Dear pop classical radio stations,
Your continued insistence on classical music as being solely for the purposes of relaxation or inducement of concentration while performing other tasks, is harmful to the general public, and in fact represents a willful ignorance. This attitude is mirrored in your audience, so it is difficult to say who is “at fault” here, but instead of pointing fingers, let’s address the actual problem. Is the tail wagging the dog in this instance? When there exists a cultural mouthpiece, and a public to listen to it, who is the dog and who is the tail? After all, a shared opinion between a media outlet and a public has a synergistic effect, and they become one organism, in a sense. I can’t address everyone that listens to classical music, but I can address it’s most popular cultural voice. Don’t feel yourselves picked on: radio stations are simply the most visible group that perpetuates the ideas I’d like now to address.
The basic idea, which I’ll elaborate below, is that limiting the terminology of description for classical music actually limits the range of possible responses people feel comfortable expressing in reaction to the music. In turn, this limits the amount of people that like listening to classical music to that small group that identify with whatever way in which its leaders (radio stations) tell them it should be listened to. This in turn constrains the audience supply, which constrains the funding for the cultural institution, and when that institution attempts to stimulate more audience supply through more of the same overly-specific marketing tactics, it will in fact constrain its audience further. Let me show you what I mean.
Music, like words, is a manipulation of sounds to create meaning. To speak to another person, we make sounds with our vocal cords that are then interpreted by whoever we’re talking to, and then presumably those words are, at least in some marginal way, understood, if one speaks the same language. Music works the same way; sounds are manipulated in a syntax by the composers and musicians who produce them for the goal of communicating information. Let’s not focus too much on what that information is, that’s not what I’m interested in; of course the meaning of music is in some sense ambiguous, but then again, so is the meaning of all languages. Words are frequently misinterpreted, and the same plays by Shakespeare have continued to mean different things to different people over time.
So allowing for some variability in the exact “meaning” of any music, nevertheless, music conveys information. Following from this, we can conclude that different music conveys different meaning. This makes sense, as we have many musicians creating new music all the time, because different people want to convey different information with their music. There are as many different types of musical information as there are people. If this were not the case, if there were only one meaning music could express, then we wouldn’t need so many composers and performers: we could just have one composer and one orchestra, and everybody would be satisfied. But since we have many orchestras, and many composers, it’s safe to assume that people are generally satisfied when a variety of musical meanings, or musical information, is available to them.
So music conveys information, and that information changes based on who wrote it and who is performing it, just like how the same 26 letters were used by Shakespeare and J.R. Tolkien, but the stories they told were quite different.
Now it’s safe to say then that in light of this definition, painting all music in a certain brush as to what type of information it conveys is absurd. No one would say “All plays are violent” or “All dancing is erotic”. Clearly there are many different types of plays and many types of dancing. So why, why oh why, do we characterize all classical music as being “relaxing”, or only use it to help us concentrate? Can you imagine turning on Shakespeare as an audiobook in the background to help you concentrate on writing a report for your job?
I have a theory as to why we do this. It’s because when we use the word relaxing, we’re describing the effect of listening to non-sensical syntax. If I were to tell you that listening to Shakespeare on audiobook “relaxed” me, and helped me concentrate while doing other work, what would be your immediate reaction? You’d probably say “Well, you clearly don’t understand Shakespeare. Shakespeare is full of drama! Of death, deception, sex, most of which humans don’t find relaxing.” Similarly, when someone tells me that classical music “relaxes” them, I can only conclude that they aren’t getting the message, especially when they use the music as a means to accomplish other things. If I were getting every line of Shakespeare while listening to it, I would find it difficult to be writing an essay at the same time.
This continued insistence by the public and yourselves to paint all classical music as a means to relaxation, idle pleasure, hypnosis, is really just a shorthand for saying “This language relaxes us because we don’t understand its syntax, and can therefore identify the experience as relaxing because we are stimulating the part of our brain that listens to sounds, but allowing it to work in only the most minimal way possible”. In this light, I would suggest that listening to someone speak Pashto might be a similarly “relaxing” experience for me.
