Orchestra scoreboards

From Michael Oneil Lam (who’s married to one of the students I work with at the University of Maryland) — an idea for making orchestra concerts more comprehensible to outsiders. And, believe me, he’s got reasons for thinking about this. He’s not a classical music person, but he goes to hear his wife play the bass in the University of Maryland Symphony Orchestra. And wishes he could have a little help in following the music.

He wrote this for his blog, The Free Arrow. I’m reposting it here with his permission. Thanks, Mike! What you wrote is especially valuable, because (at least in my experience) classical music insiders, when they’re planning outreach, rarely consult the people they want to reach out to.
Orchestra Scoreboards

My wife is writing an essay on the topic of increasing the relevance of classical orchestra music to modern audiences, and I had an idea of my own: orchestral scoreboards. Read more for details and an explanation of why this is not a crazy idea.

My biggest gripe about modern orchestra concerts is that I lose my place so easily. The program notes talk about an “icy interlude in the high strings indicating a modulation to the subdominant;” but even if I understood what a subdominant was, the violins are nearly always playing and they always sound high to me so I have no idea when the particular segment referred to by the program notes actually occurs. Thus, I have to look several events forward and backward in the notes and try to pattern-match them to the things I’ve heard in the past 5-10 minutes to have any hope of knowing where I am in the piece (“is this the ‘lyrical horn solo’ or was that the bit a couple of minutes ago?”). After 15 minutes or so of this, I inevitably give up.
Nearly every organized sport that is broadcast on TV or experienced live provides a scoreboard. The purpose of a scoreboard is to keep the audience informed about the progress of the event. It provides four main pieces of information: 1) the team names, 2) the current period, 3) the amount of time left, and 4) the current score. Below I discuss what I believe the musical analogies to these bits of information are and how including them in a scoreboard for an audience during a symphony concert would increase audience engagement.
1) Team names => current composer, conductor, and piece name. Most people can keep track of this information on their own, but it’s still helpful to have it in case someone falls asleep and completely loses their place.
2) Current period => current movement number and title. Again, most people can track the current movement, but occasionally orchestras play movements without pauses between them and it’s very difficult for someone who has not heard the piece before to determine when the transition occurs.
3) Time left. This is a bit harder to do in a concert than in a game, since period length more variable in music than in sport. However, a coarse-grained timer (in minutes, perhaps) would still provide helpful information: 5 minutes left versus 15 or 30 minutes, etc. Along with this, all descriptions in the program notes that indicate specific bits of a piece need to be tagged with their position in the piece in the same approximate time scale so that the audience can keep up and utilize the notes to their maximum benefit.
4) Current score. There’s no direct equivalent to a game score in a symphony concert, since there’s no obvious competition going on. So let us ask: what is it about a score that makes it useful to the audience? The score is the core piece of information that changes often and that keeps the audience engaged. It lets them know the context of the action they’re watching and when/where they should focus their attention. I believe a symphonic analogy would be an indicator of which orchestra section is currently playing the “interesting” part. This could be the main theme, a solo, an interesting transition, or any other event recognized as important in the program notes. The display could be as simple as icons or symbols indicating which section or instrument the audience should focus on.
There are two other questions about practical matters that I should address.
1) How would this information be displayed? Most halls already have the ability to display information to the audience, either on a projector screen or a TV screen. For other venues, these mechanisms are not difficult to set up temporarily for a concert. To maintain the respectful atmosphere of a classical symphony concert, the information should be displayed in as unobtrusive manner as possible while maintaining its accessibility to the entire audience.
2) Who would monitor and update this information? This is crucial. If symphonies provide a scoreboard that displays wrong or untimely information, it is even worse than providing no information. There must be a new position in the event staff: display coordinator. This could be a music student or simply someone involved in the orchestra management-someone who is familiar with the music and can make educated decisions regarding time estimates and section/instrument highlights. Presumably this person would meet with the conductor at least once to ensure that the conductor’s vision of the piece is fully realized during the performance. I realize that creating this position would mean a financial investment, but I feel that it’s a worthy investment.
With the additional information provided by a display like the one I’ve described, the audience would be better able to track the current progress of the piece. They would be able to more definitely identify particular features highlighted in the program notes, and they would not miss any of the interesting solos or transitions. With increased engagement comes increased memorability; the audience is far more likely to recount the event later in conversation and to recommend the experience to their friends and family. This would help to reconnect music patrons (both young and old) to the world of symphony orchestra music and all of the talent it encompasses.
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  1. a curious reader says

