Tuesday, March 2, 2010

On the "hatred" of modern classical music due to the brain's inability to cope...

Last week I posted a link to an article in The Telegraph (UK) entitled, "audiences hate modern classical music because their brains cannot cope."  The subheading of the article states: "Modern classical music is so widely disliked by audiences because the human brain struggles to find patterns it needs to understand the compositions as music."

Note that somewhere between the headline and the sub-heading, modern classical music has gone from being "hated" to "widely disliked." At least things are looking up!

My thoughts on the article:
  1. What is meant by "modern classical music?"  Schoenberg (who died in 1951) is cited seven times, and Webern (who died in 1945) once; no other twentieth-century or present-day composers are mentioned.  This suggests no awareness whatsoever of the "modern" classical music scene.  If this article had been written in 1930, it would make sense to cite Schoenberg and Webern as representatives of (only) one stream of modern classical music, but even then it would have been a very narrow cross-section of the composers active at that time, which also included Vaugh Williams, Rachmaninoff, Ives, Holst, Ravel, De Falla, Bartok, Prokofiev, Gershwin, Copland, Khachaturian, and Shostakovich. Equating "modern classical music" with "the music of Schoenberg and Webern" in 2010 is beyond perplexing; it is bizarre.
  2. Where is the evidence for audience "hatred" or "wide dislike" of modern classical music? None is given.

    Don't get me wrong; I am not living in some alternate universe in which people never express antipathy towards contemporary classical music. Quite the opposite, in fact! I am suggesting that the article in question takes this view as a given, without any attempt to substantiate it.  I have certainly heard people say they don't like contemporary classical music, but I have also heard the same said about medieval music, classical music in general, rap, jazz, rock & roll...  In fact, I think I have at some point heard just about every musical genre maligned, but none of this constitutes evidence for widespread hatred of these genres.

    On the other hand, each musical genre has its own and often substantial following, and contemporary classical music is no different. Consider this:

    • Compact disc recordings of Henryk Górecki's Symphony No. 3 ("Symphony of Sorrowful Songs") have, according to Wikipedia, sold more than a million copies.
    • According to an article in the New York Times (to which I posted a link in another blog last week), Nonesuch Records cultivates its own version of [an] alternative audience, and has done wonderfully, sometimes selling more than 100,000 copies of CD's by Steve Reich, Philip Glass, Astor Piazzola and the Kronos Quartet, and only slightly less of John Adams.
    • I have witnessed packed houses whooping and hollering their enthusiasm for new classical music numerous times at the Winnipeg New Music Festival.
  3. While none of these things "prove" that modern classical music is overwhelmingly popular, they are among many other indicators suggesting that some of it, at least, has a significant following. Michael Gordon, composer and co-founder of "Bang on a Can," writes: The wonderful guitarist, Mark Stewart, who is a member of the Bang on a Can All-Stars, but who also plays in Paul Simon’s band and on the film scores of Elliot Goldenthal, says “I play three kinds of music: popular, semi-popular, and unpopular.” Mark calls my music and the music of Bang on a Can “semi-popular.” [New York Times, 5 March 2007]

    "Semi-popular music;" that gives us all something to aspire to!

  4. We often speak of audiences as if they were single, monolithic entities, but they are groups of individuals that typically share some traits, but are distinct from one another in other ways. It is problematic to generalize about what audiences like or dislike; if it were simple, every television show, movie, and pop song would be a hit.

    I was a church music director for several years, and I remember once being told that "the congregation finds the music too fast" (or perhaps it was "too loud;" I don't actually remember).  How did we learn what the congregation thought, I wondered; was there an exit poll?  Of course not!  In the subsequent conversation I learned that one individual had complained about the music to one of the priests, and the priest, perhaps sharing the same concerns, had reported it to me.

    I don't mean to pick on this priest; I suspect we all have overstated a case on occasion. I have had similar conversations with radio producers, concert producers, etc., who have suggested they know what audiences like and dislike, but upon further discussion it often turns out that they are stating personal preferences, often reinforced by a few others telling them they feel the same way.

    Conducting a poll is theoretically a more objective method of finding out what people really think, but interpreting the data gathered through a poll can be a tricky business, potentially flawed by the biasses of the polling organization or individual conducting/interpreting the poll.  

