Silent listening

This picks up from some comments posted here, and also from a Twitter debate I had with a musician from the London Symphony. (Thanks, @londonsymphony!)

And it all comes from my suggestion that classical music organizations consider Twittering during concerts — sending out real-time thoughts about the music, from musicians, for instance, or (a very interesting option, for me) from members of the audience.

Some people don’t like this — and understandably, of course — because they feel that it would interfere with listening. That’s a point to take seriously. We have a tradition (not as long-established as we think it is, but still very firmly established now) of listening to classical music in silence, without distractions. And yes, this has been  head-butted a little in recent years, with video screens at concerts, and other innovations. But still most concerts are untroubled with distractions, and many people want to keep it that way.

I want to make it clear that I sympathize with them, and that — no matter what innovations might appear — there should be concerts, maybe the majority of concerts (to serve our existing audience), where nothing will trouble people who want to listen silently.

Where I take issue, though, is when the discussion turns ideological — when people say that classical music absolutely demands silent listening, and when some of us start drawing large conclusions about our society, saying (as my London Symphony debating partner said) that we’re bombarded by music everywhere, and that we might be losing the ability to truly listen.

I don’t agree with either point. I’ve said many times that the entire pre-19th century classical repertoire — with the exception, I’d imagine, of church music — was created for performances when the audience talked while the music played, and applauded whenever they heard anything they liked. There’s no sign that composers disapproved of this. Quite the contrary — we have evidence from Mozart and Verdi, for instance, that they were highly gratified.

Now, I could even name advatnages we’d get from an active audience. If we want their attention, we’ll have to earn it. And it’s not at all clear to me that 18th century audiences didn’t pay attention. Mozart’s famous letter about the premiere of his Paris Symphony shows an audience apparently alert to what he compose. He teased them by starting the last movement quietly, instead of with the loud, resounding coup d’archet — stroke of the bow — that in Paris was traditional. They immediately shushed each other, taken by surprise, then burst into cheers when, a few bars later, Mozart brought in the whole orchestra, forte. They understood the joke that was played on them.

There’s also an anecdote about the opera audience in Lully’s time, a raucous bunch, who’d scream insults to each other, among much else, while the operas were performed. A star singer couldn’t appear; his substitute was bad; the audience immediately noticed, and began insulting him. He answered wittily, and from then on, they listened to him happily.

I once programmed the first movement of the Paris Symphony at a concert with the Pittsburgh Symphony, which I was hosting. I read Mozart’s letter, and told the audience that they were free to clap whenever they felt like it. The results were fascinating. The applause, first of all, varied greatly from point to point. People clearly were listening very hard. And when they clapped, and then something new started in the music, they fell silent, to listen to what happened next. It soon was clear to me that Mozart designed the piece for that, constantly bringing in attractive new ideas, to hold the audience’s attention.

None of which, of course, tells us what would happen if people started talking, or clapping, or tweeting during something as profound and serious as the last movement of the Mahler Ninth.

But now let me ask what we think our present audience is doing? Yes, they’re sitting quietly, but are they paying attention? To what extent do their minds wander? A little? That’s for sure. My mind wanders during concerts, and I’m a musciain. We’re all human. But maybe the audience has minds that wander a lot. Maybe they pay very sketchy attention. How do we know?

And might they pay more attention if they had something else to do, besides sitting still and listening? Virgil Thomson — who, to judge from his writing, was an acute listener — wrote once that he listened more carefully if he had a little bit of distraction. I’ve found the same is true for me. If I force myself to concentrate, to pay attention, my mind will sometimes wander. (A famliar happening, I might add, in any form of meditation.) If I distract myself a little — if, let’s say, I look at an app on my iPhone that displays floating clouds — I’ll focus better on the music. (I do that at home, with CDs. Not at concerts.)

And now suppose I got up and moved. Even danced to the music. I think that would focus my attention even more. Even in the Mahler Ninth. (The last movement, I might add, is one of my touchstones for great music that deeply gets to me.) Likewise if I was talking quietly to a friend about the music. “Listen to that…interesting countermelody there…oh, no, the conductor completely missed the point, a moment ago…” I think I’d pay much closer attention than I do at concerts.

And no, i’m not necessarily saying that people should talk to each other during Mahler. If 1000 people did it all together, the chaos might outweigh the benefits. Or maybe not! Have we tried this? What would actually happen?

Let’s also remember that there are cultural differences about these things. (Which is where ideology comes in.) In western, European-derived culture, it would be highly inappropriate to react out loud when music is played at a church service. Highly inapprorpriate! Just about irrrelgious.

But if you go to a gospel church, the rules are turned around. There, it would be highly inapprorpriate not to react, not to cry out something when the music (or the preacher) gets to you. Likewise in Kabuki. Connoisseurs will bark out little syllables, when something onstage seems especially good.

Our kind of silent listening goes back, I think, to a long-established trope of western philosophy, in which the mind is hugely favored over the body. The mind is rational, responsible; the body is childish, dangerous, and primitive. So we sit in silence when we listen to profound music (or music that’s thought to be profound.

But is this what we still have to believe, now that we have a multicultural society? Other cultures see the world quite differently, and give the body equal weight. So what would happen if we listened to classical music with our bodies — and with our feelings visible, for all to see — instead of mainly with our minds? Maybe we’d listen better, as I’ve been saying.

And maybe the established habit of silent listening actually gets in the way of concentration! This is a point that’s not original with me. But I think it’s worth taking seriously. Take a group of people. Shackle them. Tell them they can’t move, or speak, or visibly react in any way. And now expect them to pay full attention to Mahler. I don’t think they (or I) can do it. But if I could participate in the experience, put my body and my voice into action alongside the music, I think I’d listen harder. And I think that’s also true of the existing audience, although they might be hesitant or even shocked to try this, even as an experiment.

