The Underrated Predictability of Audiences

As a music critic, I’ve sat in the middle of hundreds of audiences, and I’ve observed them closely. I’ve seen them all gasp in unison at a right turn in a daring improv; I’ve seen them break into laughter at a clever one-chord quotation in a Rzewski piece; I’ve seen them fooled by an energetic performance into approving mediocre music; I’ve seen them let their minds wander during a performance and then clap loudly because it was something they were supposed to like. In short, I’ve generally seen audience members get swept into a collective dynamic, especially if a piece or performance is extreme in one way or another – extraordinarily boring, virtuosic, touching, and so on. I’ve also talked to people at intermissions and found that, despite a tremendous variety of opinions, it’s usually pretty easy to reach agreement on the details. It’s one’s evaluation of the details that makes for differences of opinion.

And so, from my own observations, I’ve always thought that that omnipresent composer mantra – “I never think about the audience when I write, because there is no such thing as the audience; everyone listens differently” – was hugely exaggerated. Within reasonable social-group similarities, people don’t listen that differently. Everyone drives differently, too, but it’s funny that when I press on my brake, the guy behind me nearly always does too.

So I think about the audience when I compose. Constantly. Of course I don’t simply try to write what will please them. I have my own kind of musical content I want to get across, and always have: overlapping rhythmic schemes, intricately interlocked harmonies, smooth forms whose seams (if any) are carefully brushed over. That stuff is me, and if I couldn’t put that into music, I’d quit composing. But when I was younger I often noticed that I’d stuff a piece with everything I wanted to say, and the audience wouldn’t get it. They’d just be mystified. I realized that my message wasn’t coming across. I went through a lot of self-criticism, and learned to give the audience what I call “points of entry” so they’d recognize something right away. If I wanted to get them to perceive a 13-against-29 tempo clash (in my piece Texarkana), I’d couch it in stride piano technique, so they’d have something familiar to start with. To seduce them into a tonal flux of microtonal harmonies in Custer and Sitting Bull, I added a military snare drum beat. I don’t call that compromising – I just call it learning how to get your message across, giving the listener something to hold onto, something that interests them, acknowledging their part of the transaction. It’s not up to me whether audiences like my music or not, but if they listen to a piece of mine and have no idea what I was trying to do, I consider that my failure. Frankly, I feel composers should forget about Schoenberg (who railed against people who please the audience) and start taking lessons from Spielberg.

Out of a purported 40,000 composers in America, I thought 39,999 disagreed with me, but it now turns out the number is only 39,997. As revealed in the comments on my previous post, Jeff Harrington and Samuel Vriezen also believe in composing with the audience in mind. That makes three of us.

UPDATE: Actually, let me add one more thought. Beethoven gave us what I consider an admirable model: he wrote the Grosse Fuge, which almost no one understood, and also the Ninth Symphony, which no one can fail to understand. And I’ve never figured out why today’s composers seem to think that they need to choose one point along this continuum and compose only from that point. Why not write one piece with a typical symphony audience in mind, and the next as a puzzle just for yourself and friends? As I once asked in a Village Voice column, “Isn’t Craft a god who must be propitiated, and won’t an occasional offering do the job?”


  1. says

    In addition to the audience, I’m surprised no one is including the performer(s). I think some of the same people who don’t consider the audience do consider the performer in the equation, perhaps writing specifically for a certain musician or else writing music that is more stylistically natural for an instrument.
    But in the end, while I appreciate the distinction made between having an audience like what one writes vs. understanding what one writes, I still believe that if a composer writes honestly, the audience (or at least some of them) will “get it” and understand what he or she was after.

  2. says

    I’m a poet as well as a composer; and in the world of poetry if a poet writes a poem that doesn’t make sense to anyone besides him/herself, it is considered a failure on the poet’s part. We all write poems, or music, occassionally that is solely for our own entertainment, but it’s foolish to blame anyone else for not enjoying it. In order to communicate to others, you have to at least give the reader/listener a fighting chance. Otherwise, why even waste your time creating?

    It never made sense to me why poets understand this, but many composers do not.

  3. says

    Count me in the group of people who considers the audience. I would go further, though, and suggest that _everybody_ considers “the audience” but the composers who claim not to are really just writing for a different audience than the one offered to them. “My collegues” is an audience, “posterity” is an audience, “specialists” is an audience, and even “people who like this sort of thing” is an audience.
    Those are all perfectly valid audiences to write for — the problem comes when the composer is writing for one audience and then demanding that a different audience listen to, appreciate, and/or subsidize the music.

  4. says

    Kyle – I’m sorry but I’m not american, nor in america! So your count is at 39998.
    Though I would have to acknowledge how it was my working on Tom Johnson’s music that greatly catalysed my interest in accessibility. His didactic pieces strike me as an interesting way of making accessibility as such an extreme experience, with a special place among them for the ones in which a narrator is explaining the piece as it is being played. So perhaps Tom could be your third composer, if he’s still an American (I know he’s in Paris).
    Accessibility is a very complex phenomenon still, though. What is perfectly transparent for one will be very difficult for somebody else. I think again Xenakis offers an interesting example: I came to this composer in about 1990 with hardly any knowledge of classical music and it was immediate, like a switch turned on suddenly. I still find it a little strange that not everybody reacts that way. What could be clearer than Jonchaies?

