Twitter point

Anyone who reads David Pogue’s technology column in the New York Times (Thursday, in the business section) knows that he’s hot for Twitter, the social networking/microblogging/what should we call it? thing that lets us send out short announcements all day long about what we’re doing.

I think that marks a Twitter tipping point, because Twitter is popping up all over, in places I wouldn’t have expected. It’s a serious business application now. Millions of people, all day long, are sending out thoughts and observations, getting questions answered, letting the world know what they’re up to. Frank Eliason, customer service manager for Comcast (the cable TV/phone/Internet provider), realized he could use that. He could search Twitter for references to Comcast (or “Comcrap”), find people with Comcast complaints, and then contact these people to get the complaint resolved. (Note that all tweets — Twitter messages — are public, so this isn’t an invasion of privacy.)

And that’s just one random way in which Twitter is exploding. Hospitals use it — go here and here for more. One hospital used Twitter as a teaching tool for surgery, A surgical procedure (quite a complex one) was shown on video, while doctors on the surgical team sent tweets about what, exactly, they were doing. You can get the tweets on any cellphone that can go on the Web.

Do we all see how useful this could be for music? An orchestra gives a concert. Someone sends commentary tweets, in real time while the music plays, describing what’s going on. I don’t know how pinpoint the time accuracy might be, so maybe you can’t time something precisely to a downbeat. But you could certainly indicate major sections of a piece.

But it gets better. You could have a dozen Twitter streams. What does the conductor think about, while she’s conducting the piece? What’s the hardest part for the principal flute? What passage in the horns makes the principal trumpet player’s hair stand on end? All kinds of people in the orchestra could send tweets during the performance, or rather could write them in advance, and have them sent out at the proper time by others. Someone in the audience could decide which Twitter streams to follow, or could follow them all.

(A few years ago I was involved with a project called the Concert Companion, which delivered real-time program notes to handheld devices. People who tested the system mostly loved it, but look what was needed — special handhelds, and a special system broadcasting to them in wifi. Cumbersome, expensive. Now you can do it all with cellphones, laptops, and the web, maybe not with pinpoint accuracy, as I said, but certainly some version of it will work.)

Some classical music institutions already use Twitter, as well they should, for marketing. You can sign up to follow anyone who sends out tweets, and if you sign up for a classical music insitution, you’ll probably get tiny press releases, sometimes only once every couple of weeks. This, needless to say, isn’t how Twitter should be used. Tweets need to be livelier, more frequent, and more personal. For something better, follow the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra or the Museum of Modern Art, whose Twitter feed talks about all kinds of art things, even some that aren’t at the museum (though I haven’t seen any tweets since before Valentine’s Day). (Added later: The best LACO tweets are here.)

MOMA — whose tweets (and this is how Twitter ought to work) come from a real person, with a name, even has Twitter conversations with some of the 5000-odd people who’ve signed on to follow. Which is another key to proper use of social networking. It goes both ways. You talk to the people who care about you, and they talk back to you.

I’ve blogged about social networking before. Classical music institutions need to learn how to use it. As a friend of mine says (he’s a mangement consultant), they’re using new media mainly to deliver the messages older media were good for. We can do better.

You can follow me on Twitter. Not the same as the blog — more personal.

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  1. says

    Brilliant, Greg. I was lamenting the death of the Concert Companion the other day (especially since we never got it down here in Australia), because I still think a real-time commentary is a phenomenal idea waiting to be really done properly(providing you can get someone to write the comments in English, which as you well know, is not usually the way we do things in the classical music world).

    Especially I was just thinking the other day that commentary plus thoughts from the performers would be a cool live broadcast to see.

    The only drawback, of course, is that if it’s going to people’s phones, how do you make sure nobody’s phone rings in the middle of the performance?

    I pondered that myself. If you have an iPhone, you can put the phone in flight mode (aka turn off the phone function), while keeping WiFi active, so you can connect to the Web. Of course, then you have to connect to a WiFi network the orchestra would provide.

    Better idea: turn off the sound on the phone. Even turn off vibration. Then if you get a call, nobody gets disturbed, and you don’t haveto answer it. This isn’t a perfect solution, but I think it’s workable. If your phone gives you that much control, that is.

