Scoreboards — yes or no?

My “Orchestra scoreboards” post — or rather my reprinting of Michael Oneil Lam’s blog post — evoked a lot of comments. Some very supportive. Some people loved the idea of putting data/info about a piece being played on a screen in the concert hall. 

And some people didn’t. More on them in a moment. But it was good that one commenters noted that similar things have already been done:
The Houston Symphony and Pacific Symphony (and maybe others?) have offered something I think is akin to the scoreboard concept….both orchestras have held “tweet-certs” — concerts with tweets that served, in effect, as real-time program notes. 

There was also a project called the Concert Companion, some years ago — it offered a handheld device (a Pocket PC — remember them?), on which real-time program notes would appear, synced to the music. I was involved for a while, writing the texts. Proved very expensive, and the writing and synchronization aren’t easy at all, if you want to have notes popping up frequently throughout the piece. (If there’s any demand for it, I’ll be happy to explain why.)

The devices were expensive, too. Twitter is a much better solution, though I wonder about latency — whether the tweets would arrive exactly on time. 
The National Symphony, at one Wolf Trap concert last summer, had listeners tweeting comments (if I remember this correctly, from things I’ve heard). My friend Peter Gregson does this, too, in solo cello recitals. I’ve been there. It creates an instant community — him and the audience, each member of the audience with all the others. 

But now for the people who didn’t like the suggestion: 

…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….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. 
This threatens to turn concerts into exercises in didactic suffocation….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. 
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’). 

I sympathize with the fears expressed in the first two excerpts. But please — look at the larger thing happening here. Mike Lam goes to orchestra concerts, and has every reason to be sympathetic, because his wife plays in them. And he can’t follow what’s going on. So he makes this suggestion, as something that might help him.

So now come some experienced classical music listeners, who tell him — sorry if this sounds harsh — that he’s wrong, because they, the experienced listeners, don’t like the idea. And worry that putting the idea in practice would hurt the listening experience, presumably (to judge from the strength of their language) not just for them, but maybe for everyone. 

But how do can anyone know that? Have we surveyed the larger audience? Have we surveyed the young audience? Have we surveyed people from the potential new audience? I’m concerned that too much discussion of the future of classical music is speculation. “Oh, no, if we do X, then Y and Z will happen, and that would be terrible!” When in fact nobody knows, because X hasn’t been done. 

(I’m guilty of that, I’m sure, on the other side. “If we’d only do X, then things would be wonderful!”)

So please — let’s try to hold off condemning new ideas that aren’t aimed at us. This one was aimed at new listeners, maybe younger ones. Some really loved it. Maybe — speaking here to other people who, like me, have gone to classical concerts maybe all our lives, and loved them — something we’d never think of, and think we wouldn’t like, is exactly what will bring the concert hall alive for those we wish would come. 

And not in a cheap, commercial, or anti-musical way, either. Though the last commenter does have a point. Reaction to past innovations seems to show that some people in the existing audience don’t like new concert formats. So maybe, as classical music changes, orchestras and other institutions will have to provide both new-style concerts and old-style ones. Which won’t be easy, though it might be necessary.

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on RedditEmail this to someone


  1. Joshua Randall says

    I’d like to say that I think the twitter thing mentioned is a good idea. Most people are going to have their mobile phones on standby in their pocket anyway, this way they could get the info on the music they want and not be snarled at for using their phone in the concert hall (unobtrusively, of course).

    It could even be that the orchestra / whatever had a dedicated tweeter in the audience giving these updates: “Listen to this! He’s improvising his own cadenza! #iwish”

  2. says

    It has been quite amusing to watch the reactions to the idea. :) I’m glad that it has served to incite discussion.

    Rather than having entirely separate concerts, though, I would submit that it’s quite possible to display the information only to certain sections of the audience. In Dekelbaum hall at CSPAC (the UMD performing arts center), for instance, screens mounted in the upper box seats would be visible from the balcony section, and nearly undetectable from the general orchestra-level seating. My wife informs me that they do this very thing in the CSPAC opera venue. I feel this would be a useful yet respectful addition.

