Often people say that classical music — instrumental music — is abstract, and therefore not easy to understand. Thus, as one commenter said a few days ago, it can’t be compared to baseball and movies, which aren’t abstract, and therefore are things that people can readily understand. To understand classical music, by contrast, takes education. And preparation.

But I don’t think this is true. Here’s a response I wrote to that comment, edited slightly to make it more understandable as an independent blog post:
I think that in past generations orchestral music wasn’t considered at all abstract. Certainly in Mozart’s time, people followed it easily, applauding the moment they heard something they liked. There are stories from the early 19th century of audiences — when Beethoven’s symphonies began to be played with anything like regularity — crying out in wonder when they heard passages that amazed them.
And, in past generations, top-rank classical artists used to make up stories that they thought the great instrumental works they played would tell. And the audience did, too. For a wonderfully (and famous) example, look at the passage about Beethoven’s Fifth in E.M. Forster’s novel Howard’s End, in which a family goes to hear an orchestra concert, most of them 20 or younger. One of them makes up a fabulous scenario for the Beethoven symphony. Forster doesn’t write as if this was anything unusual. (And also as if the young age of the audience — plus the way they applaud after every movement — weren’t unusual either. He wrote this in 1904.)
So in my view the idea that instrumental works are abstract, and thus need training and preparation to understand, isn’t true. 
[The commenter talked about Hanslick, the 19th century critic, talking about instrumental works as abstract, but that wouldn’t have been anything like a universal view in his time. I think we need to see his thoughts about that against the background, first, of Brahms vs. Wagner. Hanslick was emphatically on Brahms’s side, and in fact fanned the flames of the conflict, making it maybe greater than it was. Wagner had thrown out the old forms, and Hanslick, defending them, elevated them to lofty heights they may never have occupied before. And the second piece of background here is the ongoing battle, in the 19th century, between classical music — understood as Beethoven, Mozart, Haydn, Mendelssohn, Schumann — versus popular music, understood as opera, especially Rossini. Plus concerts by virtuosi. One way of drawing the distinction was by elevating classical music to a superhuman plane. Hence the talk of abstraction.]
And the belief in this causes problems, I think, by (1) encouraging performances to be abstract, so that people don’t easily grasp them, and (2) encouraging people to believe that classical music is difficult, that they need to learn a lot before they can appreciate. And, most damaging, (3) by encouraging people to feel that they shouldn’t trust their natural reactions to what they hear. Which might well be to make up stories.
The classical forms in fact are very simple. Sonata form, which might seem the most difficult (though it can be explained in just a minute or two), is a narrative form, which means that it’s likely to result in pieces which naturally shape themselves into stories. 
And even its more abstract elements may not be too hard to hear. When I worked with the Pittsburgh Symphony, hosting and helping to program a concert series called Symphony with a Splash, aimed at newcomers to classical music, we did the first movement of Mozart’s Paris Symphony. Mozart wrote a letter to his father about that piece, explaining just what he did to get the audience to applaud (during the music, of course). I told our audience that they were free to applaud anytime they wanted, as soon as they heard something they liked. 
So they applauded while the piece was going on, and did it often. And the most striking thing was that the applause from one moment to the next changed a lot in its volume and quality. The most vehement applause came at the moment when the recapitulation diverges from the exposition. This was an audience that doesn’t know sonata form. But they could hear that something new was happening. So they understand, on a gut level, one of the supposedly most subtle aspects of sonata form. Which means, I think, that these things are far less abstract and difficult than many of us think. 

If I’m right in my historical analysis (in brackets, above), and the idea of classical music as something abstract took hold as something defensive, as a defense for the idea that classical music (or some forms of it) were superior to other kinds of music, then it would make a lot of sense — sad as it is — that these ideas have such currency today. People fall back on them to defend classical music’s unpopularity.

While I’d say that it’s only unfamiliarity that makes classical instrumental music seem so hard to grasp. Plus performances that flatten everything out. 

Think of symphonic movie scores. Everyone can follow them, can tell you when the music changes mood, and what the changes are. Why can’t they do the same in Beethoven or Richard Strauss?  

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  1. Tom says

    Thanks for your lengthy reply to my comment, which has become the basis for a good blog, I see.