    I’d modify the Concert Companion idea, by the way. Originally it gave several program notes each minute, meticulously timed to particular spots in the music. Someone had to dispatch each note, score in hand. I think it’s more feasible, and also maybe easier on people who use whatever we come up with, to get updates every other minute or so, at most. With, as I suggested, the option to tune into various streams. The Concert Companion proved very difficult in many ways to implement, and one difficulty was writing so many precisely-timed soundbites.

  2. Peter Flint says

    I’m all for adopting new technology in music (that was my major at Oberlin after all), but I can think of few concert hells worse than a whole audience sitting there poking away at their glowing cell phone screens during a performance.

    There has to be a happy medium somewhere in between.

    Many younger people arer completely comfortable with this. There could be various accomodations — use the system only a certain concerts, and (for non-subscription events, anyway) only in certain sections of the audience.

    When the Concert Companion was tested, nobody seemed to mind the glowing screens. Many people in the audience were holding specially desgined Pocket PCs, and those sitting near them didn’t complain.

  3. says

    I’m all for classical music institutions staying up to date with the latest technological innovations, but I’m also kind of with Peter F on this at heart. I guess the beauty of it is that person A can “follow” the music via real-time commentary on Twitter while person B can be sitting even next to A, experiencing the music instead as an organic whole. As long as person A Twittering doesn’t bother person B…

    If it were my recital, I’d play a piece twice. Once so that everybody can play with their gizmos and follow the play-by-play, but then a second time where they have to put them away and just listen, with a chance at least to experience the “canvas of time” that classical music lays out, an experience so different from any other we have in our modern lives.

    I love it! We’re already generating new ideas.

    Interesting assumption, by the way, that the canvas of time will only be perceptible if one listens without doing anything else. Don’t know if I agree. Before the 19th century, people followed symphonies while talking, and clapping whenever they heard something they liked. I incited an audience to do this at a Pittsburgh Symphony concert I hosted, and you could hear from how their applause varied from point to point that they were following the piece very carefully. Beyond that, I’d think someone dancing to the music would move along the canvas of time physically, and feel the flow far more intensely than someone who just sat there, immobile and silent.

  4. says

    I’m sure there are all sort of good uses Twitter could be put to for classical music, and what you’re proposing is an interesting idea, but I have one serious concern:

    A deep underlying problem facing classical music is the perception that it’s elitist. That elitism manifests in many ways, but here are some key ideas included in the elitism perspective:

    1. Classical music is great and good for you whether you get it or not.

    2. Classical music is smarter than you are, so you probably need to have it explained to you.

    3. If you don’t study the music and understand it you’re missing out.

    4. The opinions of experts are more valid than your own opinions.

    5. If you don’t like it it’s probably because you don’t get it.

    The problem with the concert companion and the Twittered version of it is that it reinforces those ideas. The more tools an orchestra uses for delivering education and explanations of the music the more valid the above ideas seem. The underlying message of concert companion type tools keeps the audience at arms length by reinforcing an existing hierarchy of power, knowledge, and cultural value. There’s a sort of learned helplessness in segments of the classical audience and I worry that the concert companion strategy is bad for the audience even if they like it.

    That said, if the concert twitter feed felt more like PopUp Video or like a DVD commentary track I could see it working, but is the live concert really the best place for that?

    The real advantage of twitter for public people and organizations is the way it can be used to cultivate the sense of a personal connection between you and the twitterer. To me the most interesting possiblity for twitter would be personal twitter feeds from some key orchestra figures which they maintained all the time.

    Suppose the Music Director for Local Symphony Orchestra had a public twitter feed and she tweeted about her day. Everything from “Just had the first rehearsal for the Beethoven 9. Some rough spots in the third movement that we’ll need to iron out, but otherwise it sounds great.” to “Time to go grocery shopping–only food left in the house is Kraft Macaroni and Cheese.” Suppose the orchestra made multimedia tools available so that she can post links to little snippets of concerts or rehearsals. The personal connection between the MD and the audience would keep people engaged, would indirectly sell tickets because when the MD seems genuinely excited about a concert (as opposed to excited because marketing needed a quote) the audience can’t help being excited too, would enhance fundraising because one of the key factors is affinity, and would build up a reservoir of audience trust which could be spent on adventurous programming.