    In any event, when a person states that audiences "hate modern classical music," they are not usually conveying the results of a poll; they are often expressing their own personal feelings about modern classical music, possibly based on part on what a few others have told them. This does not constitute evidence in support of their statement.
  5. The implication that modern classical music is complex, and the music of Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven isn't, shows a lack of understanding of both older and newer classical music.  There are works of deep complexity by the great composers of centuries past (e.g., late Beethoven quartets, Thomas Tallis' 40-part motet, "Spem in alium," Bach's "Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue" and "The Musical Offering," Chopin's "Prelude in A Minor"(the tonic is not clear until the last chord of the piece), etc.), and there are works of great simplicity by contemporary composers (e.g., Terry Riley's "In C," The New Simplicity movement, much of the music of Arvo Pärt, etc. ).
  6. "Mr. Ball believes that many traditional composers such as Mozart, Bach and Beethoven subconsciously followed strict musical formula to produce music that was easy on the ear by ensuring it contained patterns that could be picked out by the brain."  I am curious to know to which "strict musical formula" (sic) Mr. Ball is referring. This tantalizing statement is not explained, although perhaps it is in Mr. Ball's book.
But enough criticism on my part!  Here are some quotes from the article that make good sense to me:
  • Phillip Ball: "The brain is a pattern seeking organ, so it looks for patterns in music to make sense of what we hear."
  • David Huron (Ohio State University): "Much of what the brain does is to anticipate the future. Predicting what happens next has obvious survival value, and brains are remarkably adept at anticipating events."
  • Timothy Jones (Royal Academy of Music): "Mozart and Bach have similar levels of complexity as Schoenberg, but those complexities are in different musical domains. Their music is very information dense. I would question how much of the familiarity with the music of Mozart and Bach has to do with culturalisation rather than an innate cognitive inability to understand the music of composers like Schoenberg. Certain people can learn to appreciate it."
"Culturalization," a term from anthropology meaning "to be exposed or subjected to the influence of culture," is, I believe, a highly-relevant point. Bach and Beethoven are an acquired taste for many; not everyone loves their music the first time they hear it. Similarly, music of unfamiliar cultures or genres can be confusing or perplexing at first, but, through a process of culturalization, we can grow to appreciate and understand it better. Might not the same be said about Schoenberg's music?

The degree to which this article focusses on Schoenberg's music is both strange and troubling.  Strange, because, as mentioned above, his music is not exactly "modern," in the sense of "being of our time," any more, and troubling, because Schoenberg's music was denounced (and, I believe, banned) by the Nazis for being "degenerate" (as was jazz), and this article seems to be suggesting that it is okay, or at least understandable, to hate Schoenberg's music because its purported complexity makes it impossible for most human brains to comprehend.

I don't buy it. But you probably figured that out by now!


Anonymous said...
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Kate Bevan-Baker said...

I just remembered something I read somewhere a few years ago: Apparently Tim Hortons plays classical music outside their restaurants to stop teenagers from loitering.

It just shows the generalizations that people make about classical music and the audiences that listen to it. I wonder what people would say if they started playing contemporary music? Would anyone notice? Do people actually stop and listen to the music as they walk in and out of Tim Hortons'? Just a thought.

I also enjoyed reading the second article. I'm really glad that the NSO does a fair amount of contemporary music. There is usually one piece on each program that is modern classical, and I like that. It allows me to have more experience learning and performing new music, and it inspires me to write my own.

I think that if more young people listen to contemporary classical music when they are still young, they are more likely to be inspired and want to write their own. It should be introduced into the public school systems, and children should be listening and learning more about contemporary composers.

Kim Codner said...

I think perhaps some people form a strong opinion about something if they've only heard one representation of it. If you hear one thing you don't like, why would you check out more? That's an attitude of many people. I think in general people should experience a wide variety of something before coming to a conclusion of their feelings about it.

I think people who hear Schoenberg have perhaps first heard some of his less-than-amazing music, and not bothered to listen to it all.
Has anyone listened to his early music? It's gorgeous. Transfigured night (for sextet) is one of my favourite pieces. His experimentation with atonality brought us some brilliant music in this time period. People shouldn't focus on Schoenberg as a representative atonal artist. There are so many examples of great atonal music in the world now. It's a shame if some people don't experience them because of a stereotype they are living by.