    It’s hard to express all the complexities and nuances of what you mean in a blog comment.

    Music is not “abstract” to me nor have I ever tried to make it so as a performer, since communicating with your audience and conveying the composer’s intentions is one of the most important skills of a trained professional musician. But you can’t make an egg out of an omelet. If you sit down to listen to a piece of music you may never have heard before, which is 250 years old, and which simply has a title “Symphony No. 40” how can this NOT be abstract to the listener? I love Mozart’s symphony No. 40, yet when I am a listener, it is abstract music to me. Perhaps not to the conductor or the musicians, who have to struggle with learning and interpreting the piece – which requires a good deal of study and preparation – but I postulate that it can’t be anything else to the audience.

    Now Strauss’ Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche, or Smetana’s Moldau and such similar programmatic pieces are an entirely different matter, but that’s not the type of composition I’m debating here.

    Furthermore, of course music has a lot of structure. Indeed, it was often the rigors of those structural conventions of various styles in various time periods that a) enabled composers to write as much music as they did (especially compared to contemporary composers, many of whom seem at a loss about having no structures imposed upon them at all, which, I have seen, can lead to composing block); b) enabled audiences of the past to enjoy daring departures from convention and applaud the new “special effects” as they were happening, and; c) enabled them to understand the structure of the music.

    Your story about the “Splash” experiment with modern audiences is interesting. I would never postulate that no modern person without a musical background cound appreciate classical music. As we both know roughly 4% – 15% of the general population like classical music to a greater or lesser degree, and that’s probably beyond the percentage of trained musicians in the general population (though if you take in a year or two of high school instrumental study among the general population, it may not be).

    However, I wonder to what extent modern audiences appreciate Mozart’s “Paris” symphony in the way the audiences in Mozart’s time did. This is, of course, a bit of a non sequitur, since you didn’t pass around questionnaires after the performance asking people why they clapped when they did, and since we can’t take a 18th century audience and do a comparative test. You write that your modern audience had a “gut reaction” to sonata form; this may have been the case, but it doesn’t answer the question whether non-programmatic classical symphonic music in general is too abstract to be readily intelligible. Try repeating the clapping test with Mahler’s 9th or Prokofiev’s 5th sometime.

    Let me try to explain what I was getting at in my earlier comments better.

    First the issue of abstraction. Listeners of “living” music, i.e., contemporary music which is constantly renewing itself in a person’s lifetime, develop an acuity to the style and structure of their favorite styles of music. This is rather obvious, I believe.

    That’s why today’s audiences go wild at hip hop concerts, country and western concerts and modern jazz concerts. They listen to their favorite music all the time, and develop a sense of its style and structure, and are delighted by daring deviations. This, of course, is the root of all change in musical styles over time.

    Since people’s musical preferences, and thus their perceptions, tend to stay within a limited range of styles, they understand the structures and conventions of modern jazz, heavy metal, hip hop, etc. very well, and can discuss them intelligently.

    I don’t listen to any of those genres, so frankly, to me they lack all form and structure on the few random occassions I happen to hear them in the background or as I bleep past them on the radio while driving. This is perhaps being a bit obtuse of me, since, with the exception of modern jazz, which nonetheless is highly structured improvisation, most modern pop music (term broadly applied) is rather simple in its structure and form. If I cared to listen to it, I’d probably be able to get a grasp on the inner workings of the music, but that’s rather beside the point. I can’t discuss intelligently how Pink Floyd’s style differs from, say, Mick Jagger’s, Kiss’ or Rod Stewart’s. I haven’t grown up with it, and I haven’t learned to appreciate it. Most 30-40 year olds otherwise have no problem explaining the differences to me. I may be able to appreciate an electric guitar solo, or when the drummer lets it go in one of those bands – heck, it might even make me clap – but I wouldn’t say I understood the music as such. I think this is to a great extent due to its having no context for me.

    It may debatably be a weak comparison to use just myself and pop music as an example. Nonetheless, my point here is that Mozart’s audiences were used to the musical style of their day, and therefore grasped the relatively complex structures of sonata form, rondo, variations, sonata-rondo, harmonization et al. the same way kids and adults today readily understand pop music (using the term broadly). Understanding in this context includes – as before stated – getting what’s innovative and exciting, and what makes it different and more “cool” than, say, disco and 80s pop. Context and understanding, in other words.