    Galen, I’ve made similar arguments about educational approaches. But the actual experience of the concert companion didn’t support your hypothesis. People who used it said in focus groups that it brought them closer to the music than they’d ever been. Or, in the terms you used, made the concert less elitist. Reactions from some longtime NY Philharmonic subscribers were especially telling. People admitted that they’d never learned to recognize which instrument was which, and were thrilled to be told when the English horn was playing. One man said he’d heard Petrushka for 20 years, and finally, for the first time, knew what its story was, and could follow the story.

    The educational efforts that I think have the effect you warned about are the ones that take place outside the concert, or before it — if, that is, they’re marketed by telling people that now, at last, they’ll be able to understand what they’re hearing. With, most crucially, the subtext that they’ll never be able to understand if they’re not educated first. That’s the killer here — the assumption that classical music is so complex that nobody can get into it without being indoctrinated beforehand.

    I’d support people experiencing the music any way they like. And, you know, I wasn’t proposing my Twitter idea with any educational purpose. It’s just to open concerts up, as other experiences are being opened.

    The Pittsburgh Symphony uses or used something they’ve called Concert Messaging. Facts about the piece being played are projected from time to time on screens the audience can see. From what I’ve heard, this worked very well for them, and, again, made the concerts feel less elitist.

    One last thought. The best thing of all, for me, would be performances so vivid that no explanation is necessary. Though again I’d stress that I didn’t suggest my Twitter idea to explain the music to the audience.

  5. says

    Galen, I agree the most with your last point, and think this is really the essence of the potential Twitter has to the musical world. As cool of an idea like Greg’s “live-tweeted” concert is, I tend to agree with Peter’s comment about not wanting a bunch of phones in use during a concert.

    It might be interesting, though, to have an open rehearsal, where the members of an orchestra could send tweets from the stage, during the rehearsal, with comments such as “Ouch… I need to work on my intonation in the 4th Movement” or “When will the maestro quit beating the same three measures into the ground and let me play my horn?!” I think the non-performing public is so exposed to the idea of a “concert” with everyone silent and just the performance going on, that it would be interesting to hear the personal thoughts of the musicians during the PREPARATION of the pieces. Hashtags (see could help sort the Tweets so not only people AT an open rehearsal could follow them, but so could music fanatics at home.

    Great post, Greg, I am glad to have found your blog and look forward to reading more!

    Thanks, Andy, and I’m delighted to return the compliment. Your suggestion is fabulous.

    This is when I like this blog the most — when ideas start coming from many people. That’s when I feel I’m really doing something useful, and that all of us together can change classical music.

  6. says

    The ability to comment in real time on the performance is an element of performances in Second Life that has become popular among classical fans in that virtual world. Twitter could certainly be used to that end, with people at concerts commenting on the show, using hashtags to follow each other. A rep with the orchestra could even retweet their favorite comments by audience members.

    I’m not sure that I, personally, would be bothered by sitting next to someone using a mobile device to tweet during a concert. Would it really be that obtrusive? Maybe at an opera, where the visual component is more central to the experience. If using Twitter somehow during a performance would get more people to performances and give them a more satisfying experience, I think the tradeoff would be worth it.

    Nice, Mike. (And I’ve enjoyed your blog, by the way.) A couple of people who follow me on Twitter also suggested that listeners can react. Your idea of an orchestra rep picking responses to retweet makes a lot of sense. It’s like CNN passing on tweets from viewers during some of their shows.

    In opera, maybe the Twittering would be least distracting, because people are looking up at the stage.

    Back to audience reaction. Some audience members might get known for their in-concert tweets, and develop followers of their own. A smart orchestra would welcome this — enthusiastically — rather than want to control everything that its audience receives.

  7. richard says

    I’d be happy as a clam if they made study scores available, particularly for newer/non-rep works! But I’m a musician and not really a significant part of the classical music demographic

    I’d think a smart orchestra (or opera company, or string quartet) would want to cultivate its musician audience. I love the idea of making scores available. But it could be insanely expensive to lend out printed scores, especially of new pieces. And very cumbersome for the performing organization’s staff. They’d have to make sure, for instance, that they got all the scores back.

