How do they listen?

A thought, bouncing off the discussion of my “Orchestra Scoreboards” post — in the comments to the original, and then in my followup, and in comments to that. 

When I or others suggest changes in the classical concert format, some people worry that these will hurt the way people listen. If, for instance, we have a screen showing what’s going on at any moment in the piece we’re hearing, this will disturb people trying to listen seriously, or actually hurt their ability to listen. 

In my followup post, I suggested that all of this is speculation, and should be offered a little more tentatively than with the prophetic sense of doom some people adopt. But let me offer yet another thought. How does the existing classical music audience listen? Do they pay full attention? Do they know what they’re hearing? Or does their attention wander, and might they be helped by something that would tell them even things as simple as which instrument is playing?

I’ve done some work with classical music audiences, at three big orchestras, and my sense is that these people — whose love of classical music is truly beautiful — don’t always know what they hear. I vividly remember a focus group in which a long-time subscriber said he couldn’t identify the instruments.

But I’m using very scanty data here. I’d like to see a large research project, in which we’d find out — factually, and very thoroughly — what the current audience hears at concerts. We really don’t know, and our planning for whatever changes we might want to make would be vastly helped if we knew what we’re starting from. 

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  1. says

    I’m not sure knowing what one is hearing correlates much with enjoying what one is hearing. I know a lot of people who love popular music and wouldn’t be able to tell a bass guitar from a guitar and don’t have any clue what a snare drum is. They still love the music simply because of how it makes them feel, without thinking about it at all. Either way, the research your suggesting would definitely yield useful information though.

  2. Steve Ledbetter says

    Greg, I’m belatedly catching up with this series of posts, and I’m finding both your points and the wide-ranging comments very interesting. I, too, am constantly involved in trying to help audiences of inexperienced listeners get more out of their concert experiences, most often through program notes (which have obvious difficulties, especially of linking the writing to precise moments in the music–and the fact that no one offers a writer the sort of space necessary to do more than comment on a few moments in a piece), and also through lectures, which may or may not include musical examples.

    One possibility–though it requires some “homework” before coming to a concert–would be the availability of guided listening sites on the web, where an interested person could to take through a piece with as much or a little information as desired. I’m thinking of the extraordinary guides to Beethoven’s Ninth and The Rite of Spring, among others, that Robert Winter produced on CD about 20 years ago. These allowed on to listen to a recorded performance with a running commentary or to pause at any point for deeper discussions of harmony or other technical elements. Of course one had to buy the CD and invest the time into listening to it, perhaps several times over, to get the benefit, but these were extraordinarily well done.

    On the negative side, Bob Winter told me that each one took many months to create, and it had to be done at full speed, because the technology was always moving ahead, and if the result seemed outdated by the time it was finished, the commercial product would not do well. Of course, such things could be made available on the web, perhaps on a subscription basis, to support the cost of development. Even so, they would only cover a very limited part of the musical repertory–but they could provide experience in listening.

    There is still, of course, the more traditional lecture.

    In the last year my son–a trained musician and actor who is living in Singapore–has been hired to create lectures that he performs with an orchestra there in concerts aimed largely at younger audiences. Each time a single work (Brahms 1, for example) is on the schedule. In the first half, Bill is onstage with the orchestra and conductor, which illustrates all his points live. (I would love to have such a setup!) Best of all, they can take apart the piece, play individual lines, and put them back together–such as showing how the opening of the symphony spreads the top and bottom lines apart from a unison, or how the long-breathed bright horn call in the introduction to the last movement is a “trompe-l’oreille” played by two overlapping players. And of course such a lecture can provide a general introduction to the themes and formal structures. The lecture with music runs about the time of the first half of a traditional concert, followed by intermission and an uninterrupted performance of the symphony.

    Such concerts, of course, are specialized events in their own series, but they still offer a less technically elaborate way of approaching this continuing issue.

  3. Joan says

    Do Europeans go to concerts knowing what instruments sound like? How do they know? Magic? Theory classes? Special charts on stage?Or do they go knowing the complex language of musical meaning because they’ve heard it all their lives and their families have before them? Do you really think that composed western music is such an artifice that it must be taught as an academic set of information data in order to ‘get’ its sense, and that audiences must sit down with scores and pointers in order to ‘get’ it? Why just classical music? Why not visual art instructions mounted beside every painting to reveal the mechanics of the colour wheel, the art of mixing paint, preparing canvases, framing etc etc. Why do you think the language of music should be any more esoteric than that of the visual arts, or dance? The amazing essential truth about any of the arts is that, as long as everyone is given the fundamental sensual experiences and some active practice skills during the early years, and at the same time has constant exposure in society to all the arts woven into life like good architecture, fabrics or good foods, a normal part of human life together, then art is understood. Every art is understood. I don’t mean that everyone becomes a skilled composer or sculptor or dancer. But that that the content of meaning is married to the forms all the time, and people are satisfied, challenged and healed by it all. But how can an American culture of big boxes, reality tv, billion dollar concert halls,and dollar downloads, live with art as normal, as life? You can’t have complex art unless all art is normal and plentiful around you, like you can’t want or taste good meals unless your children have and eat good food.

  4. says


    Your December 22 post: How do they listen? with all its threads going back to 2009 Silent Listening and the more recent Scoreboards all touch on my life’s fascination and focus. (If interested, see my blog entry of Dec. 1, Notes from Maullaria, Opening Chord

    Part of the problem in discussing this matter is the imprecision of our language. “Listen” and “hear” are used synonymously today.

    Hearing…that miraculous sense by which sound waves enter the ear canal, set tiny hairs and bones in motion and, after being transmitted electronically over nerve tissue, are then “translated” by our brain into things like words and music. Gives one goosebumps just to think about it!

    Listening…is paying attention to the sounds being heard by our physical apparatus. It is a state of mindfulness that probably has a thousand of degrees of acuity which can be dialed up and down by human beings at will – from “barely noticing” to “observing every detail”. And, assuming our hearing is not physically impaired, we are all capable of applying that full range of mindfulness to real-time physical musical stimuli. Or, like composers, we can also apply this mindful state to the details of music heard only virtually in our heads. Really makes no difference. Virtual-imagined music or actual physical sound waves – the listening all takes place “between our ears” in the brain accompanied by simultaneous sensory “amplification” throughout our central nervous and endocrine systems.

    Because of the synonymous usage, at The Discovery Orchestra’s Discovery Concerts (See for a sample trailer of one of these to be distributed by American Public Television in 2011) and in classrooms I always create opportunities for individuals to have the hearing/listening “aha”. And you’d be surprised (or maybe you wouldn’t) by how many people from teens to octogenarians register on their faces or actually tell me after the concert “I never thought about this before!” Or even “Gosh, I’ve been coming to concerts all my life, and I just realized that I’ve never listened. I’d only been hearing the music all that time!”