I’m a bit ambivalent about talks like this, good as they are, that imply that there are people who like classical music and people who don’t care much for it … and that everyone who likes it is the same, or at least they all like it for the same reasons. They probably imply this only because of time constraints that prevent them from actually mentioning the complexity, but the effect is the same.
There are dozens of reason to like anything, and music is especially vulnerable to it. Here’s only a few:
1) My father or mother played it when I was little, and it reminds me of them.
2) I want to appear to be the sort of person who likes classical music.
3) My friends all like it.
4) I was raised with it.
Notably, these are also all reasons why one might not like classical music:
1) My father or mother played it when I was little, and it reminds me of them … and they aren’t pleasant memories.
2) I don’t want to appear to be the sort of person who likes classical music.
3) My friends don’t like it.
4) I wasn’t raised with it.
People listen to music for many reasons that have nothing to do with the music itself. This article about an automated DJ-like algorithm called Pandora addresses this in the following quote from Pandora founder Tim Westergren:
He likes to tell a story about a Pandora user who wrote in to complain that he started a station based on the music of Sarah McLachlan, and the service served up a Celine Dion song. “I wrote back and said, ‘Was the music just wrong?’ Because we sometimes have data errors,” he recounts. “He said, ‘Well, no, it was the right sort of thing — but it was Celine Dion.’ I said, ‘Well, was it the set, did it not flow in the set?’ He said, ‘No, it kind of worked — but it’s Celine Dion.’ We had a couple more back-and-forths, and finally his last e-mail to me was: ‘Oh, my God, I like Celine Dion.’ ”
This anecdote almost always gets a laugh. “Pandora,” he pointed out, “doesn’t understand why that’s funny.”
An earlier quote addresses it more bluntly:
… a harsh assessment by Bob Lefsetz, whose popular Lefsetz Letter critiques pretty much every aspect of the contemporary music business. “I tried and rejected it,” he wrote. “Was flummoxed when a Jackson Browne station I created delivered a Journey song. Huh? . . . Jackson is music for the mind, Journey is music for the MINDLESS!”
In other words, the human brain often finds the following sentiments indistinguishable: “I don’t like XYZ!” and “I’m not the kind of person who likes XYZ!”
Once again, let me emphasize this because I can’t say it loudly enough:
People listen to music for many reasons that have nothing to do with the music itself.
The majority of people’s reasoning for listening to music are to evince proper tribal membership. They like what they like because they think they should. They hate what they hate after they determine who else hates it.
Furthermore, the more strongly someone identifies as a “music lover,” the more they will feel this way. They have banked their identity on liking and not liking something, and their primate concern about social status will trump the reality of their own senses every time. I’d wager that the person who was willing to admit that they might like Celine Dion was a fairly Average Guy. Note that the second person, with a particular music-connoisseur reputation among others in his community, was unwilling to budge when Pandora surprised him. Admitting he liked something inappropriate would jeopardize his status. “I don’t like XYZ!” for him translated to “I can’t afford to be seen as the kind of person who likes XYZ!”
Until the flummoxed classical music industry understands this, it’s not going to get its message across. Music is rarely to never about the actual music. It’s a shame, but it’s true. The same can be said of many things; you can make a roomful of wine connoisseurs spit out a bottle of $500 French cabernet by telling them it cost $4 and came from the supermarket. You can probably get the same roomful to swoon over a bottle of drugstore wine by telling them that it does cost $500 and come from France. A group of average schlubs will just enjoy the one they like best, whichever it may be.
I don’t know if this fact can help or hurt the current classical music “delivery industry,” which is in bad shape. I do know that until they stop naively assuming that people who like it like it because of the music itself, they won’t actually come to grips with the problem. Pop and rock understand it well — they create jackets, ballcaps, purses, all sorts of things for fans to carry to identify them as fans, and that can help them connect with other fans who are wearing the logos of the same favorite bands. And it’s not just personal accessories, by any means. That was just the example I recall from my own youth.
At the very least, classical music has to acknowledge that tribalism, and facilitate it.
Moreover, it has to take the uncomfortable step of admitting that there are people within its own community who like it for reasons that have nothing to do with aesthetics. There are people within the community of classical music fans who like it simply because they want to appear like the proper sort of person who likes classical music, or for something else unrelated to the soaring beauty of the music. It’s naive to think otherwise … it’s also dangerous. Classical music has to admit this tribalism, because otherwise it can’t nurture it and create a community, which is the purpose of music and possibly art as a whole.
(By the way, this is the beauty and power of El Sistema that is so often lost on its admirers. Unlike American classical music outreach efforts, it does not seek to create individual experiences of beauty among individual enthusiasts.)
Classical music has to enable people to connect with one another so that a concert isn’t so much a room full of 3,000 people all having individual experiences, but a large group of people having a communal experience, as at a rock concert where all of the fans are there not only to listen to and enjoy the music but also just for the experience of coming together as people with a common love. Even if it is Celine Dion.
There are some issues with this given that classical music has sort of become the signature music — hard to say but true in the eyes of the world — for the introverted, socially awkward, and emotionally constipated. Yes, that’s the popular view … but it’s also made itself true in some ways. Lots of its fans don’t care for musicians who even move too much, or have facial expressions. Lang Lang practically plays like a statue compared to Eddie Van Halen, and he’s too animated to make many classical fans happy. Violin fans comment how they want to give Joshua Bell a valium and tell him to sit still. Musicians talk about not wanting to hear audience applause, or feeling put out when someone in the audience will make eye contact with them. No, not all of them … but the ones who aren’t are definitely known for how they stand out from the dominant classical-music culture around them.
Since the music has been presented as music for people who consider eye contact a violent act … it has attracted those types of people, until that type of personality is the majority in the culture. For someone who is disquieted by extroversion, the idea of facilitating a communal experience among the audience members somehow either strikes them as frightening or incomprehensible.
But that’s where it’s got to go. The music must not only connect with the audience, it must connect the audience with each other.
That is the social function of music.
How, you ask?
Honestly, I don’t know. But I do know that if it’s continually presented and defined by people who define someone standing closer than ten feet away as an invasion of personal space and unanticipated eye contact as an unwanted and distracting intrusion, it won’t happen. It’s become music for people who would rather not being in a room full of other people … and what else is a concert hall but a room full of other people? The music has become perceived as (and thus somewhat become in reality) the favored music of people who would rather hear it all by themselves.
Of course the concert halls are empty!