    So in the future, maybe they could provide digital scores on a screen. The Met used to have score desks, as they were called, where scholarly operagoers could follow the scores of the operas being performed. You’d bring your own score, of course. In the updated version, there’d be digital score desks, and those using them could page through digital scores on a screen. Won’t happen this week or this month, but maybe someday.

  8. says

    “I think the non-performing public is so exposed to the idea of a “concert” with everyone silent and just the performance going on, that it would be interesting to hear the personal thoughts of the musicians during the PREPARATION of the pieces”

    The last thing I as a performer want to do in a rehearsal or performance is tap into twitter to send out a message to all my cyber “friends” in an effort to convey anything beyond what one might observe and hear in that scenario. (Most of) my personal thoughts are my own and none of your damn business.

    There is a level of trust among musicians that needs to be respected if you are – over the course of several performances – going to develop long term relationships with your collaborators. When I am in a room with one or two players trying out a new idea it IS a private affair. Any degree of self-consciousness can negatively impact the realization of a new work. And twittering during such an intimate experience seems like a great way to stifle the creativity of all involved in a rehearsal or performance. I also don’t spill my guts via my blog for the same reasons.

    Now I’m speaking as a composer and performer. The audience…that’s a whole other thing. I would encourage twittering during one of my gigs. I played a relatively late gig last Sunday and some twittering might have brought out more bodies over the course of our two sets (although we had a decent crowd to begin with).

    Chris, if you don’t want to share your thoughts in rehearsal or other preparation, you shouldn’t do it. Same for anyone else who feels that way.

    I also can’t see stopping in the middle of rehearsal to Twitter something. I do most of my Twitter things when I’m having downtime, or taking a break. Like yesterday, when I had to spend hours sitting around in Rochester, before and after my Eastman class. When I’m busy, and especially when I’m busy with something I love, it’s not what I’d think to do.

    But people differ. Others would love to share their process, and wouldn’t feel it blocked their creativity. In fact, I could see this helping creativity. Are we all such perfect artists that we wouldn’t benefit, individually and together, from rethinking what we do? If we shared some of our thoughts about our work, even in progress, we might open our own minds to something new.

  9. says

    Without siding for or against, I wanted to share this genuine audience comment received after our latest LSO Discovery Family Concert:

    “We greatly enjoyed the concert of dance music – the introductions were great and the musicians fabulous, and very patient. Only one jarring note: the projections. Even my 9 yr. old commented how distracting they were. If you have the name of the piece and author, that’s fine, but it’s a concert, and the minute you show moving images, the audience is compelled to watch those and pay little attention to the music.

    distracting and superfluous.”

    Thanks, Jo.

    In my experience, people react in all sorts of ways to these innovations. Some love them, some hate them. In the ’90s, one of the biggest American orchetras tried setting up video screens at some concerts, so people could watch closeups of the conductor and orchestra. Many people at the concerts loved them. But 25% of the audience and 25% of the musicians hated the video screens so vehemently that the orchestra had to stop using them.

    Some years ago, I worked on the Concert Companion project, in which people in the audience could use a handheld device to read real-time program notes. They could also switch channels, and watch a video feed of the conductor. This was really hard to set up, technologically, because of latency — a delay in the video feed that seemed short, measured in milliseconds, but which was long enough to make the video feel out of sync. The people behind the project solved the problem using technology developed for nuclear submarines!

    The video feed was also dinky, if you ask me. A tiny headshot of the conductor. And a conductor who moved a lot could easily move out of the frame, so you’d see only part of him.

    But some people using the device just loved the video. Go figure. People differ widely in their tastes.

    One answer for the LSO might be to have some concerts with projections and some without. Or simply to accept that some people won’t like them (or anything else new that you try).

    A question, though, might be about the projections themselves. Maybe they weren’t very good! Or, more precisely, maybe they truly were distracting, but other projections might not have been. I think you might want to compare experiences with other orchestras, and also survey your audience more scientifically, to get a more balanced view of what the reaction really was. You might want to talk to the Atlanta Symphony, which I know has used video at some of its concerts, apparently with success.

    We’re in new territory here, and we should be careful not to put too much weight on individual reactions.

  10. says

    Thanks for your comment on my comment Greg. I agree, not very scientific a survey – in fact it wasn’t even a survey, it was a comment sent to us unsolicited and I thought a quick gut reaction from a young member of the audience adds to this discussion.

