Why louder classical music is better classical music

In the frantic search for classical music’s new audience the importance of dynamic range – the variation between quiet and loud passages – has been curiously neglected, possibly because the mechanism of hearing is little understood. If a listener is played the same piece of music twice on identical replay equipment at two different levels (volumes), he/she will judge the louder of the two auditions to be “better” quality. The explanation lies in the non-linear frequency response of the human ear which is plotted on the diagram below (source J.Crabbe Hi Fi in the Home). The curved shape of the lower line in the diagram marked ‘Threshold of hearing’ shows how as the replay level increases the range of the human ear increases, meaning that extreme highs and lows become audible; this gives the music more impact and makes it sound “better”.

The human ear’s non-linear frequency response is why rock music is compressed. Applying compression to music decreases the dynamic; this both raises the average level of the music and increases the level of bass passages making them more audible. Compressed music contains more acoustic energy, and as a result sounds subjectively better – see this resource for ten reasons why compressed music sounds ‘better’. Which almost certainly explains why minimalist music and Gregorian chant – both of which exhibit limited dynamic range - have reached beyond the traditional classical audience, and why the high energy levels of the opening of Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra make it one of the best known classical works of all time. It also indicates that the much-vaunted commodity of silence is the last thing that new audiences want.

Coincidentally, or perhaps conveniently, the need to reduce file sizes means new media formats such as MP3 compress dynamic range. At which an important and crucial divergence can be identified. Outside classical music dynamic range is ruthlessly compressed, both creatively in the music production and technically in the music reproduction. But within classical music dynamic range is increasing via high-resolution formats such as SACD and FLAC lossless files, and by applying acoustic science to new concert halls. Just as human beings are creatures of habit, so human ears are organs of habit. Which means that over time our hearing becomes conditioned to norms of replay level and dynamic range. It happens particularly to untrained ears – classical music’s elusive new market – but also to trained ears, and this post was sparked by my own trained but also conditioned ears being disoriented by a new CD player which exploits the wider dynamic range of SACD replay.

My thesis is that the divergence between high energy compressed music – to which the mass market has been conditioned - and lower energy art music – to which the cognoscenti are accustomed - is an overlooked explanation as to why classical music is struggling to gain traction with new audiences. If I am right the outlook for classical music is somewhat bleak as there is no quick fix. Amplification and turning up the bass are options that have been discussed here previously. But they have limited application as they would almost certainly replicate the BBC Radio 3 model of alienating the core audience while failing to replace it with new listeners.

But the outlook is not totally bleak. Technology may have a part to play in the form of apps allowing users of portable media players to remix classical works into high energy mixes. But if there is an answer it almost certainly lies in the music itself. Composers have traditionally incorporated folk idioms as a means of engaging a wider audience; so perhaps compressed dynamics are the waltz of the 21st century. There are already contemporary composers writing high-energy music, Louis Andriessen and Guillaume Connesson – see CD above - are two that immediately spring to mind. Composer of the moment Edith Canat de Chizy’s overture Yell – see CD below - would bring much-needed energy to the concert hall if it was programmed more often, while works such as York Höller’s Sphären for large orchestra and live electronics – see footer image of score - show how the gap between high energy and art music can be bridged.

One of the problems is that the current obsession with accessibility favours ‘safe’ new music incorporating legacy cues such as extreme dynamics. Much bolder commissioning and programming of high energy music alongside the core repertoire would reverse this trend and may just engage new audiences, and if it creates some controversy in the process that cannot be a bad thing. What goes around comes around: dynamics were used sparingly by composers until the late 18th century and perhaps contemporary music should now be entering its high energy neo-baroque period. Nobody is suggesting throwing the dynamic baby out with the bath water. But new listeners hear louder music as better music; so if classical music really wants a new audience it needs to get louder.

* Header image shows Future Radio editor Tim Wilds and me toiling with the dynamics during editing of my 2010 Jonathan Harvey interview. That programme has taken on a life of its own, and it is now available on a number of platforms including Soundcloud and YouTube (extract), as well as the original Future Radio stream. In that interview Jonathan Harvey highlighted the need for classical music to drop its silly conventions, and the post above is another contribution to that valuable debate. My thanks also go to Andy Moore at Arcam for an illuminating email discussion about dynamics and music reproduction. This post is also available via Facebook and Twitter. No review samples were used in its preparation. Any copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk


mrG said…
Isn't that a little like saying if a haute cuisine restaurant wants more customers, it should start serving big macs?

I don't doubt your thesis, but I do doubt the intention: is the purpose of classical music simply to put bums in seats? I don't want to believe that; art music should be about advancing the art, and in painting that means attention to the skill and craft as much as to the message and even more so the advancing of the ability of the audience to see. It is, by nature, educational because it is to elevate the receiver. Classical music (whatever that label may mean in 2013) needs to reclaim its role as the vanguard of the sonic arts, as the exploration into the depths of our ability to hear and connect to each other. Pop music, on the other hand, is a classical burlesque, it is about the illusion that anyone can be great if they just let it all hang out. One hopes there is a better destiny for humanity than that.
Pliable said…
mrG, as I was at pains to point out I am suggesting "commissioning and programming of high energy music alongside the core repertoire" and "Nobody is suggesting throwing the dynamic baby out with the bath water".

You are right, the purpose of classical music is not simply to put bums in seats. But if it is to live and grow it has to have a relevance, and that means exploring the vocabulary of contemporary music which includes compression and high energy.

Are you really suggesting that works such as Louis Andriessen's Worker's Union are the equivalent of "big macs"?
Unknown said…
Love post and chart on Sound Sensitivity Relative to Frequency (or should I say; Equal Loudness Curves rel-to Music). My standard had been that music should be 78-86dB (Avg Pk). That’s right around the 80 Phons mark.

For an article dated in 2013, mp3 is not a new format but get the point being made (mp3 is dead in my book). There are better, more dynamic formats today as you mentioned. There just needs to be better, informative information out there (as the Internet is plagued with misguided info), along with education by example regarding playback gear and the use of sonically superior media formats.

I recall a chat with a salesman in a high-end audio store as he showed an article of another salesman’s complaint of having ‘shown the customer the door’ after asking the best method of connecting his iPod. That, was a real failure to communicate the finer points of music.

Here’s a review I posted on the subject of Loudness and Mylo Xyloto by Coldplay.

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