Monday, February 22, 2010

"Audiences Hate Modern Classical Music Because Their Brains Cannot Cope"

According to an article in The Telegraph (UK), "audiences hate modern classical music because their brains cannot cope."

It's a provocative headline and an interesting point of view. Have a look at the article, and, if you feel so moved, please share your thoughts about it in the "comments" area below.   I will post a blog with my views next week.
  • Do you agree or disagree with points of view expressed in the article? 
  • Do audiences "hate" modern classical music? 
  • Who exactly are these "audiences" to which the article refers?   
  • Is it generally true that modern classical music is complex (and is therefore hard or even impossible to process for the brain)? 
  • If it is true that the brain cannot process highly-complex music, does that mean that we should aim to keep things simple when composing?

11 comments:

Joshua White said...

I think this article makes some good points, however to me, some of it seems like a given. If we hear a tonal tune, it is much easier for us to be able to sing it back or to get stuck in our heads.
Tonal Music has also been derived from what sounds pleasing to the ear. Through centuries it has been developed into a paticular formula, really being solidifed in the baroque period. It's arranged consonance. The entire basis of tonality is the preference of what sounds pleasing.

However when schoenberg began to use atonality, Im not 100% sure one this, but i would need some convincing that he thought it was pleasing to the ear. there are very few moments in schoenberg's music where there are consonnances. He pretty much went entirley against the history of what made musis, music.

I do not beleive that modern music is more complex than the older classical music, I think it's just being organized in different ways. I find that for the most part there is an apparent intention of how accessable the composer wanted their music to be. Classical music for a while became more for academics than actual audiences, leading the complexities without any real purpose in my opinion...

but i do think that people would be able to appreciate highly complex music, given the right amount of consideration of what the audience will find accessible.

Kate Bevan-Baker said...

I really enjoyed this article!

I can understand how the brain is a "pattern seeking organ" and therefore it is challenging for some people to listen to classical, and especially modern classical music as it is less predictable and often quite "out there".

Though many people appreciate modern classical music, I know that many people would not put it as their first choice of a type of music to listen to. Since classical music is heard most commonly in concerts or by listening to cds, young people don't listen to it as often as other styles of music. It's so much easier to just turn on the radio and half-pay attention to what is being played.

I think that if people were more exposed to classical and modern classical music, there would be a much greater appreciation for it. Yes, it is more complicated, but that's the point. It's nice to listen to "challenging music" every now and then to give our brains a work out!

Steve said...

this article makes some interesting points, but as Dr. Ross states in his next blog entry, they are poorly backed up. I have some of my own thoughts on why there seems to be at least some level of "dislike" towards modern classical music, and also of why I am able to enjoy it, personally.

Though I wouldn't be as bold to say it is generally hated by most audiences, I have witnessed many people state their dislike towards modern classical music, both musicians and non-musicians alike. In many cases it is probably for reasons stated in this article (the pattern-seeking nature of our brain, etc.)

Firstly, I consider much of classical music and especially contemporary music to be "musician's" music, that is, someone who is educated in the field will find more to appreciate in it. As Josh said, though it's not necesasarily less complex, the more prevalent use of consonances and "pleasant" harmony in older classical music is enough for some non-musicians to enjoy listening to it. This may be part of the reason many non-musicians find newer music hard to listen to.

As a musician, new/atonal/whatever music provides me with a unique listening experience that I enjoy and can't really get from listening to any other type of music. I am more or less incapable of "passively" listening to most types of music.. if music is on, I am usually paying close attention to it, trying to understand it, trying to feel how it grows and develops, and probably naturally seeking patterns with my brain. (I'm not one of these people that can fall asleep listening to music, no matter how tired I am).

I find the often excessively dissonant, unpredictable nature of newer music gives me so little to latch onto (probably the exact problem for a lot of people) that I can just let go and let the music wash over me. it then becomes more about atmosphere, mood, texture and less about structure or development or rhythm or whatever it is about other music that I enjoy when listening to it actively.