    In fact we have tried video projections in various forms several times, a year or two ago, with scientific surveys to gauge reaction. Overwhelming result – terrible. Of course, those that didn’t respond in all likelihood had no strong feeling towards them, so as always results appeared worse than they actually were.

    But if I might put some audience statistics onto your 25% figure of dissatisfaction quoted in your Concert Companion trial – 25% of our audience, and the 25% most likely to dislike this form of innovation, are the same 25% who come to the LSO regularly (by this I mean more than 3 times a season). The remaining 75% of the audience probably only comes once each season, and even once ever. So are we risking alienating our core, regular, committed attendees, who provide the bulk of our ticket income, by trying to appeal to people who probably won’t come again, no matter how we present a concert?

    By the way, these figures I know are not the same in the US, where subscription bookings far outweigh single ticket sales. London is a very different market!

    Anyway, I know you will say that we aren’t looking forwards and that we need to innovate more to attract people back. But I would say to you that the LSO does innovate, but chooses who to very carefully.

    And on a personal note, I think that the fault does not lie with orchestras or classical music and its ability or inability to “move forwards” per se, but right back at school, where music education (at least in the UK) is virtually non-existent. That’s where we need to begin. And that’s why my snippet of a comment from a nine year old’s dislike of the video screens was relevant – he understood what the concert was all about without visual aids. He didn’t need converting. We need more kids like him!

    Finally – I’m not totally against the tweeting during concerts. Far from it. But choose targets carefully is what I’m saying; maybe an open rehearsal or a specially-arranged concert where it’s marketed upfront so that those that don’t want to take part needn’t have their evening ruined by what they see is an intrusion into their personal experience.

    I think what you say applies to the US as well as the UK. Here, too, there’s a risk of alienating the core audience. Doesn’t matter if they’re a subscription audience or not. (And the percentage of subscription sales has been steadily falling in the US for quite a while.)

    I think classical music institutions are faced with a problem. They need to do new things (my view, anyway), but also need to keep doing the old things, for the sake of their established audience. And where are they going to have the time and money and staff to do both at once?

    Another US orchestra you might talk to would be the Pittsburgh Symphony. They’ve tried concert enhancements of various kinds, apparently with great success.

    I can’t have much confidence in the reaction of one nine year-old. I could give you back stories about kids that age completely rejecting the concert experience in any form. Doesn’t prove a thing. In so much of what we do, serious data is lacking. To guage reaction in any kind of scientific way to your projections, I think you need a variety of tools, starting with focus groups and individual interviews. This is because the reactions might be complex. People you survey might not even fully understand their own reactions. This is why you have to talk to them directly. And then if you want to do a survey, I’d suggest random phone calls, or e-mail, to people who attended, as a way of trying to lessen any selection effect. The thing to watch out for, of course, is that people who disliked the projections might have a stronger feeling than those who liked them, and hence would jump at the chance to tell you what they thought.

    As for music education, you and I differ about that. As, I guess, I differ from much of the classical music world in the US. I don’t think that people listened to classical music in the past because they were taught to, and I don’t think that teaching people now will make them listen. I’m not going to go into all the details here, but one thing to consider might be: What makes people interested in new kinds of pop music? Take the harsh sounds of a lot of alternative rock. Was anyone taught at school to overcome some presumed bias toward melodic music, and like indie rock instead? Not at all — the new music fit with other new cultural developments, so people took to it naturally. Not everyone, but enough people to make the new sounds viable.

    In the past, classical music was much more at the center of our culture, and that (in my view) is why people liked it. It’s also why it was taught in the schools. That is, for me the cause and effect goes the opposite way from what people would like to think it is — the education is the result of the taste for classical music, rather than the taste being the result of the education.

    I suppose someone will say that classical music is different, because it goes on longer than pop music does. But that, too, is a cultural expectation. No one has trouble with long movies. And Grateful Dead fans didn’t have trouble with long jams from the Dead. (No drug jokes, please. You could just as well smoke some pot and groove on Beethoven for half an hour, if that happened to be your musical taste.) The problem with classical music, or rather the reason people don’t take to it these days, isn’t its length (in my view), and certainly not its presumed complexity (which I think is wildly overstated). It’s more likely to be the content of the music. But that’s another story!