Which leaves one more point of ideology — the idea that people aren’t listening to anything, because we’re drowned in music. This reminds me of something I read in an exhaustive history of Britain in the late ’50s and early ’60s, Never Had It So Good, written by Dominick Sandbrook. In the late ’50s, just as in the US, British cities started growing suburbs. British intellectuals hated the suburbs, and wrote extensively abo

ut how alienating they were, how people were atomized, isolated from each other, losing all community ties.

And then some sociologists looked into this, and found out what suburban life was actually like. It wasn’t anything like what the intellectuals had feared — and assumed, without any data at all, to be reality. People in the suburbs formed community groups, looked after each other when anyone got sick, and didn’t behave in any way as the intellectuals had assumed.

I fear that we in classical music may be in the same position, when we look at music outside the classical world. Of course there’s music everywhere. I myself don’t often mind it, and might suddenly find myself looking up with pleasure when (as happened a while ago) the background music at an airport turns out to be a song I really like, and whose words don’t suggest background music at all, the Pet Shop Boys’ “Rent.”

But suppose the music is largely trivial, and might in some way trivialize both the idea of music, and the spaces where background music plays. Why do we assume that nobody outside the classical music world resists that? In fact, popular culture is full of debates about things like that. There isn’t anything anyone in classical music says about mass-market pop music that rock critics don’t already say, and often much more strongly. Nobody hates Celine Dion, for instance, as much as rock critics do.

And if you get at all involved with pop music, you see people listening to it very hard and carefully, and making detailed critical judgments. So if mass-market listening is some kind of problem, classical music isn’t the only antidote, and maybe not the most effective one. Serious pop music, entering the same cultural arena (loosely speaking) as mass-market pop, is far better placed to combat whatever ills mass-market pop might encourage.

Which would mean that the listening habits we’re used to in classical music might have nothing to do with these larger debates. We know, many of us, how we like to listen, and we shouldn’t be deprived of that. But our listening isn’t the only way to pay serious attention to music, and isn’t the only answer to whatever ills music in society at large might get caught up in.

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  1. says

    Oh I love this. I love love love this.

    In my mind, there is no debate. We must Twitter during concerts. We must also find a way not to disturb the “silent” listeners. And then we are all happy. We must engage with our music. We must reach out to new audiences. Social media can provide a fascinating dynamic link to the arts – and this idea WILL work. (By work I mean: engage new audiences.)

    As a musician, there is so much fascinating behind-the-scenes to a work of art, the audience should be allowed to penetrate that wall (if they want to). The personalities, and the life of the music world is incredible, on and off stage. Including social media should be embraced as a brave new experiment, and not ignored before it is tried due to ideology-of-the-day.

    Thank you for opening this dialogue.

    Oh, and my twitter handle is @meloncamp.


    And you’ll like the following, if you haven’t heard about it. Tomorrow, 2/25, the Welsh National Opera will start 24 hours of tweets, showing the world what happens when they go on tour. Follow Opera24 to tune in.

  2. says

    As usual, I agree with almost all of this, but agreement is boring so let me raise one minor challenge.

    What is “trivial” music? I hate Celine Dion’s music as much as anybody does, but I can’t think of a single thing that’s actually wrong with it, that makes it inferior to the popular music I like. What is the difference between “serious” and non-serious pop music? How could “mass market listening” possibly be “some kind of problem?”

    You pose those observations as hypotheticals, so maybe you don’t believe them yourself, but I’m wary of the very idea that any kind of music can be somehow aesthetically dangerous.

    P.S. I read your response to my comment on the earlier Twitter piece and I take your points. I’m not sure I’m convinced, but I would love to be wrong, and I probably sometimes go too far in my attempts to guard against elitism and classical music chauvinism.

    Thanks for that last, and above all thanks for challenging me about my facile “mass-market” comments. I’m glad you did. As I typed them, I thought, “No, that’s really not right at all. Things are much more complicated.”

    As an example of why that’s so, I strongly recommend Carl Wilson’s book on Celine Dion, “Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste.” Wilson’s a rock critic who, like most of his colleagues, ritually despised Celine Dion, then thought he’d write a book about her to challenge his assumptions. He raised exactly the questions you do. One of his wonderful points — that if you pride yourself on taste that’s better than the taste most people have, you’ve isolated yourself from other human beings. By trying to find common ground, you break that isolation. He says it better, though.

  3. Michael Korman says

    As I see it, there are three main objections to engaging in activity other than silent listening during a concert. The first is that you will offend your fellow audience members. The second is that you will offend the performers. The third is that you will offend the composer.

    My opinion is that, unless the composer is alive and present, you don’t have to worry about the third concern. Offending the performers might be a concern, especially if you are distracting them.

    But I think we’re all really talking about the first concern: offending the audience members. If my neighbor is twitting away on his phone during a concert, I would say it wouldn’t bother me, as long as he isn’t making any noise, or distracting light. Now, I know people who would be bothered by this, but those are generally ideological objections, and I don’t take them seriously. However, the minute I hear my neighbor whispering about “countermelody” this and “the conductor missed the point” that, my experience is ruined.

    Ultimately, that’s all really a cultural thing. In 18th-century Vienna, sure, it may have been acceptable to talk during a classical concert, but I’m in early 21st century America, and it’s certainly not acceptable here. Right or wrong, that’s not going to change with one concert. Sure, discussing the concert with your neighbor may make it easier for you to pay attention, but it makes it harder for me.

    Mozart may have written his symphonies for a contemporary audience to react to, but we’re not a contemporary audience, and fundamentally, we don’t have the same experiences they did. When we go to a classical concert, we’re going on a trip to the museum to witness a historical artifact. Not that we can’t interact with it, mind you, but the experience *is* different.

    Compound this further with the fact that most classical concerts today contain a wide variety of programming. The level of background noise acceptable for Mozart, for instance, would be completely different from the level acceptable for Webern (the nature of musical compositions themselves has changed drastically along with the changes in the concert experience). It really is a museum, where we’re sampling a little of this, and a little of that, hardly what the composer probably had in mind.