  3. says

    Just wanted to quickly chip in something here:

    What’s often ignored by the classical music world is the science of why people like certain kinds of music. For instance, it’s reasonably well-documented that why people like certain kinds of music is that the brain wants music that sounds like music it is already familiar with. In other words, if the brain can recognise the “pattern” of the music, then they like it. If it’s new or unfamiliar, then they don’t.

    Normally, the way the “pattern” of classical music gets lodged in the brain of a typical die-hard fan is that they had some combination of a) learning a musical instrument, b) learning classical music theory or c)listening to lots and lots of classical music.

    Because a), b) and c) are all done outside of the concert hall, traditionally program notes only needed to provide a little bit of extra information about the works being performed and the audience can follow it.

    What Mike’s suggestion would do, effectively, is shortcut having to have years of music theory or hundreds of CDs to understand the music. The scorecard (especially with a few comments) could provide the “pattern” that newbies don’t have.

    It certainly makes sense from a scientific perspective, so why wouldn’t you want to give it a go? Just because existing fans (who already know the pattern) wouldn’t like seems a bit of a lame excuse.

    Look forward to hearing more.

  4. Ken Nielsen says

    My usual comment – I hope someone tries it.

    It might not help but if the concert experience is to be changed (and if you think it should not, you probably should not hang around here) organisations must experiment.

  5. says

    I think you summed it up perfectly in your last couple of sentences. We have to be fearless with our commitment to innovate and embrace change, while also continuing to serve our traditional audience.

    Sure, the audience commenting here about how the scoreboard concept would debase their traditional concert experience doesn’t want these “distractions.” They miss the point. These innovations are not presented for them, it’s for the millions of other people who don’t care about classical music because we’ve allowed it to become disconnected from contemporary life.

    This notion of doing both, presenting programs that serve our sustaining audience while also innovating for the next generation of audience, is certainly not new. Just replace audience with customer, and try to imagine a business that has succeeded for decades without changing its product line to keep in step with modern life.

    The scoreboard concept could work with the right audience. If even that audience is small at first. That’s how innovation most often works. Embraced by a few, it grows to have a following and before you know it a new product line is born.

    Orchestras desperately need a new product line.

  6. a curious reader says

    Agree whole-heartedly 100%.

    The “old guard” needs to understand that while they are incredibly respected, they need to be willing to open up to experimentation in the hall. If they are not open minded to these new ideas and do not allow an orchestra to try and reach out to a more diverse audience then they are effectively killing what they love and hold so dear.

    I agree that maybe two concert series is the way to go in the meantime; have one designed on a format similar to what is the current standard, the other as an incubator for experimentation that is loaded with new music, technology and other things that might bring in a new audience.

  7. says

    It’s really not such a new idea. That’s pretty much the function of supertitles or subtitles in an opera or film. I attended a performance of the Messiah the other day with several family members who don’t know the work very well, and they were grateful to have the text in the program to follow along. I think the key is to figure out an unobtrusive way of providing information to the listener. Maybe concert halls should install the seat-back devices like the Met Opera has, which you can turn on or off, and whose texts are not visible to your neighbor.

  8. says

    I read the original post last night and was completely in agreeance with those opposed to the scoreboard. Alex’s comments in particular (the one quoted in this post), are most poignant. I know everyone goes to concerts for different reasons, but I am willing to bet that the new or inexperienced classical music patron is not interested in learning Music Theory 101 at a concert.

    Speaking for myself, a 28 year-old classicaly trained singer who obviously LOVES this music, I would find it terribly drab and even somewhat contrived to see a screen telling me, “listen for this”. It reminds me of the “Applaud Now” signs audience members would see at a live taping of a sitcom.