  11. says

    Well of course Greg, you should know that I’m kind of talking personally, from home late on a Friday night without any figures to quote at you to back up what I say. But we are not without research and data. In fact we’re just embarking on another new round of audience monitoring with Audiences London and some other big orchestras and venues in London. The results will be publicly available when finished (I know lack of data is one of your major bugbears!) and might provide some more data with which we can make much better strategies for the future.

    (By the way, the Twitter discussion you were having tonight was with one of our players. Kind of interesting to note his feelings and how players feel differently towards this kind of thing to the admin staff isn’t it!)
    Would love to see the data when it’s available, Jo. Thanks so much for telling me about it. And thanks to the LSO for gathering it! I’ll be happy to keep it confidential, if that’s what the LSO would like.

    I know I was having my Twitter dialogue with a musician. But, you know, they vary. Here’s an anecdote, offering another sample of one. Some years ago, I was involved with a test of the Concert Companion with the New York Philharmonic. I’ve talked about that before — that was a handheld device on which the audience could read real-time program notes. I wrote the texts. (Hardest writing job I’ve ever had, but that’s another story.)

    One of the pieces was the Ravel concerto for the left hand, with Leon Fleischer as soloist. Fleischer hated the idea of the concert companion so much that he refused to play if it was used during the Ravel. Of course we all gave into him, and so we only used the device during the other pieces on the program, the Ives Three Places in New England, and Petrushka.

    One of the Philharmonic string players, though, had a completely different view from Fleischer’s. He loved the idea of the Concert Companion so much that he asked if he could have one, to watch while he played!

    As I said, a sample of one…

  12. says

    Hi Greg, lots of interesting comments here. I understand your taking issue with my comment about the “canvas of time,” but I think we’re talking about two different things here, you are coming back at me with the very valid point that audiences of the 18th and 19th century were not necessarily “sitting still” and just absorbing the music…on the other hand I think it’s clear that time moved in very different ways for folks 200 years ago, and one of the ways in which our modern lives have changed is our relative inability to sit still and perceive what is going on around us without dividing it into ever tinier and tinier chunks of time.

    Now we may be better at multi-tasking than our ancestors, but what have we lost as a consequence? For me, much of classical music (especially talking about works of one hour, two hour lengths vs. the several-minutes-long mini-canvas of most (not all of course) pop music, is an art form that challenges us towards modes of perception that are NOT the same as our everyday lives. I hate to see people miss that opportunity. For me that’s the basic reason I am a musician, is to try my best to give people the gift of that experience. I can’t tell them of course how they must occupy their minds while I am playing, but I am still resistant to active collusion with something that undermines that goal.

    Also, so much of this discussion is predicated on a certain kind of classical music (developmental, etc.) How are you going to have a play-by-play Twittering experience in some massive Morton Feldman piece or a long one by Jo Kondo, and don’t tell me that experience wouldn’t be severely compromised by the attempt!

    Thanks, Philip, for raising these very serious points. This is the kind of discussion I love to see here, whether I agree with everything or not.

    In reply to you, I’d start with Feldman. (And how lovely to see you mention Jo Kondo, whom I met in Japan more than 20 years ago. I don’t know his music, though. Sounds like I might like it.) I’ve loved some of his very long pieces, but I don’t think Twittering is excluded. But not play by play Twittering. I agree — that would compromise the music very badly, if anyone tried to describe moment to moment, or even 10 minutes to 10 minutes, what was going on. (Or I think it would, anyway. I’ll have to go back to the six-hour string quartet, which I have on a DVD, and see if, on reconnecting with the music, I really think that’s true.)

    But what might be interesting would be Twittering from people listening, about how they’re feeling as the piece proceeds. We’d have to agree on some ground rules, that the tweets would have to be serious. No silly jokes. Only tweets about a serious attempt to experience the music.

    But on the other hand, I’d like to shake us free, gently, of the belief that only by concentrated listening can we experience these pieces. Our minds necessarily wander, or at least they do if we happen not to be Zen masters, or the like. So I can imagine that acknowledging this, in tweets, could be helpful. Helpful in listening, in fact. I’m working on a notion — for a later post — that our “sit silent and immobile” custom for listening actually makes it harder for us to concentrate, because it rules out any physical reaction to the music.