    Now, if you, as the concert organizer, want to encourage your audience to make noise and otherwise engage themselves in a non-standard manner, I highly support that. Just be sure that the audience is prepared for that ahead of time, before they’ve bought a ticket.

    Good points, Michael. Thanks.

    We can give all kinds of concerts. And, just as we understand that various styles of music require various styles of performance, we can understand that they might require (or allow) various styles of listening. Talking through Mozart, silent for Webern.

    Though Webern presents a curious problem. Some of his pieces are so complex and so short that it’s very difficult to settle down to listen to them, and really concentrate, before they’ve ended. I wonder if dancing to his music (especially the very short Five Pieces for Orchestra, and the quite short and also wildly complex Op. 18 songs for soprano, E flat clarinet and guitar) might help people to focus — by which I mean focus quickly enough to get into the music before it ends.

  4. says

    I agree. I live blog and twitter from interviews, lectures, talks and concerts now as a part of my job. (@Sophia_Ahmad)

    Here, I twittered from Kevin Costner’s concert in Des Moines:

    What makes classical music concerts different or above this? In my opinion, classical music is some of the most interactive music out there and should be the most engaged in social media.

    Nice job with the Costner tweets, Sophia. Sophia — a classical pianist as well as online arts reporter for the Des Moines Register — is in a good place to bring classical music together with the new culture that’s emerged.

  5. says

    Well, Greg, I think it’s worth recounting in blog form (as well as Twitter–and I saw & RT’ed yours!) what happened last night when I tried to tweet from Alice Tully Hall…

    Thanks for posting the link here, Anastasia. Please follow it, everyone. It’s a funny story, but cautionary. Tully Hall ushers = silly.

    Anastasia thinks I might have gotten away with Twittering from Tully Hall — between pieces — because I look more official than she does. Is it my white hair? I think they just didn’t notice me.

  6. Jonathan says

    Fantastic Greg, I don’t know that I’ve read anywhere a better put case for exploration of new ways of listening. Can you get this published???

    (not that the Twitterspehere isn’t a valid arena for the discussion, but it *is* still marginal in Arts Circle terms)

    You’re warming my heart, Jonathan! Thanks.

    I’d be happy to publish this. Guess it’ll end up in my book, in any case. But let’s see if any publication would be interested. Any ideas, anyone?

    Gramophone has twice published blog posts of mine. Maybe they’ll go for this one.

  7. says

    You remind me of an interesting experience I had in my younger years. I had grown up listening to classical music, but never really learned much about musical theory or anything that was going on in the music. So, without realising it, I was under the impression that classical composers just wrote long slabs of music and stopped writing when they’d had enough. The idea that there was a structure behind the whole thing was something I wasn’t aware of.

    As a result, I found that when I listened to classical music, it was very much a case of waiting for my favourite bits, with lots of other music in between. And, of course, we all know the favourite bits – they’re the ones that crop up on every 100 Best Classics compilation.

    But then, one day, in a life-changing moment, I was in a second-hand bookstore and came across a copy of George Grove’s “Beethoven and His Nine Symphonies”.

    While this book is rather technical for laypeople nowadays (it assumes you know sonata form, basic theory and how to read music), George astonishingly wrote it for musical amateurs back in his day (Victorian-era London).

    In the book, he walks you through the Beethoven symphonies moment by moment – there’s a bit of dry stuff about key changes and so forth – but for the most part, his reactions to the music are quite simple to understand and immensely interesting.

    When he talks about the French horn coming in with a clashing note at the beginning of the recapitulation of the first movement of the Eroica Symphony, he describes how “It was wrong. It was as wrong as lying or stealing – and yet how appropriate in this symphony!” (Or words to that effect.) Who couldn’t help paying attention to hear that moment? (It comes as no surprise to me to learn that Grove was one of the driving forces behind a resurgence of interest in classical musc in his day and age.)

    By the time I’d finished the book, I found my overall listening ability for classical music had improved immensely. Just knowing that there *was* a structure to the music and having somebody explain the music moment by moment, it made me keep listening. By contrast, silent listening – or just listening and hoping it made sense – never did anything.

    It makes perfect sense. If we suddenly removed subtitles from foreign films and just put up a caption every five minutes or so with a summary of what was going on, would you be more engaged or less engaged with the film? If they took the surtitles down from the opera and just handed out a plot synopsis, would audiences be more engaged or less engaged?

    It’s all about giving the audience things to listen “to”. The average educated classical music fan is listening to a structure that he or she understands (either by learning about it or just gradually getting used to it after listening to hundreds of recordings) and, of course, needs no guidance.

    But how are new audiences supposed to know this? Do you suppose that someone who’s never been exposed to classical music, only ever listened to music with a verse-chorus-verse-chorus structure would know to listen out for the intricacies of developments, recapitulations and codas?

    I’d put money on it – the day classical music performances and CD liner notes provides a moment-by-moment explanation, in language that is engaging and understandable, whether by Twitter, Concert Companion, or something else, the barriers will tumble.

    Nicely put, Matthew. It’s hard not to be carried away by your passion. (I mean that as a compliment.)

    Have you seen the CD-ROMs Robert Winter did more than a decade ago, with blow by blow commentary on Beethoven’s Ninth, among other pieces? Microsoft published some of them, and they were marvelous. Now Robert has a new DVD about Dvorak and the New World Symphony, which is the ultimate reference for those subjects, whether you want historical background (in luxurious, fascinating detail) or musical commentary.

  8. says

    I love the comments about silent listening and possible ways to increase participation (and, more importantly) to thereby enhance the enjoyment and understanding of the audience. This is just the sort of discussion that we need to be having, and thanks to Greg for his perceptive and “out of the box” thinking.