    Interesting thoughts. Along those lines: what if instead of just using the displays to relay “time, score” etc… use THEM as a way to display program notes? That way the notes can be synced to the score — more relevant information can be shown and it would allow the space in the programs previously taken up by the program notes for 1- more advertising, 2- (my fantasy) more information about the actual players. Instead of just listing names, list where they’re from, school they went to, etc…

    We’ve talked a good bit about the regional orchestra and it’s relevancy on here and I feel that by giving more information about the players it could be a way for people to connect with their regional orchestra. I know (at least in the south) people follow college football much more closely than they do pro and much of my “loyalty” to any pro team revolves around where the player went to college/is from. If it’s a hometown guy, I want to support him!

    Im curious to see if the same would work to create a positive image for regional orchestras and a “larger” image for the major orchestras.

    Reading this spawned an idea that I have no seen or read about: program mp3’s. Give out mp3 players that are synced with the music that provide program notes, interesting facts and other information while the music is happening. Id say the trick would be to only give the listener 1 ear bud so that the other ear is “free” to listen to the orchestra, while the other hears program info. Can be tailored to the user (ie- if you’re doing peter and the wolf, make a version for kids that tells the story with a possible narration so they can follow along).

    We’ve said that orchestras need to embrace tech. and Mike is on the right track imo.

  2. Martha says

    Not a bad idea but many (if not most) audience members would hate the distraction (there’s no way you could display so much info in ‘an unobtrusive manner’). Here’s another idea: time-stamping every program note, then Tweeting ‘look at note number 6’ every time you get to a new one. I think some orchestras (maybe the Pacific Symphony?) have experimented with something like this already? (Was it any good?)

  3. Alex says

    I think you’re wrong about this one, precisely because orchestra concerts aren’t football games. This threatens to turn concerts into exercises in didactic suffocation.

    Program notes are already almost always written by someone who has no idea who will be performing the piece, and very often they have a perspective on the piece that is rather incongruent with the performer’s conception of the piece and/or the listener’s experience of that performance. I don’t think that consultation with a conductor/performer would really do much to correct this incongruence.

    The importance of a scoreboard in sports is that there is a score to be kept — someone is winning and someone is losing and the spectators use data points and commentators to help them interpret who has the advantage.

    A big part of what makes music important is the personal meaning that someone derives when engaging with a performance, and a scoreboard highlighting those parts in the piece that the ‘experts’ deem significant seems to do more to destroy that personal engagement than anything else (many program notes do this already, but you don’t have to read them…). Could you imagine any rock concert (other than some painfully self-conscious hipster performance art) with a scoreboard that announces “here’s the bridge, note the expressive colors in the guitar harmonies”?

    This doesn’t do more to make concerts ‘alive’ or ‘hip’ but simply reduces them even further into commercial seminars on shallow connoisseurship.

  4. jerome langguth says

    Dear Greg,

    I am very sympathetic to the overall position of this blog and your efforts to engage a new audience for classical music, but this idea strikes me as both desperate and ugly. I would question whether providing scoreboard readouts for listeners who “lose Track” (myself almost always)will help anything. Indeed,I fear a predictable effect would be that many audience members would use the scoreboard as a way to count down the time remaining until they are freed from the confines of the music hall (this already happens with program notes and, of course, in church– I’ve done it myself). It replaces anxiety about losing the narrative thread (which isn’t necessarily a great disaster) with anxiety about how much time remains in the performance (think of how this might work with a Bruckner or Mahler symphony). The best experiences I have had with live classical music have been those in which a sense of community and the spontaneity and joy of music-making have radiated from the stage. Scoreboards would lessen, I think, the sense that anything unscripted might occur, or that something interesting might develop in parts of a piece that are not normally highlighted by reviewers. More gadgetry might also, to borrow from Cage, “ruin the silence” for listeners like myself who prefer fewer bells and whistles in art and in life.


  5. Kenneth Tabachnick says

    Isn’t this what Michael Tilson Thomas’ “Keeping Score” series tried to address? While not a real-time scoreboard, and therefore, not addressing the issue of whether such an idea can be effective for new listeners when it requires such an investment in advance, it was a very interesting multi-media attempt to help listeners follow and understand the music they hear.

  6. says

    I Like this idea – its the “metadata” of the music, being made visible to enhance the meaning for some people who’d appreciate it. The medium (music) is still the message, but as we’re being given programme notes about the content, why not give info about the context as well to enhance meaning?