So yeah.. if that makes any sense. Basically even when I am listening to music and enjoying it, I am still inevitably analyzing or trying to comprehend as much as possible due to being a trained musician. A lot of modern music is so complex with so few patterns, my brain doesn't even bother trying to understand.. I am able to let go and JUST listen. It's just a different type of listening experience for me.

A. Rideout said...

I have to agree with Steve when he says that contemporary music is "musicians" music and I feel as if I am an example of this. Before entering into music school I really had no time for contemporary music, I didn't really enjoy listening to it and I didn't wish to listen to it. I am sure that it has to do with the fact that my ears were not use to this type of music and that I had not yet dived into this new music. I also have to agree with the point that our ears are used to picking up patterns in music and feeling comfortable in these patterns. I think when people listen to contemporary music they don't feel comfortable because there are no patterns to latch on too. Obviously the more one listens to contemporary music one becomes more comfortable with it because you learn what to listen for. This is why at first I did not like contemporary music because I never gave it a chance and I had never listened to it. After studying it however I really enjoy listening to new music, I know what to listen for and how to listen to it. I am not listening for patterns but I am listening for what makes this pieces new and fresh, because as composers I think that is what we all strive for.

Aiden Hartery said...

Being music students, who eat, sleep and live so many different flavors of music, we become almost immune to what "normal" peoples ears perceive classical music as.
I really enjoyed this article, and I share many of the opinions of some of the comments. If you were to stop one hundred people and ask them who their favorite classical composer(s) were, I'd say over 75% would say Bach, Mozart, or Beethoven, or any of the big names of the 18th and 19th centuries. Basically the composers who used tonality. It's safe to say a random person you stop in Sears is going to say their favorite composer is Schoenberg (Although I'd be very impressed if they did). It's a hard call to say why so many people have such a distaste for modern classical music.

Reading the article did raise a few good points. We do have expectations and we do follow the music, and with modern music, it usually never meets or follows how we think it will. So constant disappointment could lead to frustrations of that type of music.

Sure, music from the old days have a strict formula, and guidelines, and people for the most part are like sheep, in that they need to be told what to do (or in this case listen to).
Maybe it's because "classical" music was advanced and had evolved over a couple hundred years. Beethoven too was a revolutionary, throwing those pesky trombones in the last movement of the ninth symphony. No one had done that before, and I'm sure the audience/listeners minds were collectively blown. Classical music that is easy to follow wasn't always easy to follow for its audiences. It's just been in our culture for much longer. "Modern" music has only really been around for the past 100 years, and maybe that isn't enough time for the public's minds to get around yet.

Modern music has just as many structural necessities as classical music, it is just more cleverly placed. A trained ear can learn to appreciate modern music just as much, if not more, as classical music. It's just the stigma of atonal music that people need to accept and break forth into.

David said...

This is a really interesting article that raises some very valid points. I think it harkens pretty loudly to the blog about certainty vs. uncertainty. I think that it's true that the general public who are not regularly exposed to modern classical music like we are certainly look for things that they can recognize, both consciously and unconsciously. I agree with you, Josh, that modern classical music is not necessarily more complicated than traditional classical music but, rather, is just organized differently. If you listen to some of Bach's fugues, they are far more complex in terms of texture and independence of line than say, a piece by Webern. I think the confusion is not in the complexity, but in the organization. Modern listeners are simply not used to hearing music organized in these new ways. Whether or not they will, over time, begin to understand it better is up for debate. I think that the important thing, for me, is to remember that we aren't always writing music for just other music professionals but also for people who may not have any musical training at all. After all, what's the point in speaking if nobody (or just a select few) can understand what you're saying? I'm not saying that music always has to be predictable and to the taste of the general public but rather that I perfer to write from the starting point of what I think can be understood and felt by others and seeing how far I can push their boundaries along with my own.

Brad said...

The article definitely makes sense. I know what it's like to listen to a piece and just not get it. I think that's what most audiences (in this case the general public) are feeling. They just don't get it. They're used to hearing a certain thing as music, as classical music, and when those concepts are flipped around or discarded a lot of people definitely are turned off by what they hear. Like another student said already, some of the music in question was never about being aesthetically pleasing or nice to listen to.