    As to the other point, whether it is the fault of the constant bombardment with music in our society or not (and I’ve always assumed that it was) I do think that we don’t listen as well as we used to. I find that my students have a very difficult time, for the most part, describing what they are hearing when I play music examples for them. I’m not asking for sophisticated analysis – I’m just asking them to indicate what they hear. And basically I have to train them throughout the semester to hear things like differences in articulation, vibrato use, timbre, and so on. And these are (college) junior and senior music students, so presumably these are all things that they have been applying to their own performances for a least a few years. I think that as a society we are so visually-oriented that we are not accustomed to assimilating information by just hearing it. And I realized as I typed that statement that perhaps Greg may be right, and I’ve been assigning the wrong cause to the problem. But I have one bit of anecdotal evidence.

    Some years ago I was in a restaurant with several musician friends. We immediately noted that both the Musak and the radio were playing. As I recall, the Musak was one of those bad instrumental rehashes of Papageno’s aria from The Magic Flute, and the radio was the usual pop station. Charles Ives’ father would have loved it, I assume, but we didn’t. We asked the waitress if she could turn off one or the other (although we would have preferred both.) It took her a moment to figure out what we were complaining about, because, as she said, she just tuned it out.

    Presumably one would not “tune out” a concert that one had paid good money to hear, but I do wonder if this is at least partially the cause for my students’ inability to focus on what they are hearing.

    Hi, Rebecca. I’ll add to your anecdotal evidence. Once I was in a movie theater in Times Square in New York, long before Times Square was reformed, and was instead a place where more or less anything went. The theater was playing music before the film began. In the balcony, someone began playing other music on a boombox. He wanted to hear what he wanted to hear — that was the era when people carried boomboxes on the street — and the music already playing must have been noise to him.

    But if we wanted to establish — or try to — whether listening has deteriorated, I think we need a baseline. What would you have found if you were teaching in the 1970s? Or the 1950s? From my memories of those decades, and from any reading I’ve done, I suspect things wouldn’t have been very different. But it would be good to have some real data, if such a thing could be assembled. (Memory can be deceptive, of course, so I’d take with a grain of salt reminiscences of those years, including mine. Unless, I guess, we got many reminiscences, and they mostly agreed.)

    For another control, try using pop music instead of classical, and see what people hear. What would be an equivalent group, comparable to your classical music students? People who play in bands? People who’ve made recordings (easy enough to do these days on your own, without any record deal)?

    I have a feeling pop music people hear in great detail. You can’t produce a good pop record without taking care of endless sonic parameters, many of which can be tweaked in software to an extent — and with a fineness of control — that might amaze people in classical music who don’t know how pop records are made.

    But then maybe those people in pop are the equivalent of people like you, Rebecca, who do hear in detail. It’s a fascinating discussion, and thanks for shedding some light.

  9. jenp says

    As long as the technology can provide 1) silence 2) total darkness.

    An iPhone App to twitter invisibly shouldn’t be so difficult. Who do we talk to?

    I have an astronomy iPhone app that shows stars and planets brightly against a black background. But you can switch it into night mode, and get dim yellow stars against a dim red blackground.

    For concerts, we might want to take a standard Twitter app, and invert the colors, Instead of black text on a white background, have white text — or green text — on a black background.

    That might be a start. Anyone know any iPhone app developers?

  10. Jeffrey Rossman says

    This discussion has really hit a nerve as I am completely on the side of keeping classical concerts basically a no-talking

    zone for many reasons. I come from this as both a performing solo and orchestral musician as well as someone who attends many concerts.

    The historical argument is a total red herring as if to say categorically whatever was good in 1783 should be good for us now. The premise that talking about the music AT THE TIME IT IS BEING PLAYED somehow helps understanding and concentration seems ludicrous, although if you say it helps you I guess it does in your case.

    The bottom line is that you attend concerts to hear a performance. If you want to talk about the music, or how hard it was to find parking or the pianist’s dress during the performance,

    no matter how discreet you try to be you are stealing the reason for spending lots of money and effort to attend a concert. In a theatrical play would you allow people to periodically block your view to “better understand” the play?

    As a cellist in several orchestras I can tell you that there were many times where people talking in the front row totally threw off the section’s concentration and performance and caused the conductor to try the “glare down” with no success. Where is the line drawn? Don’t even get me started on babies and young children – especially clueless parents who inevitably sit in the front row.

    Can I come over when you are writing an article and incessantly talk about whatever and then get pissed of at you when you ask me to be quiet.

    Come on now. Is it so hard to stop yapping, texting, commenting for the time it takes to hear or see what you allegedly came to hear or see. If it is then why would anyone go to the trouble and expense of attending these performances.

    Have some respect for the performers, composers and others who may not share your compulsion to comment on the action.

    Compulsion? Jeffrey — calm down! You like what you like. Fair enough. But let others disagree without calling them names.

    I’ve written words and composed music in noisy places. When I was a fulltime writer, I used to go to coffee shops to write. Every Italian coffee shop in Greenwich Village knew me. As I’m writing this, I’m on a train from Washington to New York, and I spent an hour composing on my laptop. I can do it almost regardless of what’s going on around me. And my music is (for better or worse) rather wildly detailed.
    There’s no reason we have to play music from the past in the atmosphere that existed when the music was composed. And, by the same token, there’s no reason we have to perform past or present music in the concert atmosphere we’re used to now. Classical music has changed gigantically, over the centuries. It can change again.

    Though I did conclude, from actually producing a Mozart performance with the audience applauding during the music, that Mozart surely designed the piece knowing that the audience would applaud. And for that reason, it seemed to me to work better with the audience applauding than with the audience silent. It’s a little like playing Mozart with period instruments. Suddenly you hear inner voices that are obscured by the smoother, more even sound of the instruments we have now. Similarly, when the audience applauded during the first movement of the Paris Symphony, it seemed to me that the highly varied moments in the piece — and this is a piece which, if you look at it, is built from one contrast after another — stood out in far greater relief.