    So suppose we allowed ourselves to move with Feldman, for many hours. Play the pieces in a room with lots of empty space, only a few seats, some pads on the floor, even futons (or some such thing) to lie on. Allow, even expect, people to move around while the music proceeded. I can imagine that I, at least, would listen better. Twittering could be part of this way of listening. No one would force anyone to read the tweets, after all.

    I could add that Virgil Thomson — as acute a listener as ever lived, to judge from his writing — wrote that a little distraction helped him concentrate on music.

    And about attention spans. Benjamin Button, clocking in at 2 3/4 hours, was nominated for an Oscar. I found it insufferable — way too sentimental, with nothing but the most obvious thoughts behind the sugar — but not because of its length.

    Movies regularly last more than two hours these days, and sometimes a lot more than that. They’re longer than they were a generation ago. So by that measure, you’d have to say that our collective attention spans have improved.

    Now, you might reply that movies are visual, but that shifts the discussion to another subject. We’re not talking any more about the length of anyone’s attention span, but about what they choose to pay attention to. You might prefer people to be listening to classical music, but the mere fact that they aren’t doesn’t prove that they’ve lost the ability to concentrate without multitasking. It just means they don’t care to listen to classical music, and there could be many reasons for that.

    It would also be interesting to check, somehow, the actual listening that people do. Do our lovelyl friends in the classical music audience actually concentrate all through every piece? And, conversely, do pop listeners never listen to an entire hour-long (or longer) album at a stretch? I think you’re making a leap from the length of a piece of music to the supposed listening ability of those who characteristically listen to whatever kind of piece it is. Maybe that’s not a leap we should make without further information.

    Finally, there are other areas of life where the current generation — younger people especially — clearly have long attention spans. Web design takes quite a while, for instance, as does computer programming. The stereotype of programmers is something I’m sure we’re all familiar with — people who never see the light of day, who work for 30 hours nonstop, and then crash. What about their attention span? Obviously, it’s focused and intense.

    Filmmaking? Demands concentrated attention. Producing a pop album? How about the concentrated bouts of creation that we see the contestants on Project Runway undergo? They might have 24 hours to design and make a complex outfit. This is serious stuff. They couldn’t do that if they weren’t concentrating very hard. They’re certainly not multitasking.

    And even playing video games requires concentration. That’s an activity that many highbrow people (and don’t worry, Philip, I’m including myself under that rubric) imagine to be braindead, the very symbol of everything wrong with our society today. But in fact it takes prolonged concentration, as Steven Johnson showed in his book Everything Bad is Good For You.

    So maybe, when we talk about attention spans, we’re talking at least as much about our prejudices as we are about reality. At least that’s a theory I’d put forth. Back to you, Philip!

  13. Yvonne says

    Ok, so I’m coming late to this discussion, but…

    After this post went up I read of another experiment that a theatre company conducted, which involved a kind of tweet-up at a performance of a play. The part of the report that was most telling for me was when the participants said that, while the tweeting had been fun and interesting, they felt as if they “hadn’t really seen the play” (or words to that effect).

    Of course, this could be turned a sneaky strategy to encourage repeat attendance, but concerts have far fewer performances than plays!

    But seriously, that response echoed my personal gut reaction to the idea. If I tweet from my computer (i.e. with a keyboard) I can send out 140 characters as fast as I can type, which is pretty fast, although nowhere near the speed of thought. But if I tweet on any kind of gadget (mobile phone, Palm or iPod touch) that slows right down. So already, in the sheer act of sending my tweet I’m going to be missing something. Add to that the formulation of a thought and, which is more time-consuming, the formation of an epigrammatic 140-character thought and I’m further distracted: crafting my response to something that happened seconds or minutes ago, while the music presses on. If I add to that any attempt to follow tweets from other concert-goers (bearing in mind that I’d be reading responses to things that happened minutes ago) the distractions would only increase

    I’m sure if I were to twitter during a concert performance I would end up feeling as if I hadn’t really heard the concert.

    I’ve found the same, in my so far limited experience. I like to tweet at intermission, or between pieces, or after the concert.

    If I feel rushed tweeting — as I would while the music is playing — I make lots of typos, and keep having to retype. A sign that it’s not comfortable for me, because by now I’m a speed demon on the iPhone.