Today's audiences hear music differently

Prolonged exposure to digital technologies is retuning our sensory channels and changing the way we hear music, and that is something classical music cannot ignore. It explains why the full-blooded symphonies of Mahler and Shostakovich eclipse the more nuanced masterpieces of Mozart and Haydn in the concert hall. And it means that for millennials - classical's chosen target audience - all-immersive electronic dance music is the soundtrack of choice.

Seeing, hearing, touching, smelling and tasting are mission critical processes which are little-understood. These sense perceptions are the product of biological evolution over millions of years and the result is that that our senses are fine-tuned to the needs of Stone Age hunter-gatherers. Light is vibrating energy; hunter-gatherers needed to survive, so human vision is restricted to the very narrow wavelengths between 0.4 to 0.7 microns. (1 micron is one millionth of a metre.) This bandwidth is aligned with the midpoint of the solar spectrum where the sun's power is most intense, and we only see light with a wavelength in this narrow spectrum. If the bandwidth of our eyes could miraculously be increased, we would see a totally different reality because energy outside the 0.4 to 0.7 microns window would become visible. (This opens up a question far beyond the scope of this discussion - what is reality? It also throws interesting light - pun intended - on the Hindu concept of Maya which posits that the world is an illusion.)

Similarly the bandwidth of human hearing - 20 Hz to 20 kHz - is tuned to survival needs. Sound energy extends far above - infrasound - and below - ultrasound - the limits of human hearing. Once again extending the frequency range of the human ear would allow us to hear many new sounds, and that is not just fanciful thinking: a cat can hear up to 64 kHz, which is 1.6 octaves above the human range.

There is no credible evidence that biological evolution is increasing sensory bandwidths in the short term. But the new visual and sonic experiences made possible by digital technologies mean that we are increasingly using the upper and lower extremes of our sensory bandwidth. When I left university and joined the BBC in 1971 I wowed my friends with the sonic spectacular of Decca's newly released Solti/Chicago Symphony recording of Mahler's Eighth Symphony played on a then quite respectable hi-fi system powered by a Metrosound ST20 amplifier which pumped out 10 watts RMS per channel. Today in the domestic environment affordable surround sound 7 channel amplifiers rated at 150 watts per channel are the norm.

At a dance music festival attended by millennials the sound gets much louder. For the preeminent Tomorrowland Festival in Belgium the main stage sound is provided by 66 L'Acoustics LA12X amplifiers each delivering 12,000 watts. Repeated exposure to these sonic extremes is not only causing premature deafness, it is also rewiring sensory channels. This in turn is reshaping the expectations of audiences, which means, indirectly, that Mahler beats Mozart at the box office and classical programming becomes stuck in the Mahler/Shostakovich loop. (Let's also not forget that, whether we like it or not, it is scientifically proven that louder classical music is better classical music.)

That very striking footer CD artwork is from Bloom Ascension by ambient and electronic composer Steve Roach. One of the album's tracks is titled Synesthete and as reported in Psychology Today, Steve Roach experiences poly-synesthesia. Synesthesia is caused by cross-talk between sensory channels, and is thought to be caused by anomalies in the brain's neural circuits. It occurs when sensory information is switched from one channel - e.g. hearing - to another processing channel - e.g. sight - with the result that sounds are perceived as colours. There are more than sixty recognised synesthesia conditions, including grapheme-colour, where numbers and letters generate colours, and auditory-tactile, where sounds cause sensations in the body. (One amusing example of technology synesthesia appeared recently: University of Michigan researchers have been able to fool smart assistants into thinking light energy from a laser is sound energy from a human.)

Steve Roach's poly-synesthesia means that not only does he see colours when hearing music, but he salivates in response to sounds. He also experiences the very rare condition of mirror-touch synesthesia, whereby he senses in the same part of his body sensations felt by other people. Listeners have also reported synesthetic experiences when listening to Steve Roach's music and his credentials as a synesthete are impeccable. However claims to synesthesia elsewhere need to be treated with caution as the condition has become a fashionable affliction among non-classical musicians, with self-diagnosed synesthetes including Kanye West, Pharrell, Dev Hynes, and Lady Gaga. Reportedly Alexander Scriabin, Jean Sibelius, Olivier Messiaen, György Ligeti and Franz Liszt were among the classical composers who suffered from cross-over between sensory channels. However the degree of their affliction is now being questioned, with the case being made that Scriabin's experience of sounds as colours was due, at least in part, to autosuggestion.

Scriabin's experience of converging sound and colours has been dubbed pseudo-synesthesia and it is not unreasonable to suggest that the extremes of combined sound and visuals pioneered by electronic dance music create a different kind of pseudo-synesthesia. Dance music festivals are an extreme example, but there is no doubt that the digital zeitgeist is, in varying degrees, causing neural circuits to be rewired and sensory channels to be retuned. The classical industry's refusal to accept that audience expectations are changing is puzzling. Norman Lebrecht's Slipped Disc is the de facto online mouthpiece of the classical industry. Are the topics that are repeatedly discussed there really going to reshape classical music to meet the significantly changed expectations of its audience? The argument that classical music does not need to reshape itself is untenable. Classical concert conventions were not handed down on tablets of stone by the gods; they were established by orchestras and audiences more than a century ago when technology, culture, and sonic conditioning were totally different.

Classical music orthodoxy views the music - product - and the audience - customer - as two discrete entities connected only by supply and demand. However, Benjamin Britten’s visionary concept of a holy triangle of composer, performer and listener is a creative restatement of Werner Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle which explains how the observer - listener - affects the observed - music. In subatomic physics the viewpoint of the universe as blocks of discrete matter has been superceded by the view that matter is no more than the expression of constantly changing relationships between different energy levels*. Classical music can learn much from this thinking: because if the listeners are changing, aspects of the music must also must change.

Amplified concerts, synchronised visuals and other heretical solutions may be a step too far. However there are solutions other than the dreaded dumbing down. To offer a minimally disruptive suggestion: if Mahler meets contemporary sensory expectations there are plenty of other full-blooded composers who could tick that box given a chance. I would cite Malcolm Arnold and Arnold Bax, others may suggest Tubin, Ives and their peers. Yes, Bax and Arnold may be death at the box office when offered as the headline work. But why not run double-header concerts pairing their symphonies with box office dead certs. No overture or concerto, two symphonies instead: Bax's Sixth with Shostakovich's Fifth, Arnold's Second with Mahler's First? Or even further beyond established comfort zones, projects such as J. Peter Schwalm's Wagner Transformed by electronics - see header graphic - could resonate with the sensory tunings of a new audience if given the right level of exposure. And how about my suggestion in a previous post of Beethoven's Ninth prefacing Steve Roach's essay in electronica Truth & Beauty? We cannot escape that sensory retuning and neural rewiring is changing the way audiences hear music. Disco lighting at the Proms is not the answer. But it is now time for some radical rethinking on how classical music is presented.

* Fritjof Capra's old but invaluable Uncommon Wisdom is recommended for its accessible discussion of quantum mechanics and, in particular, the work of Geoffrey Chew and Gregory Bateson.
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