    One last thought. The musicians you mentioned, who were thrown by the audience talking while they played — maybe they just weren’t used to it. Maybe if audiences talked more, rather than less, musicians would learn to take it in stride.

  11. says

    There seems to be a lot of self-righteousness on the part of performers who insist their creativity and technical skill be silently revered. But audience members pay the bills, no?

    If audience members like the idea of interactivity, the symphonies who provide outlets for that will be ahead of the game.

    One only has to think of Tanglewood’s summer concerts, where listeners have the option of sitting under the shed or on the lawn, where they munch, mingle, and *gasp* chat, during the show.

    It was at Tanglewood, frolicking with a bunch of high schoolers that I fell in love with the symphony. The ability to socialize while listening to a form of music that was unfamiliar was probably the thing that made a memorable connection for me.

    People need to not fear that the ability to listen and interact during a performance destroys the performance. It is another way to consume, that is all.

  12. Jeffrey Rossman says

    The previous poster is correct that Tanglewood, and many other summer concert series encourage socializing,eating, drinking, visiting, talking IN SEPARATE AND SEGREGATED sections. The reason for this is obvious.

    I don’t know what audience members paying the bills has to do with anything?

    You pay to enter the Museum of Modern Art

    but you are not permitted to shout about your opinion of a painting or drink coffee while in the gallery.

    I have always hated to use the “slippery slope” argument, but if talking is “allowed” and “silent reverence” is ridiculed then that will inevitably lead to an anything goes environment.

    Great or even good performances are not a rote, robotic event. You do not play a 40 minute Brahms sonata with perfect intonation, beautiful sound and profound expression by going through the motions. It requires concentration,

    constant evaluation and commitment to make it a worthwhile experience for the listener. Obviously, musicians, just like everyone else, vary in their capacity to deal with distractions but this is not mere consumption.

    I wonder who ridiculed silent listening. Certainly not me. Proposing alternatives — even finding fault with silent listening, in some ways — is very far from ridicule.

    At the premiere of the Brahms Violin Concerto, the audience applauded the cadenza in the first movement, right after Joachim finished playing it. There’s no evidence that Joachim or Brahms objected.

    Brahms also, in a letter to Joachim about tempi in the fourth symphony, said he wanted the symphony played with great contrasts of tempo and dynamics when it was played by musicians who didn’t know it, for an audience that hadn’t heard it before. Greater contrasts, that is, than he’d want if both orchestra and audience knew the piece.

    We may think that we’re respecting the great composers’ intentions when we play classical pieces in the atmosphere that’s now customary, but we might not be right. (Though if you want to shush applause during Wagner operas, Wagner would be right with you. He got angry when the audience applauded during the first performance of Das Rheingold at Bayreuth.

    (Mozart, on the other hand, allowed parts of the second finale of Don Giovanni to be improvised at the premiere, and according to the singer who created the title role, Mozart preferred doing the finale that way to performing it strictly from notation.)

  13. says

    @Jeffrey Rossman –

    “I don’t know what audience members paying the bills has to do with anything?”

    This attitude is precisely why many arts organizations are failing, if you ask me. Disregard for audience demand seems to occur in the arts, whereas in other commercial ventures, there is emphasis on pleasing the consumer of the good or service. Paying customers who are pleased will return, which is what you want them to do. Attracting new customers lead to growth, which arts organizations should also attempt to do. The fallacy that technology, experimentation, and commercialization destroy art is pervasive in the arts community, and I think it is a detrimental attitude.

    If an audience is demanding a separate location for Twittering – I would think orchestras might try such an experiment. And those that do may earn additional market share. I did not mention anything about shouting during the concert. Twittering is a silent activity, though visually disturbing, so I would suggest anyone Twittering be segregated as to not disturb the silent listeners. My only point about Tanglewood was that as someone previously unexposed to classical music, the ability to enjoy it in an unconventional setting led to my love of the art form. Such models could be used, on varying scales for other formal concert settings.

    I was not ridiculing “silent reverence” but pointing out it is one option to enjoy music, and chatting during a show does not destroy it’s enjoyment. The two choices are neutral, in my opinion. One is not more appropriate than the other – the choice resides with the listener.

  14. says

    My own post on the subject.

    As a classical performer, I know that it takes a phenomenal concentration to produce great art. It takes your utmost, particularly as a soloist. That focus is helped tremendously though, if the audience is right there with you in the musical moment… and that is much harder to achieve with an audience that’s 40% asleep.

    Lately I’ve been singing in a restaurant to pay my way to move to Europe. I’m in a small town suburb in Indiana – people barely know how to SPELL opera, much less listen to it. I actually had a customer ask me if Italian was a language. (no joke). In this environment, people chat the whole time I’m singing. But these people respond to what I do very well. When I sing a Verdi high note, the restaurant goes silent for it. When my wife goes on a coloratura bender for a cadenza, people explode into applause and “bravos” (gender mismatch intentional; this is Indiana). Even children shut up and watch the whole time.

    Experience has taught me that no matter what people are doing (as long as it’s not urgent in their minds, at least), their rapt attention can be grabbed by a performer. Almost anyone can be made to put down their cellphone and listen for a moment.

    I know it’s a piss off if you’re one of the 2% of the audience who goes to a concert hoping for the perfect listening experience. But I find myself just as pissed off by candy wrappers and hearing aids going off anyways. If you want a perfect listening experience, buy an LP and use a sound room, or rent a musician for a private performance (ooh ooh! pick me!). I think people go to concerts to be a part of a group that gets caught up in a musical experience, and that does not require rapt, reverent attention to every grace note.

    Thanks. I hadn’t thought to look at it this way — that the present audience, in its unresponsive silence, can be distracting in its own way. Please understand that I’m not criticizing our audience, which I know very well is full of lovely people who deeply care about music. But I also have taught music students who wish they know what their audience is feeling. They’d like more response than they’re getting. They say they don’t know what’s going on with their listeners. When they learn about the audience in the 18th century, some of them wish that their own audience reacted that way. So, for instance — just as Campbell says — you do something particular in your playing, and you get an immediate response.

