Abandoned project – From my life

‘From My Life’ is a Regular Marvel that I worked on between 2013 and 2015, though its roots stretch back much further. It was shelved in Fenruary 2015 because of the difficulty of securing funds to make it happen. It is possible that it might be revived in future, perhaps in a different form, as the ideas it set out to explore remain interesting, but it is no longer an active regular marvel.  

The universal appeal of classical music

Classical music occupies a valued and distinctive place in Western culture. It is one of the more universal creations of European art, practiced to a very high degree not only in the concert halls of Vienna, London or Paris, but also in places as different as China, South Africa and Venezuela, where it sometimes reaches a broader spectrum of society than it does in the countries of its origin.

El Sistema (Peter Dammann)

The production, performance and consumption of classical music all grew during the 20th century, enabled partly by new recording and broadcasting technology. It is now possible to have a familiarity—and therefore a relationship—with the great music of the last 300 years that was simply unimaginable to those who created it, since they could only ever hear it as it was performed. The rise of other media, notably film, has given a further boost to composers and musicians alike. There can be little doubt that more people are engaged in classical music today, as professionals, amateurs and listeners, than at any time in human history, both in absolute terms and, arguably, as a proportion of the population.

Narratives of decline

Why then the pervasive pessimism in discussion of classical music? Here are the introductory lines of an article by Jack Miles & Douglas McLennan, in the online Arts Journal:

For some time now, the classical music press has been holding a virtual deathwatch. Lugubrious rhetorical questions are the headlines of choice.  Are live concerts dying? Has opera ceased to be relevant? Are audiences deaf to the charms of new music? Is orchestral programming stuck in the past? And are orchestras themselves becoming marginalized and irrelevant?

The piece introduces a section of the website headed ‘Is Classical Music Dying?’, which includes more than 50 other articles just from 2000 and 2001. A more academic perspective on the same story appears in the last book by the social historian, Eric Hobsbawm:

Classical music basically lives on a dead repertoire. Of the 60 or so operas performed by the Vienna State Opera 1996/7 only one was by a composer born in the twentieth century, and things are not much better in the concert hall. In addition, the potential concert audience, which even in the city of more than a million inhabitants at best consists of about twenty thousand elderly ladies and gentlemen, is hardly replenishing itself. This cannot go on indefinitely.

This perception of decline can be partly explained by change in the demographics in Western societies, in the economic models sustaining classical music production, in technological change, and in patterns of leisure and consumption in the 21st century. But more complex questions of class and the insecurity of elites when markets, if not democracy, have acquired such primacy, cannot be discounted.

Different Trains

Different Trains

But I wonder whether the anxious narrative of decline, which originates among classical music professionals rather than amateurs or audiences, is not also the product of a deeper misunderstanding between these groups. Is it possible that the professionals, who have normally been involved with classical music from a very young age, have a different relationship to it from those who come to it later in life—that they have been travelling, so to speak, on a different train?

If that is so—and it does not imply that people in the second group have a weaker engagement with music—it may be that professionals do not understand well how non-professionals relate to what they do when they make music. By professionals, in this context, I mean people who have what Howard Gardner describes as a musical intelligence, by which he means:

the capacity to think in music; to be able to hear patterns, recognize them, and perhaps manipulate them. People who have strong musical intelligence don’t just remember music easily, they can’t get it out of their minds, it’s so omnipresent.

Gardner does not mean that people with a high musical intelligence necessarily have an aptitude for a musical instrument. Musical intelligence is a way of thinking, comprehending and imagining in which music and its systems play a uniquely important role.