    Let’s remember that in Mozart’s day, audiences in Paris were inundated with stylistically similar music at any given point in time. They had the Stamitz brothers to provide them with basic musical forms in repetition ad nauseam (though a few Stamitz compositions were above the average standard, [hurriedly added so as not to make violists mad at me]), as well as Haydn, Mozart and a boatload of other composers who are mostly forgotten today. When they went home, they could play sonatas or pieces by the same composers using the same musical forms, so they became thoroughly schooled in the music of their period. Just like most kids and adults today are experts on hip hop, funk, country, reggae or whatever their favorite styles are. And just like kids today can discuss their favorite forms of entertainment on an intelligent and comparative level, so the audiences of Mozart’s time could discuss the more limited entertainment forms available intelligently. The Austrian imperial family perhaps being exceptions in this regard.

    Indeed, the apogee of this level of musical understanding was reached in the mid to late 19th century, when a piano was to be found in most but the poorest of houses.

    The point I was trying to make about classical music being “abstract” for today’s audiences is that it is not a standard experience in their everyday lives. Of course people have much easier access to classical music today than ever before even if they can’t play an instrument, but that does not increase understanding, as we see from falling attendance numbers.

    Thus I wonder if Mozart’s audience would have clapped much if suddenly exposed to contemporary jazz or atonal music. Maybe some, with repeated exposure, would start liking it and would clap, but somehow, I doubt they’d understand the structure of the music and style unless they were trained musicians who could stretch their understand further than most.

    Or turning it the other way around, with the exception of Allegri’s Miserere, I doubt audiences in Mozart’s time would have grasped Ockeghem, Desprez or Palestrina. They would probably have been bored out of their minds, as the church music they were used to was operatic in style, Mozart’s Exultate, jubilate being but the latest example of a trend started back in the early 17th century. The very fact that we can appreciate different musical periods on their own terms is a very recent phenomenon, let us remember. Vivaldi’s 4 seasons only became familiar again after about 240 years of oblivion with I Musici’s recording of the concerti in 1960. Our listening repertoire has expanded exponentially at an incredible rate in 50 years. Singing Ockeghem in church ca. 1780 might have had the same effect of playing opera through loudspeakers at subway stops and other places where you want to effectively deter loitering.

    When you more or less deny that non-verbal classical music is abstract, Greg, you see things from the vantage point of a trained classical musician, who has been exposed to a heck of a lot of classical music and has had to learn to perform it. Such was also the case with Hanslick and his lofty view that music should not be heard with raw emotion, but rather analyzed while heard and appreciated for the beauty of it’s harmony, form and aesthetical breaches of convention. I don’t particularly agree with Hanslick on that one from a listening viewpoint, and regardless, very few people have listening skills acute enough to listen to music that way without studying the score first. I certainly can’t.

    Let’s remember that when playing Mozart or any other classical composer of absolute music, we’re dragging many in the audience out of the sonic surroundings of their daily lives and Looney Tunes cartoons. For you or me, this is easy enough, we’ve studied music. I’m not so sure it’s as easy for most other people. After all, are your or my listening experiences not enhanced when we listen to Mozart knowing the more pedestrian works of the Stamitz brothers? Is our thrill each time we hear Beethoven’s 3rd symphony not enhanced by the fact that we know quite a few Haydn and Mozart symphonies, as well as the 1st and 2nd Beethoven symphonies? The radical departure of the 3rd becomes so much more exciting and astounding in context.

    The more we can place what we listen to into a context, the less “abstract” it becomes. Musical structure becomes in a way much less relevant – it is, after all, just a tool of the trade – when a broader understanding is applied. And since music is very much a product of its time and customs, it’s not just understanding music that enhances the listening pleasure, but an understanding of an entire period in history when a particular style of music existed, since external factors influenced the style of music as well.