    Now I’m thinking of a 1955 performance of Bellini’s Norma in Italy, with Maria Callas. At one point she sings a gorgeous pianissimo high C (which often she couldn’t do, breathtaking as she was in other ways). During the high C — yes, _during_ it — there’s a ripple of applause from the Italian audience. Now, Callas could be temperamental, and would object strongly, or even walk out, if she felt that the conditions in which she was asked to work didn’t meet the highest artistic standards. But I’ve never heard that she objected to this applause.

  15. Jeffrey Rossman says

    Just one very simple question (to anyone out there) and I ask this in all sincerity:

    – Why would anyone plan, travel to, and spend what is often a great deal of money ostensibly to experience a professional level musical performance, and at the same time want to twitter, text, talk and

    basically do what you can do any other time?

    I never thought listening would become a lost art.

    So, because “audiences demand it” we should have corralled sections at a performance of a Mahler symphony so people can twitter, text and talk?


    Jeffrey, just take a deep breath and calm down. People would be there for the same reason you’d be, because they want to hear the music. They also think that Twittering during the performance would make the experience of listening better in various ways. That clearly wouldn’t be true for you — you wouldn’t want to do it. So don’t do it! But don’t condemn people who think differently from you. Don’t jump to the conclusion that they don’t want to listen, just because you’d listen in a different way. Try to see their point of view. Seems like you’re closing yourself off to any experience except your own.

  16. says


    People do it all the time in bars and clubs with live music. And back in olden tymes my understanding is that there was often a certain amount of socialization in opera boxes during performances.

    And I’ll ask a question back–why would anybody want to sit through the boring parts of the concert in petrified silence if they had the option to do something else until the music got interesting again?

  17. says

    @Jeffrey Rossman –

    “Why would anyone plan, travel to, and spend what is often a great deal of money ostensibly to experience a professional level musical performance, and at the same time want to twitter, text, talk and

    basically do what you can do any other time?”

    Perhaps to add another dimension to the experience. Perhaps you could have lower-quality musicians for a Twitter event. Who knows, there are a lot of possibilities. I’m not arguing that listening to music while distracted with other tasks is an objective ideal – but a subjective preference that should be explored.

    I would assert that Just because one does not share a preference for silent listening does not invalidate the ability to enjoy music in that way. There is no deficiency with such a person, though I would not disagree perhaps the absolute connection to the work of art is weakened, but so what? I again point to the Tanglewood example – which is perfectly valid, despite it being a “summer” venue. The enjoyment of the art is not completely lost by “listeners” on the lawn eating, drinking, chatting. It provides an alternative experience (I did not say “better” or “preferable.”) It was precisely this type of experience that brought me to love classical music, and I now enjoy silent consumption as well.

    On that topic, I’m not certain if you have the pleasure of attending perfectly silent performances already – I wish you would tell me where they occur, because I happen to be someone who appreciates silent, immersed listening as well. At performances I attend, people currently talk in between movements, if not during the concert itself. The coughing, unwrapping of candies, shuffling of programs, whispering about the sour notes in the flute section are ever-present! I have not yet been to a completely silent performance in my life. Don’t get me wrong, I share your distaste for ambient noises, yet I’m intrigued by the possibility of new ways to consume music.

    “So, because “audiences demand it” we should have corralled sections at a performance of a Mahler symphony so people can twitter, text and talk?”

    Certainly! There is no reason we shouldn’t, as long as the effects can be isolated, to not disturb silent listeners. I don’t think it should be a requirement, or that concerts should become a free-for-all, but a fascinating experiment. If enough an orchestra and audience were willing to subject themselves to such an environment, they should have the choice.

  18. Richard Mitnick says

    First, sorry, I do not like Celine Dion. Mostly, her nose.

    This question of “silent listening” has also come up on radio.

    WNYC’s Terrance McKnight is as much an educator as a music host. So, while he presents music, often he will speak over it. This got lots of negative feedback on the Evening Music “blog”, which resulted in lots also of feedback positive for Terrance.

    While radio is in no way like concert performance, the question is the same. The solution? There really is none. Terrance talks, I, for one, am happy. I have tons of CD’s and .mp3’s for silent listening.

    What will happen in the concert hall? Who knows. Will any of you stop going? Will you go and do whatever it is you are all talking about? Tell us.

    Very nice, Richard!

    I like Terrance, too.

  19. says

    So, I think what’s needed is data. Greg has reminded us a number of times that classical music institutions don’t collect enough data and then don’t necessarily share what they have.

    Greg, do you have surveys showing widespread support for concerts enhanced in the ways you’re proposing? If not, perhaps it’s possible to conduct some surveying at the orchestras where you consult.

    I also believe you could stage some interesting experiments, by putting on, say, ten concerts, half of which use Twitter and other tools, half of which don’t, and surveying those audiences.

    I realize you’ve got a bunch of readers who support these ideas, but that’s nowhere near as useful as some solid survey data would be.

    I agree, 100%. Most of this discussion has been speculation — honest speculation, often deeply felt by those speculating, but still speculation. I include myself in that. We don’t know much about what happens when innovations of many kinds are tried in classical settings. There’s some data from Philadelphia, more than a decade ago. They tried using video screens at concerts, and about 25% of subscribers and musicians hated it so much they had to stop. I sensed something like that when I was part of some Concert Companion tests. Those opposed to it were very vocal.

    But, bottom line — we just don’t know. So I hope people try some experiments, and let us know what happens.

    If anybody does have data, even anecdotal — please share it!

  20. says

    Not to oversimplify, but crowd behavior at concerts, logically, should be based on volume.

    I play drums in a death metal band and I have a subscription to the Pittsburgh Symphony. When I’m playing with my band, I know that however noisy the audience is, I can’t hear it and it certainly won’t distract me as a performer. As an audience member, I also know that if the person next to me is yapping away, no big deal, the music coming from the stage will always be significantly louder than him or her.

