dating music
Courting the “Lay” Listener

Courting the “Lay” Listener

dating music

I am on a date, and he asks me, “What do you do?” I tell him, and if he is not scared away, we go to my car and I play him select recordings of my music. I am notably vulnerable, and he is just calm. Then, I ask him what he thinks. The reaction is routine.

Whether it’s him, a family member I have not seen in a while, or an old friend from high school, upon hearing my work, they may describe my music as “beautiful” or “relaxing.” These are not bad terms, but my heart cries that they cannot fully digest what I and my collaborators have made—the inspiration, the obsession, the hours of self-doubt, the days of rehearsal, and the anticipation. And what they experience is just, “Mmm.”

Do they hear the intricacies? Do they experience the seduction of a modulation or harmonic parenthesis? Do they feel the tension created by suspension or sense the folding of time created by contrapuntal rhythms or melodic heterophony?

I fear not. They may not have learned how to listen to this genre of music.

Maybe it’s my failure as a composer to be plain enough. It’s conjecture, but they probably listen to music organized by regular beats and loops and jams. Or perhaps, they would appreciate it more deeply if my music were delivered in timbres to which they were accustomed, i.e., electronics.

Declassifying “Classical”

My dates commonly make the comment, “All of my friends that listen to ‘classical’ music, are those who have formally studied music.” And there’s the rub!

It is a little disheartening that everybody, including “classical” musicians, has the need to grasp for terms like “classical,” “concert,” or worse, “art” music. Is there not a tacit air of aristocracy or bourgeoisie to the concert-going community? I know that what I do and with whom I do it are privileges, but our products ought to be more publicly digestible.

“Classical” is a problematic blanket term for Baroque, Renaissance, Romantic, and contemporary music performed by choral, symphonic, wind band, and chamber ensembles. What is more, these classifications are blanket terms in themselves! And, I understand that we credit composers, not “artists,” for creation, but why is there so much compartmentalization?

Overwhelmingly, I prefer music on acoustic media. Of course, it is a matter of taste, and my taste is influenced by classically oriented ears. It is not to say that I do not appreciate more mainstream genres of music, but I certainly have an affinity for artists with some classical background, e.g., Regina Spektor, Sara Bareilles, and the Québecoise Béatrice Martin of Cœur de pirate.

Bridging the Gap

On a personal note, until grad school, my background was predominantly choral and vocal, and my listening was limited. I had only a moderate appreciation for symphonic music. But after a year of orchestration seminar, a semester on the history of orchestral “masterworks,” and a semester on Mozart’s string quartets, my ears were utterly transformed. I discovered colors, layers, and movement that I did not acknowledge before. How had I gone all these years not truly hearing the music?

Very plainly put, this is yet another push for music education as core curriculum because the study of music is fundamentally the study of listening. And we are all missing out when children are neither readily exposed to nor invited to participate in musicmaking.

Two years ago, I met the director of choral activities at the University of Washington, Dr. Geoffrey Boers, when he came to Texas to clinic the All-State Choir, and I was fortunate to hear him speak on choral music programming. He suggested, and I paraphrase, that folk and pop music is in fact contemporary “classical” music—that it is as appropriate for an ensemble to sing an arrangement of the Beatles or Elton John as it is for them to sing Brahms or Britten.

Months later, I attended a choral convention in Seattle, in which his Chamber Choir performed. Their program, themed “Stars,” consisted of works from a variety of eras: a Monteverdi madrigal, a 20th-century avant-garde piece by Ingvar Lidholm, and a contemporary work by Eric Barnum. But the most memorable song was their finale, Boers’s choral arrangement of “Lippy Kids” by the British artist Elbow. The director withdrew from the podium, and the choir, dispersed around the stage, revealed a tenor at the mic and another chorus member at the piano. As their soulful singing built, the choir raised their hands, holding reflective stars, and became a full portrait of the night sky.

The addition of a non-“classical” arrangement was deeply moving. Having witnessed others in tears, I know the singers connected with the listeners. Perhaps the solution we seek is such programming, which offers a fusion of genres to inhabit the same time and space. So, all of us can appreciate the music a little more deeply.

What musicians create serves many purposes, but it is all in vain if we are not genuinely connecting with the listeners. We owe it to ourselves to deepen their listening and to maximize our communication.

NewMusicBox provides a space for those engaged with new music to communicate their experiences and ideas in their own words. Articles and commentary posted here reflect the viewpoints of their individual authors; their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply endorsement by New Music USA.

11 thoughts on “Courting the “Lay” Listener

  1. Rick Robinson (Mr. CutTime)

    Couldn’t agree more Mari! What good are we if not actively trying to validate the rest of the world for enjoying popular music (don’t we all have some favorites?) and only then validating the tradition we offer? It takes some articulate teaching, but as short and cheeky info-tainment, enlightening can be really fun! Metaphors help, despite those who will shoot them down. For example, I often introduce classical music as a sailboat if pop were a powerboat. We have to get BEYOND dumbing down if we’re ever going to create safe spaces for curious newcomers. Good luck to you!