Many popular t.v. episodes use atonal music- for example, LOST. Amazing music... and mostly atonal. I believe some of the percussion sounds are played on parts of planes. Too cool. Do people realize atonality can be this cool? I hope so!

I also find Kate's post hilarious about Tim Hortons- I've never heard of this, but it seems like for teenagers, it would work to get them to stop loitering. Hilarious, but sad, because it's almost like they are mocking finely written music.

Flutiano said...

“Modern music is not modern and is rarely music” is the first sentence on the back of a book entitled The Agony of Modern Music, which is written by a fellow whose name is, ironically, Pleasants. I own this book because I’m curious (the library was giving it away), but I have never gotten around to reading much of it. The first chapter makes claims such as “The last really modern serious composer . . . was Wagner,” and “the numerous festivals of contemporary music, the grants, fellowships and commissions to contemporary composers, be interpreted as evidence of vitality. They spring from the same social assumption of an obligation to the composer. They are evidence of decrepitude, not of vitality. If modern music had any real vitality, it would take its place normally within the framework of contemporary musical life and make its own way. It would not need special promotion to obtain grudging performance and tolerant attention.”

Mr. Pleasants' book's copyright date is 1955, and the copy I possess was printed in 1965, so it's not exactly a modern book itself. Yet, it is interesting to note that among those that he discusses are Schoenberg and Webern--the same composers used to fight 'modern classical music' in 2010.

I firmly believe that Pleasants is wrong, and Gray's article is laughable. The Music Instinct by Phillip Ball probably is, too, but I'm not going to put in the effort to find a copy and check; the quotes from it are enough for me to think I couldn't take it seriously.

My confession: I am not what you’d call a big fan of contemporary music: I don’t always enjoy listening to it, and I don’t always have an easy time playing it. Sometimes the sonorities or timbres give me a headache. However, I always try to keep an open mind to it, and sometimes I really, really like it. It can be really exciting to hear something that was newly composed. Sometimes it takes listening to it a few times to feel like it is possible to 'understand' the work, but I don't think that the brain is unable to cope any more than I think that promotion of contemporary composers is evidence of decrepitude.

What I find interesting is how ardently and loudly people are willing to discredit our modern classical music.

Sometimes I think they listen to one thing, or part of one thing, and then tune out and refuse to listen to anything else that they put in that category. Or else, they decide that they don't like that category and so then they refuse to put music into that category that they do like.

(continued in next comment . . . apparently I was 800 characters too wordy)

Flutiano said...

This brings me to another book: Lexicon of Musical Invective: Critical Assaults on Composers since Beethoven's Time by Nicolas Slonimsky. It essentially does the opposite of what promotional material does; instead of going through and finding the most rave comments from reviews, it presents the most distasteful ones. In the course of this book, all sorts of insults are thrown about: "noisy and empty pretender" gets given to Wagner (in addition to "advanced cat music"), "horrible chaos and noise" is used to describe music of Liszt, and "unspeakable cheapness" is used for Beethoven.

Yes, Beethoven. I don't think any of our fighters against modern music are thinking about Beethoven in their arguments. I think a large majority of people who like any kind of classical music are fans of Beethoven. Yet the words that are used to describe his music range from "odious meowing" to "dull" to "damnably false" . . . on February 6th, 1881 a fellow by the name of John Ruskin wrote in a letter to John Brown that "Beethoven always sounds to me like the upsetting of bags of nails, with here and there an also dropped hammer."

The biggest thing that this book makes clear is that there is a tendency to dislike unfamiliar music. Indeed, the first chapter is entitled "Non-Acceptance of the Unfamiliar." When new music is innovative, it is often very unfamiliar. Even the idea that the brain is unable to cope is not new; the music by Beethoven, Liszt, Prokofiev, Scriabin, Strauss, Stravinsky, and Tchaikovsky are all labelled by somebody as "incomprehensible." I don't think there are many people around today who would describe Beethoven's ninth symphony as "the blind painter touching the canvas at random" as was published in the Daily Atlas in Boston on Feb. 6th, 1853.

