Our Lost Musical IQ: On the Widening Composer-Audience Gap

“Take seriously your responsibility as listener. To listen intently, to listen consciously, to listen with one’s whole intelligence is the least we can do in the furtherance of an art that is one of the glories of mankind.” Aaron Copland

“Great art presupposes the alert mind of an educated listener, who in a single act of thinking, includes with every concept all associations pertaining to the complex.”
Arnold Schoenberg

A Dying Art?

Serious music is likely not for everyone. Many never become exposed. Many of those exposed will find neither relevance nor enjoyment.  As the bulk of our culture increasingly falls into these categories, our will to educate our young in the art of serious music seems likely to continue to decline.

Because I appreciate the depth of the art and the pleasure it can give, I predict there will always be an audience willing to embrace serious music. They are my audience here, as well.

Don’t We All Hear The Same Music?

An audience will be comprised of listeners with a wide range of listening ability. Most will listen to music without any perception of a listening deficit, of understanding less than the one sitting next to them. But some listeners will come to sense a musical limitation, perhaps when attempting to relate their musical experience in a meaningful manner to others. We hear something musical and it pleases and excites us. We try to put the experience into words, but stumble. This deficit will be most acutely perceived when discussing music with a musician. Perhaps during a meet-and-greet after a performance, one will encounter the inherent knowledge gap, getting no further than “I liked your performance.” “That’s nice, I’m glad it pleased you”.

We do not necessarily think about why we like the music. We just do, and that is what we try to tell. While it is difficult to convey musical information with mere words, we can become better at listening and then expressing what we heard and felt.

How big is our listening deficit? The difference between most listeners with modest skills is one of degree. More facility accrues to those who prepare a little more, and then engage the brain a little more during the music. However, the listening experience of modestly-skilled listener is different in kind from that of a musician with a high musical intelligence (MIQ).

I had an epiphany along these lines as I picked up Owen one day long ago from some school event and had a CD of a Brahms symphony playing in the car. Owen had never heard it before and observed aloud how interesting it was that Brahms was hinting at the key of F-major as he wandered through other keys. I could only assume he was correct, for it was said in a matter-of-fact manner, as if it didn’t dawn on him that others wouldn’t hear the same thing. And it was believable because we were informed by his piano and music instructor some years prior regarding the highly unusual quality of his musical gifts.

I was humbled; clearly I needed to do some work to become a more skilled listener. Even after hearing the piece many times, my tonal memory couldn’t identify and recall the key changes, nor understand the relation of each to the implied tonic F. My deficit was of kind, not degree.

Surely some of your listening experience matches my own. We don’t need to be experts. Rather, we want to hear as much musical detail as possible, to understand why we like the music, and then be able to explain it cogently. Now that we have convinced ourselves that our MIQ may need work, where do we begin?

What’s Involved In Better Music Listening?

Copland tells us that it is not so hard to understand music as is sometimes portrayed. But there is a minimum threshold of capability the listener needs to bring to the effort. Recognition of a melody and remembering it when it is heard again is necessary for active listening. Without this ability, the listener has little chance to perceive where he is in the musical stream, nor what the composer is saying there.

With practice, one can leverage the ability to remember melodic fragments into a more general ability to relate what one is hearing now to what one has just heard, and to use this information to predict what one will next hear. This kind of real time synthesis of a stream of musical ideas is the basis of active listening, of getting the most out of the composer’s communication to us.

Copland tells us a composer wants us to hear everything that is going on, and wants us to be sensitive to it, to come away with a clear emotional response. All the notes are important, not just the melodic line.

We as listeners also get a say. What we want from the musical experience will determine how we prepare.

What Preparation Is Needed To Hear Music More Acutely?

In another discussion here, I explain the steps I have taken to raise my MIQ, so that hopefully my skills deficit with skilled listeners will no longer be of kind, but merely of degree. These steps involve training my ear, studying theory, reading musical scores, and researching extra-musical material, including interpretations of the music by trained academics. To some extent, playing music oneself can further imprint such music training. This most active and participatory of musical enjoyments forces one to recognize all the musical ideas being presented. The icing on the cake is in getting to be the interpreter of these musical ideas.

For those not wishing to explore active listening so deeply, who are happy with a degree of improvement, certainly some subset of these activities might be useful. Aside from some introductory lessons to get me off on a correct footing, all my effort has been self-study.

With only some computer ear training preparation, simple music, say melody with chordal accompaniment, can be easily understood upon hearing. Active listening will reveal most that is important. However, serious art music usually contains much more complexity. What the composer is doing will escape the cognition of even skilled active listeners. To augment the power of a better trained brain, we can use the music score as our guide to deeper understanding of the composer’s intent and method. Being able to read a musical score is useful, even to a non-performer.

Back To The Future

Our listening gap seems to be widening. Perhaps by looking backward, we can see a way to the future. We’ll use Brahms as our study subject, of course.

In the 19th century, many families had developed musical talents, enabling home performance of simpler music, and providing a pool of musically intellectual people as audiences. Over the last half century, this audience talent pool has declined. Popular music is mostly all the young people hear, perhaps because no serious music is directed to them. Recorded music has made musical performance training less necessary for having music in our daily lives. Related to this, public schools have made music education an increasingly low priority and thus the first curriculum to be cut when finances become tight.

Yet even in Brahms’ time, there was an audience-composer gap. Brahms wrote complex music; he was a craftsman who brought four centuries of prior musical craft to its penultimate expression. He challenged even the more knowledgeable audiences of his time, being accused of writing ‘absolute’ music whose meaning was harder to grasp compared to the dramatic music of composers such as Wagner. He condensed musical expression and thought into minimal forms which he then varied in ingenious ways. He freed his expression from much of the repetitions and regularity of prior music.

But Brahms was not a ‘Here it is, take it or leave it’ kind of artist. He wasn’t an academic. Brahms realized the potential audience disconnect he was creating by removing some of the very hooks by which we typically connect to music. As an accommodation, he courted lay musicians with popular and folk songs, folk dances, waltzes, and simplified versions of his ensemble pieces arranged for piano (typically for four hands), violin, viola, and cello, instruments found in many homes of that time. These pieces are of no lower musical quality; he wasn’t selling out, just speaking appropriately to different audience segments. And by encouraging home performance of his music, he was helping to place his music within the comfort zone and cognition of his audience.

Brahms benefited from the elevated musical intelligence of many in his audiences. Those who would open their minds to his craft-centric style benefited as well. And I believe they opened their minds to his music because he courted them. As a result, he benefited very well financially by maintaining the broadest possible audience interest. (His earnings, beyond maintenance of a very simple creative life style, were used for philanthropy toward family and friends.)

In the modern day, this gap situation is exacerbated, with diminished musicality and listening skills apparent on the audience side of the gap, and sometimes extreme barriers to appreciation arising on the creative side of the gap. Copland sympathizes with the plight of today’s average listener, when he categorizes a few of the founders of the ultra-modern styles, the algorithmics, the dodecaphonics, the atonals, the serialists, in his ‘very tough’ category.

The Way Forward

For the vast majority of music, whose meaning is within our grasp, even a slight rise of musical intelligence makes a meaningful difference in our appreciation of music. Most people can experience this with minimal effort, where more practice leads to ever better results. For those that need to and are able to push further with musical knowledge and skills, one gains self-knowledge, a heightened personal connection to the composer and performer, and ever deeper enjoyment.


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