Sunday, June 16, 2013
Research proves audiences become what they listen to
During yesterday's Aldeburgh Festival performance of Jonathan Harvey's Fourth Quartet by the Arditti Quartet truly extraordinary things happened. Jonathan Harvey's music is rich in influences, among them Hinduism and its reformed cousin Buddhism. Yesterday his Fourth Quartet transformed Aldeburgh Church into what in those Eastern traditions is known as a tirth, a transcedental location where one can "cross over", and that transformation triggered in me one of those rare experiences of being transported by music to another and better world. That elusive experience of momentarily "crossing over" is, for me, the raison d'être of music, and unlocking the secret of how it is achieved also unlocks the secret of how classical music can reach new audiences. So today's post explores the path which took me briefly to that different and better world, and it is a path that has led me to the conclusion that we become what we listen to.
When I first wrote about Jonathan Harvey's String Quartets in 2009 I said "I am not ashamed to admit that some of his music comes from a point that I haven't yet reached". Since then I have been exploring how we can extend our mental reach, and that has led to recent research into neuroplasticity. This is the brain's newly-discovered ability to reorganize itself by forming new neural connections, and the discovery of neuroplasticity indicates that classical music is wrong in the way it is trying to reach new audiences. Until recently it was thought that the adult brain is an unchanging and unchangeable organ, and that human behaviour and responses are hardwired genetically into it in the same way that computer operations are etched into a microchip. But recent medical research has shown that the adult brain is, to quote the pioneering researcher Michael Merzenich, "massively plastic". Our brain cells are continually breaking old connections and making new ones, with the result that new nerve cells are always being created. As the leading professor of neuroscience James Olds explains, "the brain has the ability to reprogram itself on the fly, altering the way it functions". One celebrated study by Edward Taub showed that playing the violin resulted in significant physical changes in the sensory cortex of the brain. Another study of London taxi drivers showed that purely mental activity can also rewire the brain, while studies at Harvard and the University of Wisconsin have shown that meditation beneficially increases cortical thickness. As the influential technology commentator Nichola Carr explains, "we become, neurologically, what we think".
If medical research proves that meditation can rewire the brain, it is not unreasonable to hypothesise that repeated exposure to music that "comes from a point that I haven't yet reached" can trigger the same changes. If my hypothesis is true, and I genuinely believe it is, there are profound implications for classical music: because, neurologically, we become what we listen to.
It is beyond doubt that classical music must develop its own form of plasticity in order to adapt to wide-ranging cultural and technical changes. But the favoured method of adaptation is based on the outmoded theory that, because listeners are unchanging and unchangeable, audiences should only listen to what they have become conditioned to. This theory has found expression in the dumbing-down approach, and this has led classical music down several fashionable cul-de-sacs, most notably those of reinventing art as entertainment and proscribing any music that is remotely challenging. This approach is doubly dangerous, because not only does it ignore the ability of listener's to adapt to the unfamiliar, but it also ignores recent research that has identified a reverse form of neuroplasticity which results in ossification. This suggests that if you keep feeding audiences single movements of symphonies à la BBC Radio 3 breakfast programmes, they will eventually only be able to digest single movements of symphonies.
By contrast research into neuroplasticity supports the dumbing-up approach. Because audiences become what they listen to, they will become progressively more receptive to challenging repertoire if exposed to it in the right circumstances. Dumbing-up means offering audiences a varied repertoire that mixes the accessible with a changing and challenging diet of the unfamiliar. The problem is, however, one of time scale. Dumbing-down is a short-term solution which panders to today's demand for instant gratification. But dumbing-up is a long-term solution that requires courage and long-term commitment from orchestras, broadcasters and record companies, and such courage and commitment is very rare today. However the clinching argument is that, as has been explained here before, there is no empirical evidence that the short-term dumbing-down solution of giving the audience what they have become conditioned to actually works.
This post started with my experiences at a recent concert. To conclude I want to look back to one of my earliest experiences in the concert hall, which was being taken by my far-sighted parents to a concert in an enterprising London Philharmonic Orchestra 'classics for industry' series in the early 1960s. The venue was the Royal Albert Hall, the conductor was a young Bernard Haitink, and the programme juxtaposed Beethoven's popular Emperor Concerto with Berg's forbidding Three Pieces for Orchestra op 6. At some point in those twenty-one minutes of Berg some old connections in my brain broke and new nerve cells began forming. Those neurological changes started me on the long and infinitely rewarding path from classical neophyte listening in puzzlement to Berg, to classical adept relishing Jonathan Harvey's Fourth Quartet. If you are one of the many readers who has benefited from the musical discoveries I have shared On An Overgrown Path, you are also a beneficiary of neuroplasticity. If it worked for you and me, surely it can work for today's new audiences?
* More on how audiences become what they listen to here.
** My 2010 radio interview with Jonathan Harvey, which includes his memories of Benjamin Britten, can be heard here.
*** Footer image shows the highly recommended Arditti Quartet's recording of Jonathan Harvey's Quartets and String Trio.
**** Sources include The Shallows: How the Internet is Changing the Way We Think, Read and Remember by Nicholas Carr and The Autobiography of a Sahu by Rampuri.
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