    That need for immersion for higher appreciation comes naturally to many people when it comes to music of our day or the relatively recent past. When diehard Elvis fans dress up as elvis and performers of Elvis’ music dress up and act as Elvis, and fans visit Graceland, they are trying to re-create the moment when their idol lived and deepen their understanding of his life and times. Succinctly put, to “connect”. A modern concert hall is the very antithesis of this human need of connecting with one’s idols. How often do you see orchestras dress up in powdered wigs, sans culotte pants and brightly colored clothes when playing Mozart? Does Symphony Hall in Chicago have an ambience that brings us closer to the mood of performances in Mozart’s day? I dare say not. Therein lies a part of the symphonic music audience disconnect. This temporal chasm, which divides us from the composers and the context in which they composed their music, merely serves to increase the level of abstraction I am talking about.

    I think that analogy indicates a void in the connection between music and audiences the further you go back in time. To overcome this void, one must do some homework to really “get” the zeitgeist, even if you are not listening to Mozart’s music in the Archbishop’s palace in Salzburg, but rather a huge modern concert hall.

    Second is the issue of comparison to movies, sports and any other topic people can discuss intelligently today.

    I think there is immediately a far greater connection with audiences once the spoken (or rather sung) word is included with classical music. Opera, as we know, is not suffering nearly as much audience fall-off as symphonic music, indeed, it seems to be gaining in popularity. My point was that this again demonstrates that once you have something people can immediately relate to – text, visuals, a plot – they are able to get into the art form much more easily and quickly, and become amateur-connoisseurs of it, than when the art is totally abstract.

    In a way, modern painting is analogous to symphonic music, inasmuch as abstract expressionists and color field and action painting are about as immediately intelligible when totally abstract as a Mozart symphony is. Try standing a person who appreciates photography but is otherwise not too familiar with modern painting in front of a Pollock or a Mondrian and ask them to explain what they like about it. Yes, an intelligent person will be able to spin a story, but does that mean they truly “get” the painting? If you study painting history, you may appreciate Pollock in the context of the textural use of paint and other materials in a painting that was created on a horizontally, rather than vertically, placed canvas. You may admire Mondrian in terms of intuitive harmony and beauty that does not rely on purely mathematical proportion. This analysis is of course very simplified, but similar, I believe, to nonverbal musical compositions, which, like abstract painting’s use of colors, only have sounds with which to work upon the viewer’s/listener’s mind. You’ll probably get a lot of people to say they “like” Pollock or Mondrian, to continue using these examples, but ask them to explain why they like them. And how many people do you know that have Pollock or Mondrian reproduction posters hanging on their walls (OK, in the case of Pollock, a poster might be a bit ridiculous, but you get my point)? In the face of utter abstractions titled “symphony No. 40” or “Canvas No. 2” context is requisite for understanding.

    Finally, let’s remember that in film scores the music is inextricably linked to a visual sequence. A Mozart symphony is not linked to an indelible cinematographic moment, unless used in a film, but if not specifically composed for a scene, that kind of use of classical music most often becomes mere “mood” music, not too far derived from its use in supermakets. Of course people remember the music in the Hitchcock shower scene or the thumping before the attack of Jaws, and the Korngoldian epic slave galley rowing theme in Ben Hur. But you can’t compare that to a Mozart or a Brahms symphony! How are people supposed to put a Mozart or a Brahms symphony into some “vision” without a starting point? Sure, we can all make up cute stories based on abstract music using a bit of imagination. When I was playing the Scherzo of Mendelssohn’s D minor trio, it reminded me of a fox-hunting scene. When I shared my thoughts with my fellow players, they had a hearty laugh telling me I was completely nuts. No reasoned arguments of mine convinced them otherwise.

    Based on this experience, you again come up against a discussion-blocker: while one audience member may develop one story about a given piece, another audience member may see it completely differently. So what is there to debate about? Purely personal impressions make for good stories, but they are rarely the basis for a good debate about anything, including music.

    But methinks I ramble on too much. Let this suffice. I think our positions are rather clear, Greg. You believe that symphonic music can be simplified (I don’t use the word with any derogatory connotations) to speak to everyman based on solely their individual perceptions, whereas I believe that music cannot be really enjoyed, or successfully entertain a listener, without understanding its greater complexities (I guess that makes me the Hanslickian in the end). This requires an effort on behalf of the listener, leading in part to the audience issues symphony orchestras have today, because most people don’t really even get a start on real understanding as music classes are slashed in the school system.