  5. Michael Wittmann says

    Just to expand the topic of “audience” a little bit, I want to poitn out that I am a radio DJ who tries to play (all of) your pieces, when possible. It’s not just the live audience that matters, but the one that listens to recordings over the radio (if you’re doing a show like mine, college radio, loyal listeners, not so small in our market, etc.) or at home. When listening at home, you can be challenging. When playing radio, you have to keep listeners. I sort of need listenable but interesting music, I can only play so much difficult music. So, my question: which audience are you referring to? I think what works in the hall will work on the air, but I have to make the pieces flow, one into the next, and have to keep your ear in tune with the fickle listener who can scan to new channels with a single click.

    This brings up a second point. You can’t play long pieces with the requirements of my station’s PSA’s, announcements, news, etc. Pop radio has long “composed” to the length of a 74, 45, or whatever. On the other hand, Eno “composed” his ambient pieces longer and longer as recording technology caught up to him. The earlier post on composing for length was important to read about. I love the long pieces (playing all of Ashley’s Celestial Excursions recently), but usually they don’t work. Composing to the format of performance, not just the audience, is worth paying attention to, as well.

  6. Tom Hamilton says

    Brendan asks: “In order to communicate to others, you have to at least give the reader/listener a fighting chance. Otherwise, why even waste your time creating?”

    I waste my time creating in order to make artifacts that I imagine to be unique in some way. If I’d start to think about “communicating,” you would have me include elements that I’d believe to have in common with the listener. Like…music that already exists.

    By the time I get done with a piece, I’ve made countless decisions – consciously, intuitively, and accidentally. That’s it; that’s the music! What more am I supposed to “communicate?”

  7. says

    This issue seems like another piece of dead weight from Romanticism: you write whatever you want, the burden of figuring it out is placed on the audience. Music has trouble being successful when its creators ignore the social context it’s ultimately realized in.

    I always thought Beethoven was thinking of the audience in the beginning of the Grosse Fuge. By putting in all those unison statements of the main theme, he’s setting you up for the rest of the piece. The piece is definitely meant for specialists, but he starts you off with a little bit of a lifeline.

  8. David Preiser says

    Wouldn’t that be sort of analogous to, say, Haydn incorporating a Moravian folk song into a symphony, or Vaughan Williams using English folk tunes? The audience would have been expected to recognize the tunes, thus bringing the familiar to the unfamiliar. Certainly, history is full of composers who did this sort of thing.
    However, doesn’t that only work when you know your audience in advance? And when you’ve written your piece incorporating stride piano, what happens when it’s heard by an audience that has no culture reference for it?

    KG replies: Does anyone out there compose without having a fairly good idea who your audience is going to be? I hope I live long enough to see my music heard by some group curious enough to attend an avant-garde American concert, but far enough removed from Western culture never to have heard stride piano. That would be a really weird experience. You really think I should plan for such a contingency?

  9. David Preiser says

    Well, in another article, you do admit to a certain amount of optimism when counseling students to relax about letting their influences show through, conceiving of the eventuality that they (the students) might become better known than the composers who influenced them. I agree completely, and I don’t see any reason not to hold onto a similar optimism regarding a slightly different kind of audience situation. Why assume that your work will never be heard outside certain circles (unless, of course, it’s some specialty item or event-specific commission)?

    Having said that, I am in complete agreement with, if I understand it correctly, the basic philosophy behind your suggestion – giving the audience something to grab onto so they can get into a piece of music. Maybe it’s just that, with a couple exceptions, I basically have no idea what my audience will be like (and I’m speaking only of a first performance). Even if it’s an American audience, depending on the circumstances, there’s no way to make any assumptions about their familiarity with what most of us would think, “Everybody recognizes that on some distant level.” And I’m speaking of even the most basic stuff. I mean, I’m sure we’ve all had experiences where five different people tell us they heard five different styles or composer influences in one piece, even if you have no idea what they’re talking about. And another five people don’t get it at all. So I’m kind of nervous about using a given technique or gesture with the expectation that it will be a key to bringing the audience in. Perhaps that’s just my own lack of experience.

  10. says

    Kyle asks (I’m guessing rhetorically): “Does anyone out there compose without having a fairly good idea who your audience is going to be?” My own answer to that is yes, I indeed have a fairly good idea, and I truly wish I didn’t! Many of us are very interested in attracting far less predictable audiences, for live concerts, radio broadcasts, or CDs and downloads at home. But despite our efforts and inroads, we still seem to have a hard time figuring out just how to lure new faces from different walks of life.

    This is yet another long, oft-visited topic, but one always worth pondering. As these posts of the past few days indicate, most of us expect to have listeners for our music, and we usually devote a few brain cells thinking about ways for our work to communicate to others, even as we’re writing “for ourselves.” I would absolutely love to attend a concert that includes new art music, and not recognize (either by friendship or unspoken dress code) the majority of the people there. Heaven.

  11. patrick says

    in address to the poet post: a big reason composers think differently than poets is cause the language isnt a spoken one, hence, is conceived of abstractly, rather than metaphorically. (you can talk about music, but you cant speak it, at least in our current way of verbalisation.)
    in address to the topic, i think the most important matter is discovering how one interacts with the universe through their conception of music (seeing things ‘formally’, you know) and, having made this consideration, all else can unfold on its own.

  12. Paul Muller says

    I think many historical composers also thought about the players. Bach must have had great oboe and flute players. And Bach’s trumpet player in Leipzig was probably the best that the planet has ever seen. Telemon must have had a fantastic recorder player. When I compose, for friends and not professionals, I often try to work to the strengths of the players who will perform. And this includes the mix of instruments and voices that are available.
    So I would argue that this is at least as big a factor as composing for the audience. But entry points for the audience is a valuable technique for any who write music. Thanks.