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Is the Public Capable of Recognizing Quality Music?

by
Gift

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Can the average music listener recognize quality? Can they distinguish a virtuoso from a mediocre musician? Can they recognize a “hit” that will still be esteemed a masterpiece in a hundred years? Does “popular” mean the same as “quality”?

I’ve just starting watching that great Massachusetts law drama “The Practice” again. In a recent episode, a film critic defended his occupation: “The public don’t know whether they like a movie or not unless we tell them!” Is the same true for music?

A couple of years ago The Washington Post held an experiment to find out. They called their experiment “Pearls Before Breakfast”.

The Experiment

To find his own answer to our question, Gene Weingarten from The Washington Post approached violin virtuoso and one-time child prodigy, Joshua Bell, and asked him to don street clothes and play quality music on his 1713 Stradivarius as a busker at a Washington DC railway station during rush hour.

Here is a brief summary of the experiment. You can read the original Washington Post article here, and see Dear Teacher’s take on it (including footage of the event) in the Youtube video below.

On a cold January morning, Bell arrived at L’Enfant Plaza Station at 7:15 am, and positioned himself against a wall on a busy subway platform near a trash basket. He wore jeans, a long-sleeved t-shirt and a baseball cap. He threw a couple of dollars in his open violin case, pointed it towards the passersby, and played Bach for 43 minutes with the same 3.5 million dollar violin and passion he would play with in Symphony Hall.

Weingarten describes the thoughts and decisions that passersby would have to process:

Each passerby had a quick choice to make, one familiar to commuters in any urban area where the occasional street performer is part of the cityscape: Do you stop and listen? Do you hurry past with a blend of guilt and irritation, aware of your cupidity but annoyed by the unbidden demand on your time and your wallet? Do you throw in a buck, just to be polite? Does your decision change if he’s really bad? What if he’s really good? Do you have time for beauty? Shouldn’t you? What’s the moral mathematics of the moment?

In their planning, editors of the Post discussed the issue of crowd-control, but they needn’t have bothered. A crowd never formed. What response did Bell get?

  • A $1 tip from a lady who didn’t stop to listen.
  • A middle aged man slowed his pace to listen for a few seconds before hurrying again.
  • One man leaned up against a wall to listen, but hurried off after looking at his watch.
  • A three-year-old boy tried to stop to listen, only to be pushed along by his mother.
  • A total of six people stopped briefly to listen.
  • 27 people gave him money, but didn’t stop to listen.
  • A worker at the station had no memory of a musician being at the station when he was asked later. He had been listening to his iPod.
  • Another woman did remember the violinist, but “but nothing about him struck me as much of anything.”
  • One person who stopped for a shoe shine complained that the music was too loud.
  • 1,070 people passed by oblivious.
  • There was no applause after any of the six pieces he played.
  • He made a total of $32 plus change.

But there were a few people who appreciated the performance:

  • One classical music fan and former student of the violin stopped dead in his tracks when he heard the music. He didn’t recognize Bell, but commented, “This was a superb violinist. I’ve never heard anyone of that caliber. He was technically proficient, with very good phrasing. He had a good fiddle, too, with a big, lush sound. I walked a distance away, to hear him. I didn’t want to be intrusive on his space.” He added, “Yeah, other people just were not getting it. It just wasn’t registering. That was baffling to me.” He contributed $5.
  • Another woman who learned violin as a child appreciated Bell’s gifted playing, and listened during her coffee break. “I really don’t want to leave,” she commented.
  • Right at the end, a woman who had seen Bell in concert three weeks earlier recognized him and positioned her just ten feet from him, where she remained planted until the end of the performance. “It was the most astonishing thing I’ve ever seen in Washington,” she said. “Joshua Bell was standing there playing at rush hour, and people were not stopping, and not even looking, and some were flipping quarters at him! Quarters!” She contributed $20.

Would you like to see Bell in action? Here is some footage, along with Dear Teacher’s take on the event.

Was the experiment fair? Let us know what you think. I don’t know if it proves anything, but I think there are some lessons in this story for we musicians and music producers.

Context

If I was rushing to work one morning, I don’t know if I would have stopped to listen to Joshua Bell. I can be pretty focused when rushing for a train. Once I was running to catch one, tripped, slid along the platform on my stomach until my face was up against the train’s window, and still managed to jump on.

It’s hard to learn anything from this experiment without taking context into consideration. If you want to run a successful concert with people stopping to listen, don’t hold it on a train platform during peak hour. In this context, the people’s lack of ability to recognize quality music isn’t the only issue. It’s unlikely they would risk their jobs to listen even if they did recognize the quality.