    Although Greg does make a good point in saying, “I’m concerned that too much discussion of the future of classical music is speculation. “Oh, no, if we do X, then Y and Z will happen, and that would be terrible!” When in fact nobody knows, because X hasn’t been done.” I realize this is a new idea, and it should be appreciated. However, I just find it very hard to fathom how it can make the concert experience anymore enjoyable to people who don’t already like the music for what it is.

    Just an idea, but, wouldn’t a better use of multi-media in concerts be to display visualizations of the music? Not that it even compares in spectacle, but imagine a planitarium “light show” set to music. These combinations of music and visual stimuli mesh well to create a total experience, more so than one would get if they were just listening to the music. I think the same concept, albeit to a lesser degree of flashiness, could be more interesting to the inexperienced concert goer than a lighted sign saying, “Now listen for the crescendo in the cello section”. Just a thought.

  9. jerome langguth says

    Dear Greg,

    I certainly had no intention of condemning the ideas of others, and apologize for the tone of my comment. To clarify, I would not count myself among the “experienced classical music listeners” you refer to, as most of the concerts I attend are rock, folk, or jazz shows. I attend at most two or three classical concerts a year, though I do enjoy classical music. My reaction to the scoreboard idea, then, was actually based on my experiences of non-classical events which have, or seem to have, more room for musical surprises and spontaneity. The scoreboard proposal seemed to me to add to the sense that classical music lacks surprises, a theme that you have recently addressed.

    My classical listening is mostly done at home, and this is related, I think, to many of the problems you have discussed on this blog over the years. I don’t follow scores or know much music theory, and my collection of classical recordings has a lot of holes in it (which I am continually trying to remedy). I come to Beethoven and Stockhausen via Bob Dylan and Miles Davis, so I may actually be part of the “new audience” you are interested in attracting.

    I thought about what I had written afterwards, and I do believe that I was wrong to dismiss the idea so quickly. Listening to classical music at home, I often glance at the liner notes to see where in the development I am. So maybe some sort of technology could help with that in a live setting, though I still worry about the effects of technology on public arts events. Perhaps a cell phone app that allows one to follow the music discretely would work, but I still don’t own one of those. In any case, I am sorry for the overly negative initial post.


    Thanks for taking my reaction seriously, Jay. I guess you’re a more experienced classical music listener than Mike Lam, but I do take your point about not being as experienced as some.

    Very interesting, your point about surprise. Hadn’t thought of that. Would be interesting to get some reactions from people who like the scoreboard idea, and things similar to it — if they feel less surprised. But then Mike maybe isn’t very surprised at what happens in classical pieces he hears, because he doesn’t really register the new events that occur. So maybe his suggestion would put him in a position where he really could be surprised. The ideal, of course, is to simply listen, without aids or prompts. But I don’t know how often that really happens for most of us. At the opposite extreme from the scoreboards would be highly educated classical types following scores while they listen. Seems like many of the objections to scoreboards would also apply to score-reading, but nobody says that!

  10. Jeff Dunn says

    This issue would best be solved in a manner to the way the Met handled the opera subtitles controvery, by controlling visuals so they affect only those who want them.

  11. Joan says

    A conductor’s score isn’t something that a non-musician can just pick up visually, like a sort of income statement graph. It has taken musicians literally years to learn how to read the clefs, learn the scale patterns, intervals, and markings only to FINALLY learn through MORE years of practice how to forget the the structural limitations so we can give it all away personally in pure sound and body to our listeners.

    Unlike an opera which is half text intended to be heard and understood, and which can helpfully display subtitles, only a few concert compositions have words written intended to be given to the audience. The score is not.

    But if someone has studied the score previously though, and then sitting back in the concert hall makes himself openly available to the music, the study might easily contribute to the meaning of the sounds that you hear. A lot of music students like following the score in concert. If you asked a neurologist, I bet you they would say that each way of listening does something or uses a completely different part of the brain. But that’s a very private preference.