    At the symphony, on the other hand, I know to remain completely silent because 90% of the time, a conversation, even a whispered one, will be more audible to fellow audience members than the music coming from the stage. Same goes for candy wrappers, watch alarms, jangling bracelets, etc. :) Audience noise makes fellow audience members miss quiet, subtle moments (that don’t exist so much in pop and rock).

    I also think young pop and rock fans realize this and are very good at rising to the occasion of a classical concert, maybe dressing up a little, and paying attention silently and hopefully, spellbound!

    Your columns are always thought-provoking Greg, but in this case, I can’t advocate crowd behaviors that have lopsided utility. That is, Twittering or talking might make 1 person more engaged but will likely make 10 people around him distracted and annoyed.

    (As a side note, I saw the Imani Winds a couple weeks ago and I loved how they engaged the crowd. Each one them introduced a piece in the program without condescension but without technical jargon either. It simply gave the crowd a heads up about the style of the piece and little things to listen for. Then for some pieces the performers sat down, for some they stood. And the crowd, which was multiracial and had a wider age range than most chamber music concerts here in Pittsburgh, was silent and attentive while they played yet applauded enthusiastically when they finished. Delightful. That’s the sort of connection with the crowd that I’d like to see made more often.)

    (Or here’s one more idea, the Pittsburgh Camerata, a local choral group, has started blogging and maintaining a Facebook group where the members report on their rehearsals, their struggles and triumphs with the repertoire, etc. It’s a behind-the-scenes look that will make the upcoming concert more intriguing, but won’t mess with the actual performance.)

    Timothy, thanks so much. I’m happy that you disagree with me. None of us has any final answers.

    I’ve seen the Pittsburgh Camarata blog. It’s really good. Have been planning to mention it here, so I’m glad you did.

    As Lisa Hirsch said in another comment, we don’t actually know what would happen if people tweeted during concerts. I’m sure some concertgoers would be upset, though. Even at the mere thought of such a thing. Doesn’t mean we can’t find a way to make it happen. I know some orchestras have had live blogging from concerts, probably from a restricted area of the concert hall.

    But about volume, and orchestras. It can be a surprise, even a shock, to learn how loud orchestras are for those playing in them. Depends at least in part on where you’re sitting. The back stand violas, for instance, are often right in front of the trumpets and trombones, and the rest of the orchestra can get wiped out for them. Orchestras often use transparent barriers on stage, for instance between the violas and trombones, to cut down the volume, We can’t see these from the audience, but they’re there.

    At some recent orchestral event, I used an app on my iPhone to measure the decibel level from the audience. (I set the brightness very low, to avoid disturbing people.) The sound was just under 100 decibels — really loud, though as I well know from experience (when I covered pop music for the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner in the late ’80s, and loved Slayer) death metal is louder. But 100 decibels is nothing to sneeze at.

    So I wonder how much audience noise orchestras can hear. In soft passages, clearly they’d hear more.

    There’s one aspect of this I haven’t mentioned, about whether musicians would or should be disturbed by noise from the audience. In sports, there’s a lot of noise, and athletes except golfers and tennis players are rarely thrown by it. But this deserves its own blog post.

  21. Michael Korman says

    Though Webern presents a curious problem. Some of his pieces are so complex and so short that it’s very difficult to settle down to listen to them, and really concentrate, before they’ve ended. I wonder if dancing to his music (especially the very short Five Pieces for Orchestra, and the quite short and also wildly complex Op. 18 songs for soprano, E flat clarinet and guitar) might help people to focus — by which I mean focus quickly enough to get into the music before it ends.

    Dancing sounds a little silly. Especially for a 30 second piece. How about playing it twice?

    Playing it twice is definitely a good idea. I once programmed one of the very short Webern pieces as a sort of sandwich with the Cage silent page. First an orchestra played the Webern, then the Cage, then finally the Webern again. Was easier to pay attention to, when it came out of such a long silence.

    I wondered about the dancing myself. I guess you’d have to prepare yourself, and then let your body react to the music, without your thinking about it. The idea would be to bypass your mind, and get a direct physical relationship to the music. Might be silly, though, just as you said.

    I wonder what Webern’s listening was like? Wonder if he could focus immediately, and follow everything that happened in any 30-second span. Wouldn’t surprise me if he could.

  22. jerome langguth says

    Dear Greg,

    A fascinating set of ideas. I like the notion that classical performances might be enhanced by a greater degree of openness towards various technologically enhanced audience participation like “tweeting” , but it seems to me that it might be better not to try to direct or engineer the specific things that happen. Instead, one could simply invite audiences to try out novel uses for various technologies during specially designated performance in a way that is respectful of the listening experience of others. Allowing the audience the freedom to react in whatever way they find natural, including the possibility of using their gadgets and so on, would make for an interesting experiment. Attempting to direct those new behaviors and “manage” the use of technology is likely to lead to distraction and the feeling that this is a desperate attempt by a floundering arts culture to stay “relevant.”

    With respect to silence and the experience of listening, I do worry a bit that your account of the “phenomenology” of the listening experience assumes that each individual listener is essentially “alone.” That is, you focus on what will enhance “my listening” rather than “our listening.” But the best live listening experiences that I have had (regardless of genre) have involved that mysterious moment when the audience palpably becomes a single entity, focused and present to the music. This can occur at loud rock concerts (King Crimson comes to mind) as well as in silent music halls, so the point is not an ideologically motivated one. And their is a difference between active and participatory silence and the experience of enforced silence (being silenced). I have the hunch that tweeting and texting and so on make the richer experience of silence and shared attention less likely, but that may just reflect a lack of experience with respect to the technology on my part.


    Jay, I started reading your comment without noticing who sent it, and recognized you right away. I mean that as a compliment!