  2. Ted Spickler

    Many of my otherwise cultured and intellectual friends do not share my passion and delight in “classical” music. The key factor separating me from them was my total immersion as a child in classical music that was played constantly by parents using LP records and FM radio. I never studied music formally, cannot play an instrument, cannot make sense of musical notation yet I am deeply affected by symphonies and concertos from Bach to Barber. I believe the repetition from listening to a steady diet of music added neural circuits in my brain that today respond emotionally to all forms of classical music. I find myself gradually appreciating the more modern composers that thirty years ago I would have passed over as bewildering. We live in a culture that fails to adequately expose its young to classical music and as a result the audience is declining. I wonder: what is the minimum, regular exposure to classical music that is necessary to gradually build a brain containing responding neural networks leading to a lifetime of appreciation and support of classical music? I doubt that a few music appreciation classes in school is sufficient. I feel sorry for my friends who don’t get it, who miss out on something so wonderful and then get caught up in strange ideas that its all about elitism and a left-over wealth effect from the olden days.

    1. Mari Valverde

      Exactly. Music is the study of listening! And the more you develop your ears, the more music you can properly consume.

      I like to remind my students with regularity that there was not always digitized media. It used to be that, if you wanted to listen to music, you had two choices: 1) travel the distance to the opera, ballet, or symphony or 2) make it yourself at home. Whether it was in a piano salon, a string quartet in public, or a circle of friends around a guitar, I believe this is part of where chamber music evolved. While there is a lingering tradition, such music (making) could hardly be considered called mainstream.

  3. Jim Stokes

    GAWD! Mari, you said it! I’m going to have to do a write up on composing. It can overwhelm you. And I have the additional perspective from my days in classical music radio. :) Thanks so very, very much with sharing! And here’s the New Music Box as an outstanding site for we quite independent composer to find kinship and colleagues! CHEERS.

  4. Janet Jennings

    I am currently immersed in this area of uncertainty with a piece I am writing for a flute/piano duo. The work is ‘All the World’s a Stage’ setting each of Shakespeare’s ‘Seven Ages’ as character pieces. The first three, (1. Prologue; 2. The Infant; and 3. The Whining School-boy) are fine. But now I am working on 4. The Lover. The tone of the text is ironic so what I have written so far , to my mind, worryingly and cheaply (or ironically?) sentimental. My son (having listened to the opening on Sibelius) said “I don’t any of your music but I like this one. Why don’t you write more like this?”. I have no doubt that the audience (first performance in March) will love it. My anxiety is centred on recognition that the ‘classical music’ world is a tiny one (especially here in New Zealand) and knowing that recognition in that tiny world is meted out by a handful of deeply serious critics. They don’t appreciate sentimentality and I don’t really like it myself! The critics (and most ‘serious’ composers) also have little inclination for melody and harmony. Timbre is ‘the thing’ with occasional nods to rhythm. Sorry to ramble …

  5. Jon Corelis

    Musicologist Robert Spencer wrote of the songs of Thomas Campion that his priorities were of the order “poem, melody, and lastly singer,” and Campion himself defended the deliberate simplicity of his technique thus: “A naked Ayre without guide, or prop, or colour but his owne, is easily censured of everies eare, and requires so much the more invention to make it please.”

    I myself am a beginning and unperformed (and ignored) composer with minimal formal music training and only rudimentary instrumental ability, but as a lifelong “lay listener,” I hope I have some standing to address the issue.

    The above quotations from Robert Spencer and Thomas Campion seem to me to speak to one of the divides with which the article deals. I’ve always been especially interested in song, but my attempts to extend my appreciation to contemporary art and choral song have been frustrated, and in my own mind the quotes above are the key to why. In listening to contemporary composers’ settings of poetry, especially, I get the impression (emphasis: my impression, which is valid as an impression whether or not objectively true) that the composer has considered the poem merely as a basis to display musical razzle-dazzle, rather than using the music as a means of bringing the poem’s meaning and sound to life. On a very basic level, this often means that the listener who doesn’t know the poem can’t even tell what the lyrics are without a text, since the words are lost the vocal whoop-de-do, an obscuring often aggravated by too forward instrumental accompaniment. It seems as some composers’ priorities are, first, their colleagues in the Music Department, second, melody and instrumental accompaniment, third, singer, with the poem nothing but sort of mannequin set up on the side used as an excuse.
    I also find that more often than not contemporary academic song gives no evidence that the composer has actually LISTENED to the poem that is being set. To take a hypothetical but concrete example, consider Whitman’s:
    When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom’d …
    The sound values here are clear and magnificent, a metrical patter of:
    short-long-long-long/short-short long long long
    beginning with a high long descending into lower, more open ones, a “slowing” movement as the vowels become more rotund, the longs highlighted by making the second and third shorts almost non-existent, and throughout the actual sounds of mourning -ah, ooh, – made more hearbreaking by the loveliness of the liquids. Typically, in my experience, a contemporary musical setting for lines like this would ignore all this aural artistry, simply using Whitman’s syllables as grist for the composers musical mill. What I look for is a musical setting which would not merely show awareness of the poet’s sounds, but would be an incarnation of them. And I rarely can find it.