This is a great disservice to the community you serve. By insisting that classical music be used for purposes that encourage us not to be actively engaged in deciphering the information it conveys, you encourage people to turn off their brains. Ironically, this ends up killing the capacity to enjoy and appreciate music in most people, the very people you are trying to supply with music they might enjoy! So the repertoire of “acceptable” classical pieces for radio airplay gets smaller each year, and we’re left repeating the same banalities about how classical music is “relaxing” and a “tool for concentration” only. When we insist that music can be experienced in a limited number of ways, then we limit the possible response of the people listening to it. No wonder classical music is seen as boring by the general population; no one, not even classical music advocates themselves, have done very much to tell them otherwise.
Here’s how you can fix this:
1) Stop referring to classical music as solely a tool for relaxation, idle pleasure, a tool for concentration, or a “Jimmy eat your Spinach”-esque entreatment towards self betterment.
2) Stop playing pieces that reinforce this cliche. The primary thing that breeds comfort and relaxation is familiarity. Put audiences out of their comfort zone.
You will object and say “But that’s not what the people want to hear!”. This may be true at the moment, but if you don’t start putting audiences out of their comfort zone, eventually they’re going to lose the ability to distinguish between white noise and a Beethoven symphony. In the short term they’ll be some backlash, but in the long term, you’ll save your institution.
3) Encourage the treatment of classical music as a means towards a diverse system of expression by playing a wider breadth of pieces, not just from the romantic and classical periods, and not just copycat modern composers that write just like them. Show people how radically different Stravinsky is from Brahms, even though they’re both called “classical music”. Better yet, play Perotin and Lassus; Josquin and Elliott Carter; Mahler and Byzantine chant. All those are classical music, but miles away from each other in the information they convey, and the sooner people see that classical music can express different things, rather than the same brand of “relaxation” every time, the better, because in the end this will expose people to more types of musical information, some of which might resonate with them, which means your audience will increase.
Theoretically, language is a means of communication. But when language becomes corrupted towards the purpose of circumscribing knowledge, rather than expanding it, it becomes a deception, and not a good. When we use terms like “relaxing” so universally and so consistently in reference to classical music, it limits the possible terminology of description in which the listening experience can be encapsulated, and therefore limits the response to the music itself in a public not educated to be able to address their experience in any other way. In the end, this constrains the finite number of experiences that can be associated with the music, and therefore only a small group of listeners who have those pre-packaged responses will support its cultural institutions (like radio stations). As a result, those institutions attempt to recoup their lost audience by more and more specific targeted marketing campaigns, which only serve to constrain the listener base further. This initiates a cycle of diminishing audience involvement, and it will know no end until radio stations spend themselves out of existence trying to become relevant.
If we want to increase the audience for classical music, we should show rather that the possible responses to this music are as infinite as the composition of the minds that listen to it. When all possible experiences of music are considered valid, more people will feel comfortable admitting to those experiences, and will have no trouble seeing themselves in the music. This translates into roughly two categories of immediate necessary action: 1) increasing the variety of description and represented opinions on classical music within mass media and 2) increasing the variety of the music itself.
Western free market economics is a curious thing, in that its fundamental basis is explicitly individualistic. The price of a good is directly relational to what any individual is willing to pay for it. This implies an inherent emphasis placed on the supremacy of individual preference. Unless we are prepared as a society to strip our citizens of that preference (and I should remind our readers of what terrible consequences that has had for art in the past, in fascist Germany and the former Soviet Union, where artists of all types were attacked for not conforming to what “the people” wanted), we must place the power of selection back into the hands of the individual, and keep it out of high-minded marketers that think they know best.
If we can escape this circumscription of aesthetic experience, we can look forward to more artistic, intellectual, and therefore cultural diversity. Ultimately, this is better for society because diverse systems are more stable. If we don’t escape it, expect to see, if not a censorship culture of book-burning and name calling as explicit as we saw in the Third Reich, then at least a system of subtly ignoring anyone that dare to show people that art, all art, is just as diverse as they are. After all, “relaxed” citizens are much easier to control.
Copyright Kyle Quarles 2012