  7. nrwins says

    I’ve been going to concerts all my life and still have trouble identifying the passages being played in relation to the program notes I am reading….assuming, of course, that the hall is light enough for me to read the notes during the performance.

    A scoreboard as suggested above would be a wonderful say to help newcomers get into the music and support experienced concert goers in their efforts to learn more about the music.

    Great idea!

  8. says

    This is a genius suggestion and I only wish it could make its way to the movers and shakers at the Philharmonic and Carnegie where I attended another concert a few days ago, wishing that some of those suggestions were in play. Without breaks it is often difficult to recognize the transition from allegro to andante.

    I attend concerts and watch sports events on TV, and maybe one reason I do the latter is because viewing the sports events doesn’t mean I’ll spend half the time figuring out things.

  9. Megan Gilby says

    This is a fantastic idea…while thinking about art funding in schools, it always irked us musicians that sports would never be cut before arts would. Combining the kind of fervor that sports add to art would be really interesting, and not to mention fun!

    It also reminds me of this (the genius of PDQ Bach):




  10. Bill Brice says

    Mostly, I’ve liked the various suggestions that have come in here for getting better audience engagement. But I don’t know about this one. Having a running visual commentary of a performance seems too much like the multi-level crawl text we’ve become accustomed to on TV news commentaries (“Hey! Here’s something even MORE IMPORTANT than what’s going on above me!!!!”). It sort of bespeaks a lack of faith in the power of the actual performance. If we want that sort of commentary, a better model would be Schickle’s old sportscast of “Beethoven 5” (which I still love!).

    I totally agree with previous posters who have commented on the need for program notes that are less formulaic and more helpful to tieing us into some essential feature of the performance. The medium for program notes could include web postings, podcasts, live talks, Q&A sessions, twitters. (And, BTW, why not leave the house lights on during performances? That way, the twitters around us would not be so visually distracting, and we could read our printed programs.)

    But, I don’t want to told how much time is remaining on the scoreboard (“will this symphony go into Overtime?”). I understand that, for newbie listeners — or generally, for new works, it might be helpful to know in advance the approximate duration of a performance. But I don’t want too much instruction on “how to hear” it.

  11. David Othmer says

    Fascinating idea. And I’m sure, just like apps on an iPhone, players, audiences and conductors will come up with other ideas to put on the scoreboard. Ultimately there will probably be a new language, a new iconography, developed that will enable both the display coordinator to input information fast, and the audience to take it in fast.

    As Mike says, the Display Coordinator could be a relatively low paying part time job for a student, but it would likely evolve–and this evolution is a good thing!–into a full time position that extends far beyond the performances themselves.

  12. says


    Thanks for sharing this idea. The scoreboard notion is intriguing. As you well know, many ensembles are tenants in their halls, so getting venue management to approve the installation of some such concert enhancement device may not be an easy thing to do!

    The Houston Symphony and Pacific Symphony (and maybe others?) have offered something I think is akin to the scoreboard concept. You probably are aware of this, but in case you aren’t, both orchestras have held “tweet-certs” — concerts with tweets that served, in effect, as real-time program notes. (Before the concerts, staff worked with their respective conductors to prepare tweets that included information about the composers, what was happening on stage/where the musicians were in the music, particular music phrases to listen for, etc. During the concerts, the staff members posted the tweets at predetermined times, synchronizing their postings to the music. Audience members who had mobile phones could follow some or all tweets.)

    Perhaps Mike, like many concert-goers here in Houston and in Orange County, would find tweeted information of use?

  13. says

    Dear Mr Sandow,

    Thank you for your thoughtful article. Your comment that outreach programs rarely consult the people they want to reach out to, was especially insightful in relation to problems classical music is having reaching audiences. Listening is an amazing tool, and musicians should be better at it.

    I appreciate very much that you have thought through and presented a model which attempts to bridge that gap.

    While the intention is fantastic, I feel that by fine tuning your idea a little, we can still open the world of classical music to audiences in such a way which doesn’t move it out of being a very sensitive and feeling-based experience, which is what is so nourishing about classical music in the first place.

    We can easily present specific series of concerts, which before each movement of a symphony, take the time to share with the audience a little about who will be doing what, by actually demonstrating little bits at a time. This may be showing how the accompanying works, how the melody sits so beautifully on top of that, how the sound changes as it is passed around to different instruments, how it develops as a constructed work – all through the medium of the lush sounds and feelings the sound connects us to.