    I think that concert notes make a big mistake when they present the score’s structure to readers, many of whom can’t read music, have never studied theory, don’t know anything about the players they see on stage, or who does what and how and for what reason. They’re here to be taken into feeling, sounds, to get away and to get taken together with all the others into a single shared experience. Today, most of them have missed a lifetime of slowly absorbed musical education from Tubby the Tuba to Bernstein, from playing and singing themselves in school, to playing in amateur community groups. Maybe the symphony could hire some more ‘out of work composers’ to write more adult educational live concert compositions, cause I’m sure your relative’s not the only one with this problem.

  12. Jon Johanning says

    Yes, I don’t think experienced concert-goers would bother with such gadgets, but it might attract some newbies who wouldn’t otherwise go. It would be something like the gadgets you are offered at art museum special exhibits, with audio comments on the various paintings. Some people use them; some don’t.

    The objectors to the idea seem to be assuming that everyone attending the concert would be required to use them, and otherwise would be denied entrance, or something!

  13. Gavin Borchert says

    A good rule of thumb, perhaps, for judging whether or not a particular proposal regarding classical concert presentation would be a good idea: Would you ask jazz musicians to do it?

  14. Bill Brice says

    I don’t see the problem with expressing skepticism about a new idea. I understand the value of non-judgemental “brainstorm” sessions, where ideas are collected for subsequent evaluation. But, at some point, it is still worth re-enabling that internal critic and thinking hard about “how would it work?”. And I disagree with the idea of real-time scoreboarding of performances.

    Would a rock audience or a jazz audience like to get phrase-by-phrase updates on technical aspects of the music? Would a movie audience want crawl text telling them “LOOK at how that shot is set up!”, “Notice the lighting!”? Would you enhance your own writing with footnotes reminding the reader as to which insights are the “important” ones? It is possible that such annotated performances might be useful as separate Lecture/Demo events, perhaps preceding the actual performance. But a little goes a long way there. When you provide a list of the the “important” elements, you are implying all the rest is unimportant.

    Several posters have commented on their feeling that they may lack sufficient Music Theory training to properly hear the music. But that same Theory can describe pop music — it’s just that audiences don’t feel the need for that descriptive system. And they certainly don’t need to be helped in “what to listen for”.

    And, after all, isn’t it the classic definition of “kitsch” — when an art form incorporates within itself explicit direction as to how we are supposed to respond to it?

  15. says

    As regards score-following, I know from teaching experience that students (both music majors and non-music majors) respond very positively to being “led” through projected scores as we listen. I rarely talk about a piece in class now without a PDF of the score up on the screen – even for students who can’t read scores at all, I find that they can get a lot out of seeing the score, how various elements interact, how textures take shape. It’s just one way of visualizing music, but it’s surprisingly powerful; and, unlike the Fantasia-model of visualization, there’s much less risk that the visual appeal relegates the listening to background.

    Last year, I was involved in a 2-piano, 8-hand performance of the 1812 Overture for a large, general audience of about 1000. Because the audience was going to be cued to fire paper bags at the end, I decided to set up a PowerPoint that would guide the audience through. Not having much time, I ended up using the orchestral score as the skeleton for the slides, which also contained information about musical details.

    Because there are rarely more than 4-5 measures on screen at a time, the listener can’t get lost for long – but I heard from many audience members how much they’d enjoyed getting to “follow the score.” Here’s what the slides looked like:

    And here’s more on the experiment:

  16. Victoria says

    As a culture-vulture who loves theater, dance, museums, and literature, I would LOVE to have a listening aid for music. Despite a 10-year professional ballet career in which my days were often filled with classical music, I don’t go to concerts because “I don’t get it.” I miss musical cues. I can’t distinguish themes. I don’t know the sounds of the instruments well enough. My mind wanders with no visual references.

    I bet by using a listening aid consistently (Twitter, whatever form) I could gather enough experience and auditory landmarks that I then could listen without assistance and build my own sound landscapes.