    Good points. Luckily, we — me, you, any reader or commenter here, whatever community we represent — can’t manage the things people are going to try. Above all, that’s because people and organizations all over the country are trying new things independently. The result is that a lot of very different things get tried, and the problem then is to find out about them!

    That, to me, is the real problem here, in fact. That we don’t know what people have done, and what the result was.

    Great point about the communal act of listening. But I wonder what that actually is, at a classical concert. We know very little about what’s going on in the minds of our audience. I’ve had some experience (as I’ve probably mentioned here too much) leading conversations among members of the orchestra audience, and they seem oddly uninvolved with what’s going on, at the same time that they love it. One thing that comes out, after a while, is that they positively _crave_ closer involvement. They may not even know that they do, but they end up (just for instance) having many questions that they never thought to ask. Or even thought it was proper to ask.

    So I think there’s a lot we could do to foster communal listening — and some of the things we might try may not even be directly related to listening.

  23. Yvonne says

    «Where I take issue, though, is when the discussion turns ideological — when people say that classical music absolutely demands silent listening, and when some of us start drawing large conclusions about our society, saying (as my London Symphony debating partner said) that we’re bombarded by music everywhere, and that we might be losing the ability to truly listen. I don’t agree with either point.»

    It’s true that we’re bombarded by music everywhere. In particular the aural environment has never been filled with so much music that (a) we haven’t made ourselves, and (b) we’re actually not expected to listen to but merely to hear.

    And to the extent that this is the case, we are degrading, if not actually losing, the ability to truly listen. The comment about the waitress tuning out and not noticing the two sources of music is an example of how unaware we often are of ambient music. We have to cultivate that unawareness, because otherwise we’d go insane. Problem is, in the act of preserving our sanity, I fear we’re becoming better and more practised at cultivating unawareness than the opposite. Listening, then, becomes harder work, and perhaps we’re just trying to make it a bit easier by seeking out a quiet environment (which could well be a retreat to our iPod headphones) when we want to do it.

    On the other hand, I certainly don’t claim that classical music demands silent listening. But I personally would say that all music, including classical music, benefits from silent listening. Your observation elsewhere about the bands in Wordless Music enjoying the unaccustomed quiet listening environment of a “formal” concert is in the same spirit.

    As you say, devotees of other styles of music listen just as carefully to the music they love. How could they not be just as frustrated by the prevalence of aural wallpaper in the world? Seeking a silent environment when we really want to listen to something isn’t so very unnatural. And perhaps, therefore, it’s not the ambient “silence” of the classical concert hall that’s the problem per se.

    But Yvonne, when you say “we” are degrading and maybe even losing the ability to truly listen — do you really know that this is true? Are you affected this way? Am I? I’m certainly not.

    And as for those other we’s out there, the people we may not personally know — do you and I really know what’s happening to them? Is there more serious listening in the world today than there used to be, or less? I don’t see how we can answer that question, without some data. We shouldn’t speculate, as (forgive me) I think you’re doing.

    I could argue that there’s more serious listening than there used to be, because of the explosion of indie bands whose music demands to be heard seriously. How could this music exist, and have fans, if the fans weren’t listening to it carefully?

    But I’d be speculating, too. All I want to do with that example is show that it’s far too easy to find evidence for anything we want to believe, when we’re flying blind without real information.

  24. Yvonne says

    “if not actually losing”

    I don’t think we’re losing it. Like you say, you and I are still quite capable of listening.

    But since you call me on speculaton, I’ll speak from my personal experience – which is all I can do. The prevalence of ambient music (wallpaper) in my environment has meant that I’ve had to learn to aurally tune out else lose my temper completely. It seems to me that a result of this is that I sometimes find listening something of a conscious effort. Like I say above, it’s harder work. This isn’t helped by the fact that I respond to all music by wanting to pay attention to it, by wanting to listen to it. (That’s why I can’t stand background music at those parties or restaurants where what I want to do is have conversations with other people.) And it’s because truly listening in our noisy age can feel like hard work that I (personally, but I suspect I’m not alone) seek out quiet spaces in which to listen to it.

    I do see some evidence of this in the popularity of the personal music player, from walkman to iPod. Yes it’s about taking your music wherever you go (overriding imposed Muzak, perhaps?), but it’s also about being able to listen to your music in your own space without distraction. And clearly it’s not just classical music on those iPods.

    I guess my main suggestion there, as marred as it is by lack of evidence, is that – regardless of musical style – seeking a quiet environment for listening is not an unnatural or necessarily undesirable thing.

    After all, even your descriptions of Bang on a Can point to the audience naturally observing and seeking out a “quiet space” within a larger “noisier space” and generally respecting the function of listening (vs hearing). Perhaps the speculation isn’t so unfounded.

    I very much agree, Yvonne. Seeking a quiet place for listening isn’t at all unnatural. It’s a deep and authentic part of our culture. In fact, I think that new age music is founded on this. I’m not talking here of its musical value (which, not surprisingly, varies from piece to piece, whatever one thinks of the overall level of it). But the impulse behind it is meditative. It’s music that opposes noise, and can’t coexist with noise.

  25. says

    Hello! Just found your blog and enjoy reading your articles. Hope my comments are not too untimely or redundant, as I see that this is dated from last month.

    I prefer having (and being) a quiet audience during a classical music performance. It seems pretty logical, based on the proximity of fellow listeners. Applause I can deal with . . . I do not mind applause between movements if it seems called for, even if I am the one performing. But talking and “tweeting” — I don’t know . . . that seems random and not directly related to the performance at hand, so it would likely be distracting to other listeners.

    If we can sit through a two-hour plus movie in the theater without holding conversations (though I know it isn’t perfectly silent), why can’t we do this during a concert performance? Do we really need to have the visuals? I love watching an orchestra and seeing a section prepare for its next entrance. It creates such anticipation that you can’t get from a recording (I know — different topic altogether). Thanks for reading my comments!