  2. Joe Shelby says

    I certainly wouldn’t have talked about “abstraction” as being a differentiation between Music and Baseball. I merely commented that in Baseball, all the players are playing the same basic game. In classical music, orchestras don’t necessarily play the same stuff, so comparisons between orchestras can be more apples-oranges than comparisons between sports teams. It doesn’t matter what any particular piece is, it is the fact that if one orchestra plays Takemitsu and the other doesn’t, than one can’t necessarily rate them against each other when it comes to Takemitsu.

    The abstraction comment is a bit off, and you’re right on the Wagner-Brahms, but it goes a bit earlier than that to Berlioz as the one who most developed the early “Tone Poem”. Beethoven hinted at it in the Pastoral, but insisted these notes in the score were mere suggestions and it isn’t necessary to envision brooks and picnics and a storm and a sunset (or centaurs and bacchus and zeus in the Disney version) to hear the Symphony 6 as Beethoven intended. By contrast, Berlioz’s work demands that the listener understand the plot he is presenting in the score. Bernstein once commented that there’s really only one piece of Berlioz’s in the rep that *doesn’t* have some literary attachment to it.

    In spite of Schumann, Brahms and Bruckner (the latter two did produce a Mass or two) and their history of non-program music, the 19th century was far more associated with literary arts than not. And not just in Opera, as many instrumental works of Berlioz and Mendelssohn through to Debussy, Sibelius, and Strauss can attest. Work after work that follows a plot (Night Ride and Sunrise, Alpine Symphony, Sorcerer’s Apprentice, all the way to Schoenberg’s Transfigured Night) or paints a vivid picture (Oceanides).

    For all of his abstractions, for all of his aesthetic claims that “music can express nothing”, even Stravinsky wrote far more music with a non-musical and plot-driven association (be it ballet, theater, or religious) than he did “abstract” pieces like Concerto for Piano or Symphony in Three Movements.

    I often refer to a Mahler symphony as “film music for which I don’t have the emotional baggage of having actually seen the damn film”. If one can’t glean a plot of some type out of the Tragic Symphony, one isn’t trying (or one is explicitly trying not to, which is also an acceptable way to listen to Mahler).

  3. says

    OK, Greg, a little Devil’s-advocate gotcha (or attempt at it):

    Weren’t those audiences listening to the premiere of the Paris Symphony and early performances of Beethoven symphonies well-educated and self-selecting? Didn’t the first performance of the Eroica, for example, take place in a private aristocratic residence? And even in public concerts, weren’t there large contingents of musically educated people in the audience? Wasn’t it common for much of the Viennese aristocracy to study music as children and play music as adults?

    The first audience to hear the Paris Symphony was not hearing a symphony for the first time. As you’ve pointed out, it was Mozart’s assessment of how the audience responded to orchestral music that he used in composing the work. A critical mass of those people could, for instance, and pretty obviously, recognize the recurrence of a theme.

    You write, “. . . I’d say that it’s only unfamiliarity that makes classical instrumental music seem so hard to grasp.” Exactly. I agree with much of the rest of this post. But I think that in addition to familiarity with the musical language and social customs at orchestral performances, significant portions of those early audiences must have also had some significant amounts of knowledge and listening ability.

    Just like baseball fans develop (the knowledge part, not listening ability). How many baseball fans never played baseball, never had a coach show them the fundamentals? And the entire broadcast of a professional sports game is a constant narrative and information session–unceasing “education.” Even something as concrete as baseball is explained and analyzed for its audience over and over and over. How many baseball fans are not engaged in constant baseball education through broadcast commentary, sports columns and sites, sports talk shows, etc.? I still find baseball boring–except when I watch it with a friend who’s really into it and describes what is exciting him so much.

    The other thing I’d quibble with in your argument is that responding emotionally to music as it’s being played is different than “understanding” the music with some amount of intellectual conceptualization (that’s an oboe playing, this is a new melody, the meter has changed, etc.). When you describe people reacting with applause to an effect music had on them in the moment, that doesn’t mean that everyone understood what had happened. It is indeed easy to respond and react to classical music if you become familiar with it; “understanding” what is going on is challenging. It really does help to learn a bunch of those leitmotifs before going to the Ring.

