to. The best idea I ever heard of for this was the Concert Companion which they were trialling in the US, but it sounds as if it got too expensive and died out. I would simply set up a surtitle machine like they do for the opera and have comments run on that. That would ensure that listeners hear the moments they’re supposed to hear without getting lost, thus dealing with Problem 2.

3. Finally, with both 1. and 2., they should be in language that is human and interesting, not cold and analytical.

Anyway, while this is all hypothetical, I find it all really exciting and it makes me quite optimistic because:

  • All of this is largely untested. I could count on the fingers of one hand the number of classical music explanations (either in programmes or CD liner notes) that explain all the terminology you need to know, so point 1 is almost completely untested and is almost the most crucial. So who knows what could happen if the classical music world decided to start speaking in English?
  • The idea of a running commentary also has very rarely been tried with instrumental music. The Concert Companion is the best example of that, and by all accounts, it was very popular with new audiences. However, if we look to the field of opera, the invention of surtitles, allowing audiences to follow the opera moment by moment, has worked wonders for opera’s popularity. Who’s to say it couldn’t do great things for instrumental classical music?
  • Whenever I see musicians speaking from stage and using ordinary language about their music – while it doesn’t always deal with Problem 1 and rarely with Problem 2, the connection that is formed between performer and audience, as they explain why they like a work and what’s going on, nearly always makes the audiences listen better.

So, really, while the present state of classical music is all doom and gloom, there are vast uncharted areas of how to present and explain classical music that are open to the performing arts organisations, recording companies and performers. Maybe this current recession will be the catalyst we need to change direction?


4 thoughts on “New Idea for Classical Music: We Could Try Talking in English

  1. Can’t really respond adequately to your post in anything like the reasonable space that can be occupied by a comment.

    But perhaps I can respond to this: “There are educational resources provided at most classical concerts – a set of annotations or programme notes and often a pre-concert talk – but it’s quite unclear who these are aimed at…”

    I think you perhaps do know who they’re aimed at, which is everyone who is attending the performance. Nothing less.

    And therein lies the challenge of a good talk or a good program note. Writers and speakers must always assume that there are people in the audience who know more than they do (because there are) as well as understanding that there will be those in the audience who know much less.

    It’s one of those Sisyphean challenges, which is perhaps what keeps the whole business interesting. (For the most part speakers have an easier time, since they can drawn on audio examples to make points.) But it’s also a factor/complication that you will need to accommodate as you pursue this line of thinking. Short of streaming concerts into “beginners”, “intermediate” and “advanced” as if they were some foreign language course, everything in a concert presentation and its trappings must be carefully judged to reach across the range musical experience and knowledge. This isn’t a new idea either, and the best composers know it too (e.g. Mozart’s striving to appeal equally to “Kenner und Liebhaber” – connoisseurs and music-lovers).

    Concert presenters aren’t uniformly successful or even consistent about providing something of value to each person in the spectrum. But that’s the fundamental goal, and thinking about it will help explain the shifts/experiments in format and style that have occurred with the diversification of concert audiences in the past 20 years or so. I think you maybe underestimate and over-generalise (esp. under “Problem 3”) regarding the range and humanity of writing about music available today.

  2. This is such an interesting (and important!) issue, Matt. I agree very much with a lot of what you say here – and I think you’re own ventures into some of this ongoing commentary have been really excellent. The difficulty, though, is getting people to the point where they even listen to it at all. Once you have them in the audience, or clicking on the “play” button on your commentary, you are already, I think, halfway there. To me, the problem also has some other elements to it – the perception, despite all the attempts to convince people to the contrary, that classical music belongs to an elite, stuffy class (not just because it’s difficult to understand, but also because you have to wear a suit to listen to it – or so people think); and, as I think I’ve mentioned before when we’ve discussed the issue, the way people listen to music – classical music is, in the main, something you have to sit down and pay attention to, not something you have in the background while you’re doing other things. Both of those issues are, I think, major hurdles for young people today in terms of making their way to the classical music scene at all. If we can find a way of overcoming those hurdles then we will, I think, only need to apply your approach – your way of giving the music some accessible meaning – and we’ll be there.

  3. @Ian: Some perceptions about classical music are correct, however, and shouldn’t be downplayed or denied. You don’t necessarily have to sit down to listen to classical music, but you do need to pay attention to it when you listen (or perhaps I should say allow yourself to be submerged in it), in part because of what Matt mentions: the sheer duration and complexity of most of the pieces.

    What’s probably truer is that classical music is already currently perceived by many non-concertgoers as nice background music (a la ABC Classic FM and it’s Music-for-Ironing style campaigns). They may love using classical music in a functional way as aural wallpaper (and I don’t mean that pejoratively here), but that’s precisely why they don’t want to come to concerts.

    Incidentally, every so often on Greg Sandow’s blog someone will report comments from pop performers who envy classical performers in that they get to perform in acoustically satisfying venues to audiences who are there to listen and pay attention to them. That’s a performer perspective, of course, not an audience one.

    The dressing up part is complicated. My observations suggest that it’s the regular concert-goers, of any age, who are most in favour of relaxed or casual dress (and adopt it), and it’s the newer or irregular concert-goers who enjoy the event in part because it gives them a chance to dress up for a special night out, which they do. (This won’t necessarily involve wearing a suit, of course.) And to that end, I wonder whether classical concerts aren’t more off-putting to 20-something novices because they seem so dowdy, than because they seem too dressy.

    But as we know, no one *really* cares what anyone wears at concerts. There are just all these theories circulating that clothing is a huge problem for classical music. Whereas unexciting performances and stodgy programming are a much bigger problem.

  4. These are all such interesting points, that I think I shall have to write a separate post soon to deal with them, rather than attempt comments. (Also, I need some time as well.)

    Not to mention, I’ll be in big trouble if I get sidetracked from War and Peace again . . .

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