    This way we can open the door to the essence and the very heart of the music without changing it into a less rewarding currency. Music is a feeling thing, not a head thing, and this is precisely why it is so refreshing, and why it is so important that we don’t distract listeners with lots of mental activity such as rustling through program notes, playing mp3 guides in their ears, or worrying if they are keeping up.

    In this way an audience is still very much more informed, yet they can then sit back and enjoy the music once the performance starts, exactly the way it was intended – just to be bathed in the exquisite sounds of classical music

    If we present this in simple terms without any musical jargon, it will just let people feel the wonder of the music, and we can certainly open doors for people who might otherwise find it all too complex or unfamiliar.

    I hope this is some help. Thank you again for identifying some real problems facing audiences at classical music concerts.

    Certainly tweeting or screens may work for some people,and we should learn from this if there is something to be learned. My concern is that music can be a very healing experience for the listener, and that with many information aids running through concerts we might run the risk of loosing this altogether.

    Best wishes,

    Rupert Guenther

    Musician, Music Educator & Producer

  14. Lawrence Eckerling says

    While the notion is certainly “interesting”, it defies and takes out of the equation the most important elements in music. Anticipation and Memory. The listener (and performers too!) must simultaneously hear where the music is presently, but also remember what came before it, and anticipate what is coming after. True, a baseball game reacts to what happened before it, and anticipates what will come after it. But a music concert is not a “sport”. It is an “art”. They are different. In a sport, what counts is the outcome much more than the journey. In “art”, the journey is just as important as the outcome. The scoreboard removes the element of anticipation out of the equation. Which means there are no “surprises” when it doesn’t happen the way you thought it would.

    I don’t mind “some” information, such as what movement we are in…but the “play by play” thing might be good at home, but not good at the actual concert.

  15. Neal Rea says


    I think this is a great idea! We don’t live in the 18th century anymore, so as modern musicians, we need to be open to try new things in order to cater to a more technologically oriented audience. However, while doing this, we need to be careful not to sacrifice musical integrity. While the scoreboard will help clarify some of the “musical ambiguity”, we need to remember that sometimes “musical ambiguity” might be just what the composer was after when he/she wrote the piece.

    It’s a tricky balancing act between relation to the audience and honoring composers’ musical intent…however I think your ideas are certainly pointing us in the right direction. Entertainment is an extremely competitive business and we can use any extra edge we can get!

    Neal Rea


  16. says

    With all due respect, I think this is a horrible idea.

    I’m a big fan of this blog and a strong proponent of the cause in general (“reviving” classical music and building its audience), but I disagree with many of the so-called “solutions” that are sometimes suggested here.

    In your book-in-progress, one of the main arguments that you adamantly dispute is the idea that making classical music more relevant/accessible will “dumb” it down. I think there are a lot of things that can be done that don’t dumb down the art, but this is most definitely NOT one of them.

    This idea doesn’t work because, as another commenter points out above, A CLASSICAL MUSIC CONCERT IS NOT A FOOTBALL GAME. So why try to equate it to one? I firmly believe that the best way to conenct people with the art is to show them how it relates to their life, but if that connection doesn’t compliment or enhance the art, then it just becomes a tacky gimmick. So, if a piece of music is not related to football (or any sport), then there’s no point in trying to make that connection.

    Talk about the content, talk about how renegade a certain composer was, talk about the historical context – any of those could relate to people and still have a point of relevance with the art. A scoreboard for a classical music concert seems uselessly pandering.

    This is a “lowest common denominator” solution. I’m not hating on all efforts to make classical music relevant… just this one.

  17. says

    Michael Christie, Music Director of the Phoenix Symphony and Colorado Music Festival, has developed something called “Clef Notes” that is similar to what is being suggested here. Clef Notes are numbered program notes that correspond to a number projected on or near the stage where the musicians sit. Someone who can read a score controls when the number changes and thus when people should read the next note. I am the Executive Director of the Tallahassee Symphony Orchestra and after seeing how successful this approach has been in Boulder, have convinced my board to try it for a season. (And I am the one who runs the simple power point that projects the number onto the orchestra shell.) We include the notes in our program book so that patrons may use them or not. The house lights must be up for this to work, which is the primary complaint we’ve gotten from those who don’t like the notes. It’s been great fun to get feedback from our patrons regarding Clef Notes–opinions run the gamut–but there is no disputing that when you look around, the audience is USING them!