    Anyway, I don’t know that the real issue is a perception that instrumental music is too abstract, although I think you’re right about the downside of the “abstract” mindset. The sense I get from the teenagers and college-aged people I meet is that they perceive it as long and boring. With an emphasis on the boring part.

    As you often point out, classical music is frequently played in a way that makes it long and boring. What a challenge for orchestras! How often are you going to get 100+ people all involved and excited and into it at the same time, when so often so many of them can’t stand the conductor and resort to cool professionalism? And if the miracle happens fairly regularly, as it did when Mario Venzago was the MD in Indianapolis, it still may be the case that audiences don’t materialize. (And while most of the ISO loved Venzago, at least a couple of key principals didn’t. So getting everyone in an orchestra musically turned on at the same time is almost impossible.)

    I’m a teacher and I still think education makes a difference. Even when it comes to enjoying classical music! Yes, it can be enjoyed without explanation or formal education. But some musical education–if it is good–helps.

    Hi, Eric. Thanks for all this! I don’t think there’s any doubt that the more you know about something, the deeper you can go in your appreciation of it. And your love for it.

    But it’s also possible to love something a lot without knowing much about it. Take bebop. Very deep music, full of complexity. Complex extensions of familiar harmony, complex motivic development, complex phrase structure. My Juilliard students aren’t much good at following jazz solos from the bebop era. Sometimes they can’t even tell when a chorus begins and ends.

    But you don’t have to know any of that to fall in love with bebop. Early on, some of the first people to get really passionate about it were the beats. They didn’t have musical education. They didn’t know what was happening with the harmony. But it spoke to them. It told them something about changes in the world that felt like the changes they were going through. Musical communication on this level is very powerful, much more powerful than anything you can get from education. Which, in fact, might blind you to the raw cultural facts of what’s going on, by making other points about the music more important, or about making cultural factors items for study, rather than something you find in your gut.

    And about what people hear, whether they’re educated or not. They hear a lot. I once was hired to teach the staff of the Pittsburgh Symphony — about 60 people, even including the goth kids who worked in telemarketing — how to talk about music. As the subject for discussion, I picked Chris Theofanides’s Rainbow Body, which the orchestra was playing that week. I asked the people to listen to passages from it that I played from a recording, and describe them. Then I’d pick passages that changed, and asked them to describe the changes. They all could do it brilliantly. Better, in fact — to judge from their vivid, poetic, precise descriptions — than most music critics. (Extravagant claim, but if you’d been there, you’d see that i’m right.)

    And these weren’t people with training in music. Most never went to the orchestra’s concerts. They were going purely on their guts, which gave them as a good a guide to the essentials of what was happening than anyone with musical training might have had.

  4. Steve Ledbetter says

    Greg, the idea of inviting “untutored” listeners to make up their own stories to music hit home. The first time I “discovered” Beethoven’s Fifth, as a young teen on a recording checked out of my public library, and knowing nothing whatever about any standard musical form, I remember being struck by the brassy C-major fanfare-like sections in the slow movement, which trail off each time into uncertainty leading back to the original key and a progressively more decorated version of the theme. Of course I never used those words at the time. What struck me was a quality of pomp and arrogance in the C-major part, and I developed a mental image of snooty aristocrats in some kind of royal procession that doesn’t last long before it falls apart.

    It was completely natural and naive, in the best sense of the word. I suspect I had similar images for other parts of the symphony (and of other works I was eagerly absorbing at the time), but that is one that I remember most clearly.

    Reading your comments here, I am equally struck by the thought that I would never dream of using such images in a pre-concert lecture today–certainly not as indicating any kind of narrative–though that could well be to the detriment of my communication with the audience.

  5. Bob Judd says

    Hi Greg, thanks for this, and for all your blogging — I enjoy reading your thoughts and posts!

