If it’s good for you…yuck!

In today’s New York Times, in the business section, is a brief little story I can’t find online. It talks about a paper in the Journal of Marketing, which reports the results of two studies. In each study, people were given the same food to eat — in one study a cracker, in the other some mango lassi (an Indian yogurt drink) — and then were divided into two groups. The people in one group were told the food was healthy; the people in the other group were told the food was unhealthy. Then they were asked to rate the food’s flavor. You guessed it: people said the food labeled unhealthy tasted quite a lot better.

The moral of this story (for classical music, that is)? We’re always starting educational intitiatives, trying to teach people about classical music. Some of us also cherish a belief that classical music is somehow ethically or culturally pure, and is therefore good for everybody. What these studies suggest is that appealing on these grounds won’t work. People will assume the food tastes bad — or, in our case, that they won’t really enjoy the music — and all our efforts might very well backfire.

Which, by the way, is only common sense.

Why do we keep trying to teach people things about classical music, as if lack of knowledge was the barrier that keeps people away from us? Why don’t we just make performances such compelling events that nobody can resist them?

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  1. David Snead says


    If we have to choose between creating a compelling event and teaching people about classical music, you’re absolutely right. But is it really an either-or proposition? What if we created compelling events that also increased people’s understanding of the music?

    Hey, if we do that, I’m there. I insist on the distinction, though, because so many events designed to introduce people to classical music are largely or wholly educational. Which seems to me disastrous.
    Besides, why do we keep insisting that people learn about the music? Isn’t it enough that they enjoy it? Why do some of us (not necessarily you, David, or me) think that enjoyment and learning absolutely have to go together?

  2. says

    I think the problem is that too many people conflate education with familiarization. Classical music can be very intimidating to an outsider, not least because of the lack of information about it available in mainstream culture. However, knowing what famous pieces are called and knowing what different instruments sound like is a very different (and much more basic) educational process than knowing about sonata theory and Gustav Mahler’s life story. Did you read the Wall Street Journal’s story (linked from ArtsJournal today) about the Knight Foundation study? One thing I found very telling about that article was that the one solid predictor they found for concert attendance was a history of playing an instrument or singing in an organized ensemble. It’s ongoing, participatory activities that really get people excited about classical music and encourage them to discover the history for themselves. This applies to composers just as much as instrumentalists, in my opinion. What this means for the future of the industry remains to be seen.

    I would be interested to read your response to the WSJ article, by the way, since it stakes out a very different viewpoint from that found in your writings.

    Hi, Ian. Nice to hear from you. I haven’t seen that study, or read the WSJ piece, but this isn’t completely new information. It’s a familiar point, often made within the business.

    I also think it’s meaningless — entirely meaningless — for the future of classical music. Essentially what it says is a tautology, that the classical music audience is the classical music audience. Or, in more detail, it says something about the existing classical music audience that might not be true for others. That is, you might give younger people training in classical instruments, and they might not go to classical concerts. I see that with my Juilliard students, who aren’t always avid concertgoers. And I’ve heard about a study in Britian, which found that young classical musicians weren’t (as a whole) at all interested in going to classical concerts. They found them stuffy and elite, aimed too much at an older audience.

    There’s one factor that I haven’t seen any study address, and that’s whether people are prepared to accept the ambience of classical performance. If they’re not, they’re not going. So for the people for whom exposre to classical instruments was a predictor of attendance, this is the hidden factor — all of them, the ones who go to classical concerts, do have this willingness to accept the concert hall atmosphere.

    Meanwhile, there are plenty of people who listen to classical music at home (I know several) who wouldn’t be caught dead in a concert hall. Tthese are people in their 40s and 50s. The world is much more complex, I think, than the study you mention may indicate.

  3. says

    Speaking as someone whose interest in classical was pretty much self-directed, enjoyment came before enlightenment, for me – I enjoyed the strange things this music could do and was then seized with the desire to learn how it did them. But I could easily imagine someone less system-oriented than I am simply being thrilled by a piece of classical music, without ever really understanding how that happened. I mean, people read novels and don’t stop to analyze the metaphors and symbols in grotesque detail, even though those things probably have some subconscious impact on how much they enjoy the work.

    Good points. I think most people, even very smart people, enjoy things without analyzing them. And certainly most of us enjoy things without delving into deep background detail. How many people who love movies also know much about details of cinematography? How many even know that the typical American screenplay is consciously divided (like a play) into three acts?

    Somehow, in classical music, we’ve created the notion that people need to understand fine points of history and structure. This seems like a bad mistake.