Not everyone with musical intelligence has a career in music: some are keen amateurs or listeners. But few who work professionally in music do not have a musical intelligence, and that may be expected to affect their perception of how people ‘normally’ understand and relate to music. Music professionals may, as a result, find it harder to imagine how people who do not share their musical intelligence actually experience and find meaning in classical music. Some of that difference may be sensed in how the Jamaican saxophonist, Joe Harriott, tried to prepare a 1963 audience at Manchester Free Trade Hall for what his quintet were about to play:

‘I would like to play for the first time here one of our abstract compositions. In this form of music we’re not using any particular set harmonic structure. We’re attempting to paint, sounds, colours and effects with this sort of music. Hope you like “Coda”…’

It may be impossible to know who understands what from this kind of explanation—if we cannot escape from a perception of music shaped by our own minds—but it is a fascinating question.

Why this interest?

Whatever the truth of this tentative hypothesis, I want to understand better how and why different people develop a relationship with classical music. That is partly because of my own evolving relationship with music over more than 50 years.

I fell under music’s spell one night in early childhood when I stumbled upon the Animals singing The House of the Rising Sun on an old radiogram I was fiddling with. I had no idea then what it was, but I never forgot the visceral thrill of that sound. It changed me. Music has been central in my life since then and I have spent numberless hours listening to it, reading up on it, talking and dreaming about it. I have forgotten how many different technologies I have used to help me, alongside live experience. As a teenager, I learned to play the guitar in emulation of my hero, Bob Dylan. I wrote dozens of songs, each modelled on my most recent listening, and all terrible. It gave me great pleasure, but I knew I had no talent for music: I was happy to bash it out (in Nick Lowe’s immortal words) and listen to new records with an almost reverential expectation of transcendent discovery.


But I didn’t like classical music at all. I didn’t like it partly because it had no words and, as a person with a natural linguistic intelligence—‘the capacity to use language to express what’s on your mind and to understand other people’—music was most powerful for me when it amplified and coloured the meanings of words. I had plenty of exposure to classical music. I was taken to concerts, as I was to the theatre, but I was bored. That changed in my early 40s, when classical music unexpectedly started to make sense. Again, I remember the moment: switching from Radio 4 to Radio 3 to avoid some inane discussion, I found Corelli’s Christmas Concerto, which I had heard in my youth but without interest. In that instant, I felt I’d discovered a new land, which I happily spent the next decade exploring.

From the New World

One consequence of this experience was a doubt about the narratives of decline that haunt the classical music world. If the classical audience is ageing, that may simply be because society is ageing. It does not follow that the audience is not renewing itself. If it is natural for teenagers to seek out loud, exciting music with strong rhythms that speaks to them of their values and experiences, it may be equally natural for older bodies, with more experience of life, to respond to other sounds that reflect their time in life.

Exploring the experience

Ligeti Quartet (absent)

For several years, I have been thinking of ways in which it might be possible to explore some of these questions and specifically to test whether, and if so how, different conceptions of music may influence people’s relationship with it. The obvious way to do that is to talk to people who attend classical music concerts about when, how and why they developed an interest in so doing. But at the same time, it is important to explore the same questions with professionals.

Now, in partnership with Woodend Music Society and the Ligeti Quartet, among others, there’s an opportunity to do that: ‘From My Life’ Regular Marvel no. 5.


  1. Interesting – reminds me of John Sloboda’s Musical Mind: “untrained musicians have implicit knowledge of that which musicians can talk about explicitly. In this respect music is similar to language. Ordinary people speak their natural language according to the same rules as professional linguists even though they may have very limited conscious knowledge of those rules.”

    1. I don’t know John Sloboda, but I expect that what he suggests is often true where musicians are concerned. But my questions are about non-musicians: how do we imagine and experience music? Is that similar or different to how musicians do? And to what extent can we even understand one another’s relationship with music?

      When I’ve talked about these questions with musicians (by which I mean people with musical intelligence in Howard Gardner’s terms, not necessarily people who play music) I’ve often met resistance. And, without wishing to engage in the kind of self-justifying arguments deployed by many ideologies, that resistance makes me wonder whether I might be on to something. It could, of course, just be because I’m wrong. Or it could be because musicians don’t understand how someone like me experiences music.

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