I am risking overquoting, and I think my point is fairly clear. However, I am going to quote one more short paragraph from the opening chapter: "The Phenomenon of Non-Acceptance of the Unfamiliar is revealed in every instance when custom clashes with an alien mode of living or a heterodoxal mode of thinking. The Polish language in unpronounceable to non-Slavs; words in Czech and Bulgarian, containing nothing but written consonants, are monsters to the eye."

It's easy to hate that which we don't understand. However, why should we think that modern music is incomprehensible? Maybe we just aren't used to it yet.

Flutiano said...

I'll include my citations, both to be semi-proper and to let you see the coincidence which could be taken to mean that New Yorkers in 1965 were really interested in this kind of stuff.

Pleasants, Henry. The Agony of Modern Music. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1955. Reprint, 1965.

Slonimsky, Nicolas. Lexicon of Musical Invective: Critical Assaults on Composers since Beethoven's Time. 2nd ed. New York: Coleman-Ross Company, 1965.

Robert Humber said...

I really hate when people think they can justify hating modern classical music because they don't like Schoenberg. To my knowledge, serialism isn't even really practiced by many composers anymore. Now, I'll be the first to admit that I'm not a fan of Schoenberg but like you stated... he's not even that modern anyway. There are so many subgenres of contemporary music that if you look far enough, you are bound to find something you like. I personally love very interesting and beautiful sonorities in music, so composers like Olivier Messiaen and Toru Takemitsu are there for that. On the other hand there are composers like Steve Reich, Morton Feldman and Arvo Part who offer completely different forms of musical output and even the three of them are quite different from one another. Then you must consider composers like Ryuichi Sakamoto who writes a lot of music that is very "easy to listen to" but has also done his share of experimentation. Other examples of contemporary composers that people probably don't think of as "contemporary" because the word seems to have a negative connotation: Eric Whitacre, John Williams and Joe Hisaishi. There is contemporary music out there for everyone if we just realize that Schoenberg isn't the only "modern" composer out there. HE'S NOT EVEN MODERN.

Pallas A said...

I think that compared to the other arts, classical music is held to a double standard. In the visual arts, to my VERY limited understanding, modern artists are encouraged make creations that are as free or rigid in structure as the artist pleases. That's why someone can pass off both a blank canvas and a structurally complex sculpture as art. However, classical music is expected to not be so simple that it is boring, but not too complex so our brains can still "cope" with it.

I think a major difference between coping with visual and musical arts is that in the former, one can look away, while in the latter, one is to a certain extent, forcibly immersed in it (since one cannot pause a live performance to process what was just heard). Perhaps music in general is too complex for a listener to understand. If part of The Telegraph article states that the music of Mozart and Beethoven is uncomplicated, it must be quite difficult for at least some people to truly appreciate music as an listener. This gap in information is filled with subjective filler, and leads untrue and simplistic generalizations, such as "modern music is too complex" or the age-old "classical music is boring."

On an unrelated note, I find it very amusing that the article makes a whole lot of assumptions about classical music, but is supposed to explain the scientific reasons behind the cumulative hatred of modern classical music.

Peter Cho said...

I too like the point made about culturalization. I can imagine that if I was born into an alternate universe that listened primarily to Schoenberg's music the article in the telegraph might have been entitled "audiences hate modern country music because their brains cannot cope." Of course there is no way of affirming this hypothesis but I don't think it is wildly unrealistic. My point is that different types of music need to be listened to in different ways, and listening to modern classical music (which is a too much of a catch-all term for my liking) requires a very different set of ears compared to listening to almost anything else. Some genres of music are innately "easier" to listen to, though, so perhaps is is unrealistic to think about the Telegram article from the alternate universe being titled "audiences hate modern country music because their brains cannot cope." I say this because country music is generally motivically simple and use simple harmonies (I am not trying to dis country music--I mean these as objective observations to the admittedly few country songs I have heard). In conclusion, modern classical music (again, this hideous umbrella term) is extremely different from the music that the general population listen to and is therefore unpopular (I don't know what other word to use. But the blog post covers all the pitfalls of using such a word and I agree with it all. Maybe I should have used the word semi-popular?).