    One word here that you didn’t use, but that I think is crucial to the question, is inertia. Let me tell you about two of my daughters. One is 16, a pretty good cellist, currently off at summer camp in Interlochen and playing quite a bit of pretty good classical music. The other, 14, is home and doing other summer camp stuff nearby. We live where there’s a fine classical music summer series (Bowdoin Festival). The Ying Quartet is now in residence, etc. Does my 14-yr-old come with us to concerts? Perish the thought. She finds it not to her liking and resists strongly. With both parents classical music aficionados and w/ 6 yrs of piano… there was every chance that she would grow to like classical music more, but so far it has not happened. She likes her pop stuff/iPod.

    So… she has developed habits and patterns: the inertia is already extremely strong. Just getting people to *consider* the possibility that they might like classical music is a big challenge.

    I also wonder if the notion of commitment comes in to play when talking w/ my 14-yr-old. I suspect she feels that sitting quietly in a concert environment (no, or little, visual stimulation as found in movies) is not a pleasing prospect. No matter whether the reality is such, she mentally imagines what the next two or three hours will be (the drive, the waiting to start, the concert itself, etc.) that the prospect puts her off. I’m no psychologist, but I do think these issues may be a large part of what’s going on, and “it’s too abstract” is a simple [and “easy out”] pretext to try to avoid having to explain what is really going on.

    Last comment: even I, who love the whole tamale, as it were, have to struggle against the urge to resist: e.g. I just have not sat down to listen to an entire Wagner opera in years. I love them, but the time commitment always seems to put up an insuperable barrier. Other things to do mean a straight 5-hr commitment is just not found. If it impedes the likes of me, imagine what a barrier it’d be for a newbie.

    Thanks again — keep up the good work!!

    Bob Judd

  6. richard says

    So Greg, why is the most commercially successful music in my lifetime is ALWAYS sung?

  7. says

    There are very much commonalities between classical music and baseball, but I think those commonalities are different than the ones you cite.

    In particular, baseball is not at all something people can readily understand without background. I have taken unfamiliar Europeans to baseball games, and they are bored out of their minds. They clap when other people clap, lean over to me to ask “what’s happening?, pick up on obvious moments of high excitement, and make superficial comments about little moments in the game that would strike the educated fan as totally irrelevant. Kind of like what a lot of people feel at classical concerts from my experience!

    I would have to say that anyone describing baseball as having immediate appeal is very likely American and taking the cultural ether for granted.

    On the other end of the spectrum, though, you have the baseball stats geeks, which is an industry in itself. Fantasy and trivia leagues, people posting videos on YouTube of them opening new packs of cards, etc. They are just like the Amazon reviewers comparing the various transfers of a Horowitz Kreisleriana recording, or maybe like theorists arguing over the nature of the augmented chords in the Mozart D major minuet, except they dwarf the parallel audience.

    No one, however, thinks you need to be a stats geek to enjoy a baseball game; it’s just something you can do to get more into it. Somehow baseball transcends an inherent arcanity and becomes a universal.How do they do it? It’s a question that strikes me as potentially very useful.

  8. Paul Lindemeyer says

    Baseball gets to be universal because:

    1. It’s not at all intellectual in nature, however many middle-aged New York writers rhapsodize about it.

    2. It is uncomplicatedly masculine.

    3. It has no negative class associations.

    4. It is big business.

    5. It is thought to be purely American, without the taint of foreign origins.

    Any phenomenon that wants to be universal in American culture has to reflect what is most commonly enshrined as American – including all our unquestioned assumptions about who and what we are.

    As I think the 4 items above imply, classical music is never going to meet that task. It shouldn’t even try to.

  9. Mr. Memory says

    Classical music is abstract. How else do you think composers create it? it is through study and analysis of forms and structures and patterns. Why else do we have musical elements? Making music is not a random act. Good music–that which can be listened to thousands of times–survives partly because of its abstract qualities. There are new ways to understand it as one’s familiarity with the music grows. People who enjoy classical music are those who know something about it. This is why we should devote our efforts to education and teaching people what they need to know in order to be in a position where they can appreciate it. To suggest otherwise is not useful for music’s future. It is part of a broader politically correct effort in our society and in the academy to blur the lines between what is excellent and everything else, ultimately harming good art and true creativity and benefiting mass-produced, mindless sounds and objects for the sake of greater profits by big business.