Friday, January 23, 2009


Some of you may have heard of the experiment where Joshua Bell played in a commuter station during rush hour about a year and a half ago. I mentioned it in passing. The experiment was done for an article for the Washington Post, which later won a Pulitzer. And now apparently it is making its way around the internets.

The kicker was that during rush hour, almost no commuters stopped to listen to Bell playing. Although the article explores a number of different directions, the easiest conclusion is one of hand-wringing; oh noes, we are a society unable to appreciate true great art, running around like ants, oh woe for the common masses, unable to be inspired by blah blah blah whatever.

Well, I draw different conclusions.

First of all, and to be fair the article does mention this briefly, I think it shows that context matters. (I commend the mention of Kant in the article. And I never thought I would commend someone's mention of Kant.) In fact, context matters so much that there is no piece of music that is appropriate all the time. Sometimes I love listening to Beethoven; sometimes I just can't take it. Same thing for Josquin. Sometimes I really enjoy Brahms, and sometimes I can't stand Brahms, I really have to go listen to some U2 or Peter Gabriel or Christina Aguilera or Mos Def or Metallica. It all depends.

If it's rush hour, I am not in a place to appreciate some solo Bach violin music. If I try to stand still out of guilt or a sense that I ought to stop and appreciate the art, I will be fidgety, I will be thinking of everything I have to do, I will be wondering how late I'm going to be, and how angry my supervisor might get with me. If I go to the symphony, on the other hand, I've been anticipating it for weeks, I have time to get into the right frame of mind, I know I'm going to set aside some dedicated time for listening, and I will enjoy myself. The same result will not be achieved if someone makes an unprecedented demand on my time early in the morning. And that's OK. It's OK that context matters. It doesn't mean we can't appreciate art. If you have just eaten Thanksgiving dinner, and one of the Iron Chefs knocks on your door and offers you a five-course meal, it's OK to be less enthusiastic than if you only had a small bowl of cereal earlier in the day. We know that with regard to physical activities, our immediate past and the context matters, but it matters just as much with mental or soulful activities. In fact, it's arguable that it means that I value music more highly if I don't think it's appropriate for every time and place, and if I don't consider myself "on call to be appreciative of art" 24-7. It means it's special.

And on the flip side of why context matters, I present you this paper forwarded to me by my brother: "Music as Torture/Music as Weapon." A quick skim of that article should provide ample evidence that context matters a great deal when it comes to music.

The other thing that pisses me off about this article is the classical snobbishness. Nobody would be amazed if some people went by Bob Dylan in the subway. (Well, except that everyone would recognize him.) Same thing with Talib Kweli. It's acceptable to not like folk, or pop, or hip-hop; but if you don't appreciate GREAT CLASSICAL MUSIC then clearly you are a boor, and probably you are not as intelligent as other people and also not as moral and upstanding, and you probably also smell, you member of the unwashed masses, you.

Now, I happen to be a classical musician. I like this music. A lot. I am, in fact, happy devoting 90% of my time to it. And I can be snobbish too. But I'm not really comfortable with that part of myself. And I'm especially uncomfortable with the way that so many people seem to think it's OK to diss other genres of music. Especially country and hip-hop. All genres of music can be done well, and to be done well they require mad skillz. It is not somehow indicative of higher morals to prefer classical music.

Other thoughts from people? (Please leave them on the original blog post and not a feed.) I basically have put off writing this blog post ever since I read the article, because it is so hard to organize my thoughts on this topic. So, I just spewed some out. Stay tuned for a future entry on why Baroque music and country music are so similar.


  1. Just came across your post. Funny - I was thinking about the Joshua Bell story too this week, and thinking about how the high art status of classical music is generally signalled so strongly by its staging. Concert halls are built to encourage reverence, as is the audience etiquette of sitting still quietly and the performance etiquette of formal entrance and bowing. I spend a lot of time in my postgrad performance class at Birmingham Conservatoire exploring with my students how important their stage-craft and programme notes/spoken introductions are for getting their listeners' heads in the right place to get what they're doing musically. I think the Joshua Bell story makes the same point by contrast.

    Your comments on musical snobbishness are very to the point, too.


  2. @ liz:

    Thanks for commenting! It's good to hear someone is working on stage-craft and programme notes with their student, because you're right, it is very important.