  6. Evan Tobias

    Great reading these perspectives! Another consideration for bridging the gap is to build sustainable relationships and collaborative projects with K-12 music educators and students in their schools. This could include but extend beyond commissioning projects (people often overlook elementary general music classes or the parts of secondary music programs that consist of young people who aren’t interested in performing in ensembles)- it’s the personal connection that can make such a huge difference, particularly when collaborating over the long-term with a school and music teacher who is interested in making these kinds of connections.

    Young people are rarely hung up on labels of music and are often open and excite to explore pretty much any kind of music. This can extend into secondary school contexts as well, particularly when they get to know people who are composing today (as well as engaging in their own composing). It would be interesting to see a resurgence of programs such as the Young Composers Project and Contemporary Music Project (CMP) from the late 50’s and 60’s-70’s where composers regularly interacted with k-12 schools. Even a smaller scale project here or there can make a huge difference and spark interest at an early age.

  7. Jose M. Gonzalez

    Great article Mari! As a composer myself I can relate to this scenario in many ways. There’s definitely a need for more easy access to classical music in our society. My formal training back in college (2006) offered classes on theory, music history, ear training, etc. But I would only listen to concert music in class and then go home and play rock/metal (also due to the fact that I played in a band of this genre and I love the style as well) but I wasn’t listening or actively listening and wanting to learn more about classical and our amazing history of composers that really created masterpieces like Brahms, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Liszt and the list goes on and on and for different eras. I have loved music all my life in all different styles, but always gravitated more towards rock, pop, and Jazz. But for the past 3 years I’ve been a solo composer, producing, and recording my own music and classical/concert/or instrumental/art whatever you want to call it has taken the lead- and it was all thanks to watching the NY philharmonic live at Lincoln Center performing Tchaikovsky’s suite no. 3 in G minor. Op.55.

    It is a gradual process to get people to actively listen to music more:

    I strongly believe that in order to get somebody’s undivided attention and them to really appreciate the power of concert music, they have to experience it live…followed by some more explaining of the piece and then history of the composer and maybe what circumstances that surrounded the writing of the piece and then more detailed listening…

    It is frustrating at times when I listen to classical piece and show it to some of my “passive-listening or less-music-educated” friends and they have the same reaction that you described…I just want them to hear everything I hear: The progressions, The love! The passion! The power of orchestration and the stories a piece can tell….but it takes time and dedicated listening… it took me a good year of actively listening to just classical music, watching documentaries, reading about composers for it to really click; to REALLY understand motivic development, forms, and I’m still learning but it makes everything so much more enjoyable. It also inspires me to get better at my craft and notice more details on everything in life too, not just music.

    This article is a very inspiring, Mari. Thank you for sharing your thoughts. I agree with you and hope we can make the world a more active-listening one!

    If you want to check out some of music feel free to go to, it would be a pleasure:

    1. Jon Corelis

      In my experience a piece of music is like a joke: explaining it only ruins it.

      I’d say the same thing about a poem, a painting, or pretty much any art form.

      This isn’t to say music (or any art) can’t be usefully talked about, but I think you have to talk about a piece of music (or poem, etc.) like you talk about a person: you can discuss a person, talk about what you like or don’t like about them, speculate on their feelings and motives, but it would be absurd to think you can EXPLAIN a person. Or a piece of any art.

  8. Jose M Gonzalez

    You have a good point Jon. I think it speaks to you and I’m sure there are many others that feel the same way. Ultimately, a piece is personal and Intimate to a composer and we would never be able to “explain” it or at least be 100% correct about it without the composer’s account.

    However, I feel I’m on the other side of the fence now (and believe me, I used to be like you and thought that analyzing it or thinking about a piece too much or trying to “explain” it would ruin its magic for me, but When I started actively listening and Trying to find out why I liked it, the harmonic analysis, the form, how a piece might differ from another of the same time period, the history and story behind it, any composer accounts on it, etc) I just became closer to it and it just completely changed my mind about passively listening and liking a piece or really actively listening and LOVING one.

  9. Pingback: You’re Asking the Wrong Question | Greg Simon Composer

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