What we can learn from this experiment is that context is always an issue in how music is accepted. Whether we’re creating music for a concert, and advertisement, a soundtrack, or a computer game, that context will dictate the type of music that will be acceptable as much as any other factor. We need to answer the question, “Where will people hear this music?” and write accordingly.

Genre

Quality alone will not guarantee that music will be enjoyed. As with the fashion industry, taste plays a hugely important part - we all enjoy different styles and genres of music. Would the response have been different if the Post went with rock or pop music instead of classical music?

I’m sure that most musicians reading this article understand genre, and have strong opinions about what genres you enjoy. There are no right and wrong answers here: different people have different tastes. Understanding that, and creating music within a predicable set of genres - will increase your chances of success. Listeners who enjoy one of your tracks expect to enjoy others.

Even within a genre, fashions will change. The expected sound of a snare or bass line for a genre will vary over time. One thing I love about the tutorials here on Audiotuts is that many of them will help you tweak your music to achieve that sound.

Branding

People didn’t stop because they didn’t recognize Joshua Bell as a world-class musician. If signs were put up or announcements made on radio, I have no doubt there would have been a traffic-destroying crowd. If people were told he was famous, they would have been interested.

Branding - making a product, musician or band instantly recognizable - is a key element in marketing today. It also raises the question of this article: Are normal people able to recognize quality music without branding? Or, as the film critic on The Practice claimed, do people need someone to tell them what they like?

For producers of music, it is enough to recognize that branding and marketing are essential elements in becoming successful. We need to assume that quality is not enough, and make ourselves recognizable. What do you do to brand and market yourself or your music?

Popularity

Even more than needing an “expert” to tell us what we like, we need our friends to. Social proof is a powerful thing. Knackered Hack asks the question in his article The Lie Becomes the Truth: “Since I heard about social proof, and more specifically Joshua Bell’s famous busking experiment, I’ve wondered what in fact determines my own musical taste: how independent is it of others? Like anyone, I want to think I’m a free spirit.”

The music industry is driven by popularity, not quality. The popularity of an album defines the number of sales. The two concepts are not necessarily mutually exclusive, but musical quality is not the only thing that makes a song popular.

The likability or infamy of the artist, the humor or currency of the lyrics, image and advertising, and the amount of radio time a song gets can all contribute to its popularity. The traditional line of the record companies is that they deserve the lion’s share of the profit because achieving popularity without them is impossible.

What are your thoughts about popularity? Is it important? How is it achieved? And is it possible to achieve it by promoting and distributing your own music?

Famous Composers

Joshua Bell was not recognized as being a virtuoso by most people in the crowd rushing to work that morning. We have to wonder whether things would have been different if they weren’t in such a hurry.

But quite a few now-famous composers didn’t achieve the recognition they deserved in their own generations. They produced beautiful music for decades, but the music listeners of the time were oblivious to its quality. Their musical genius was ahead of their time.

If entire generations missed the quality of a musical composition even after hearing it for decades, what hope did Joshua Bell have that morning?

Musicians Appreciate Music Differently

It is telling that two of the three people who stopped to listen were musicians. In fact, they had spent years studying the violin—the same instrument being played by Bell—and were able to recognize his greatness by their own familiarity with the instrument and the music.

Musicians listen to music differently to others. For a start, we’re really interested in music—though that can be said of many non-musicians as well. We can appreciate when a singer or musician does something special, because we understand what is involved in accomplishing it. We have a greater awareness of the sounds of an instrument, the structure of a song, the subtle things that make a performance outstanding, the beauty of a melody, and the extra flavor added to a chord.

The music you create will be listened to by non-musicians. They probably won’t hear the same things in your music as you do. They won’t understand the skill and effort you have used to create it. They’ll just be aware of whether they like it or not. How should that affect our music making?

Conclusion

I’m not sure whether the “Pearls Before Breakfast” experiment was a fair test. But it’s an interesting story which we can learn from.

Is the public capable of recognizing quality music? Let’s hold our own informal poll:

  • Do you believe you recognize quality when you hear it? Do you believe the rest of the world does?
  • If Joshua Bell was playing at your train station, would you have stopped? Even if you couldn’t stop, would you have recognized his talent and the quality of Bach’s music?
  • If you make a mistake at a gig, how big does it have to be before someone in the audience notices?
  • How important is quality in order for music to become popular?
  • Besides quality, what other aspects are important for someone wanting to become a successful music producer?
  • What did you learn from the experiment?
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