It's definitely true to some extent that some modern music is quite complex. Drastic 'abnormalities' in rhythm, harmony (or lack thereof) and the like make for some pieces to be quite difficult to play (and difficult, in some cases, to listen to). And no one listens to a piece and is thinking "oh, what an interesting use of the set (015)!" It's just impossible to hear that.

This by no means implies that we should keep things simple or dumb things down. There is definitely room for accessible progressive ideas within composition.

Siobhan said...

That is a very interesting article - thanks for sharing it.

I don't believe that modern audiences hate contemporary art music, but the audience size has likely shrunk. it seems that the bulk of the audience has grown to be fellow musicians and less laypeople.

This year, an adjudicator in a local music festival declared my chosen piece to be 'too academic'. I had played a Sonata by Hindemith. This contrasted quite starkly with my colleague's selections which followed traditional harmonies and structures. I had never thought Hindemith was difficult to listen to - in fact, upon my first exposure to Hindemith, I was immediately captivated and won-over by his interesting melodies and moods.

Many modern art works are also thought to be 'too academic'. Perhaps it requires a certain amount of exposure to new music to appreciate this genre, but something I am attracted to in music is surprise and uniqueness. I find that a lack of clear patterns keeps me enthralled in the music; perhaps it is of no coincidence that it is only atonal music that gets stuck on repeat in my head.

Andre McEvenue said...

This article is very provocative. My opinion is that people who are unfamiliar with classical music in general might find certain compositions difficult to interpret or enjoy, but I feel there a great many accessible works that can be enjoyed by a broad range of people.

If someone who has never become familiar with classical music were to listen to a Beethoven symphony, and then a piece by Ian Xenakis, I have no doubt they would more easily recognize the Beethoven piece as music. However, I don't think this means that they understand the Beethoven symphony any better than the Xenakis piece.

The fundamental issue in my view, is that classical music of almost any era requires more attention and focus to listen to than something with a backbeat 4 on the floor groove, and familiar chord progression. And in order to develop a true appreciation for classical music, you must spend a certain amount of time trying to interpret it. I think that most modern audiences have simply not had enough exposure, and have not invested enough time in trying to enjoy it.

People are not "too dumb" to understand modern music. I think because of how unfamiliar it sounds, most people are discouraged quickly from even trying to interpret it because they feel alienated. They automatically assume that they are missing everything because they do not understand musical theory at an advanced level. People, however, do not make the same assumptions about Beethoven or Mozart's music because it sounds more familiar to them.

Colin Bonner said...

Interesting article, but to me it seems a bit shallow. Sure, the brain identifies patterns really well and that's really cool. Maybe out of little faith for own mental capacity I believe that there is a shockingly finite amount of patterns I'd be able to recognize. The ones which I do are those I'm familiar with or at least have been frequently exposed to.
Sure, I'm able to recognize and isolate lines when listening to something like a 4 part chorale, but I've also heard uber dense and fast polyphony played by African pitched-drum ensemble where, although they could hear the individual lines, I could not. I'm led to believe that our brain can recognize the patterns that the context of the music and how we decide to listen to it. If you tell rock-and-roll Joe to listen to some "modern classical" music, he'll likely still be struck with the image of his grandfather's Beethoven bust and to show him Berg or Webern might throw him into a crisis.

Colin Bonner said...

Interesting article, but to me it seems a bit shallow. Sure, the brain identifies patterns really well and that's really cool. Maybe out of little faith for own mental capacity I believe that there is a shockingly finite amount of patterns I'd be able to recognize. The ones which I do are those I'm familiar with or at least have been frequently exposed to.
Sure, I'm able to recognize and isolate lines when listening to something like a 4 part chorale, but I've also heard uber dense and fast polyphony played by African pitched-drum ensemble where, although they could hear the individual lines, I could not. I'm led to believe that our brain can recognize the patterns that the context of the music and how we decide to listen to it. If you tell rock-and-roll Joe to listen to some "modern classical" music, he'll likely still be struck with the image of his grandfather's Beethoven bust and to show him Berg or Webern might throw him into a crisis.