Thursday, 14 April 2016


Why do we listen to difficult music?


If you listen to difficult music you are in an elitist group. This is written more in the hope that you will continue reading than for your information. We have seen in previous blogs that many of our choices are driven by the desire to belong to a group and if possible to have a high status position within that group. Some will instantly respond with the comment that blog writing has the same quality. The easy response is that education is selfless, and that these musings are for free proves the point, to some the fact that they are free implies that they are not worth paying for. For all that the opening statement is true but it requires a preamble to explain its significance.

 Let us begin with thinking about how we come to experience music before dealing with the matter of styles and preferences. Let us adopt the idea that there are two different approaches to listening to music, one is that we chose to listen and the other is that we are made to listen.  This view might be coloured by my experiences of teaching many different age groups and abilities.  It does offer some insights which are of value in answering the title's perplexing question:

 Coincidental exposure/choosing to listen.

 Examples of people coming across music that stimulates the imagination and interest is widespread thanks to media such as radio, television and film. Takemitsu cites American radio broadcasts as significant in the development of his style. As for television I have lost count of the numbers of teachers who use arrangements of well-known works popularised by advertising to hook pupils onto performing and appraising.

Any system of collecting and playing music will be shaped by the experiences of the person selecting the materials and it can be delightful to have ones knowledge expanded by a well-informed librarian or radio presenter. Radio 3 the UK serious music radio programme has “Late Junction” as a flagship of diversity and it is essential listening for loosening the straitjacket we sometimes climb into of our own accord.

Street performers, carnival, music in pubs and inns, there is no shortage of examples to stir the most important characteristic of learners, curiosity.


Structured exposure/made to listen.

 Hearing by design can have positive and negative values, church attendance will encourage specific types of listening (and performance). Certain societies value specific instruments and styles of music, in Wales the harp is highly valued and the combination of recitation and harp, accompaniment in Cerdd Dant is a highly refined and competitive stylistic medium unlike any other to my knowledge. The trends in education are far too complex to enter into here but in the UK there is now a wider range of appraising and cultural diversity is acknowledged. One insight into musical education in my experience arose from listening to an Irish musician who explained that he had learned the pipes from an early age by watching the movements of his father's hands. It seems that some of us will have experienced a fair input of music pre-birth and this may shape our preferences; having being adopted from a very early age into a non-musical family I sometimes wonder about the nature/nurture argument and pre-birth experiences. We may also include the military in the promotion of specific types and styles of music, the streets of the UK, particularly at Christmas, would be all the poorer for the absence of the Salvation Army.

The effect of cultural identity and our desire to belong to that group will influence a number of factors, the scales and harmonies and tuning we prefer, the blues, four part harmonies of hymns, the rhythms of gamelan, pentatonic scales and so on. Some societies favour vocal over instrumental, rhythmic over melodic. Dance music of various countries shows its roots through instrumentation, whether through guitars, accordions or varieties of percussion.



Once the listener is familiar with one style of music there is the possibility that curiosity will draw the person into new areas of listening, and it may be that the new areas will exploit degrees of sophistication and be more demanding in scope, design or intent. Not everybody is taken to sophistication, in the same manner as educationalists have looked at preferred learning styles, e.g. visual, auditory and kinetic style learners, listeners have been grouped into four types, and these are:

Reflective/complex, intense/rebellious, upbeat/conventional and energetic/rhythmic.


As with learning styles one must recognize that age and experience widens the crossover between the categories. A perceptive listener will recognise that great works of art may cover all the areas identified. For the cynical this could be seen as a case of hedging ones composing bets for recognition, for the less cynical a demonstration of the wide ranging humanity of certain composers. It may well be that one listener may take initially to the rhythmic play of the second movement of Beethoven’s Op.110 and another respond to its lyricism while a third could take to the intellectual contrapuntal writing, given time and exposure to the music each individual may come to recognising the power of the interplay between the elements.

 When Webern moved from writing in a late romantic style as in “Im Sommerwind” and the “Passacaglia” to the intellectual works like his Piano Variations Op. 27, there was an important social change. The challenge was set for listeners to respond to music that held little in common with the types of social groups outlined above. We can argue that Webern's music belongs to those who identify themselves with the increased sophistication and developments in harmony and structure, i.e. those who belong to the reflective/complex type.

 It is important to ask if the other types of listeners been drawn to Webern’s music over a period of time, it would seem that for the greater number this has not happened, and this has consequences.

 or some complex music has been a wonderful opportunity to belong to a group of likeminded musicians (and composers), and for a select few the opportunity to represent that group as its spokesperson. There is a danger that for many the identification of modern music with one group leads to distrust, and music like mathematics becomes “difficult” and a painful experience to be avoided. Reading regularly made negative comments about music which is now a century (+) old demonstrates how powerfully group dynamics work on us, particularly when audiences adopt the same stance to new music so that a work like John Adam’s “Common Tones in Simple Time” is dismissed while Beethoven’s Sonata No. 29 Op. 106 is applauded.

As Nurtan and I have agreed a limit on blog lengths I have not touched on music and ecstasy, a huge subject in itself and one that crosses the barriers of styles and types of music. As to how much I enjoy being part of an elitist group of listeners I can only say that the elitism covers many styles, so that Havergal Brian’s “Gothic Symphony” and Brian Ferneyhough’s Lemma-Icon-Epigram share internal shelf space, and I enjoy the opportunity given by the composers for me to pass a little time in their company.