Discourses in Music: Volume 3 Number 2 (Winter 2001-2002)

Response to Teresa Magdanz' “Classical Music -- Is Anyone Listening?”...

By Caroline Matt

Teresa Magdanz has presented a timely article. With orchestras slowly disappearing, or nearly avoiding dissolution as the Toronto Symphony Orchestra did a couple of months ago, the question begs to be asked: just what place (if any) does classical music have in our society? While this question was by no means at the forefront of Magdanz' exploration, it, and other issues, forms an interesting frame around her main thesis that concerns contemporary modes of listening which developed in response to “the alienating social ritual of the concert itself.”1

The article is based on a study conducted on 17 undergraduate students whose response to Schubert's music was assessed in two listening contexts:

  1. while watching the film Trop belle pour toi, and
  2. listening to its soundtrack in various environments.

The questionnaires were then analyzed to determine how the listener's predisposition to various listening contexts influenced her or his listening behaviour and response to the music. While this small study provided enough material to raise and illustrate a number of important issues, I was taken aback by it. My reservation may have stemmed from not receiving sufficient information on how the subjects were informed. Maybe a more detailed outline of the questions asked on the questionnaire may have answered some of my concerns. In addition, as Magdanz indicated herself, her test groups were very small. This flaw could have been partially remedied by drawing upon results of previously conducted studies that approach the very issues studied by Magdanz in much the same manner. I would like to elicit just one of them here to further her valuable argument. In his research on musical complexity and patterns, Jauk (1994) uses pop-videos to observe whether the video merely enhances the experience of the music, or if it has the ability to alter its perception. He asked the subjects to rate the music and the video both independently and combined. The results showed that the audiovisual samples were rated more active and complex. More interestingly for the present purpose, the study showed that the listeners often preferred the music without the visual stimuli, suggesting, as Magdanz asserts through her study, that listeners have clear expectations as to the proper listening environment and the context of the music's appropriation in various media.

Based on the results of her study, Magdanz claims that this changing listening behaviour requires a non-traditional system of analysis and proposes three questions:

  1. what is the listener listening for,
  2. how did the listener participate, and
  3. who the listener thinks the transmitter is.

I believe that the first question holds the key. What is the purpose of exposing ourselves (willingly or not) to a musical experience? Notwithstanding the popular theory that it is through syntax - patterns - that we derive meaning in the first place, our primary goal during the listening process is to map the experience onto prior experiences, while at the same time, as Stockfelt suggested, cataloging the present musical encounter within our musical memory. Movies form an especially complex subject matter, for our own experiences can be re-projected by the viewed experience of a character in a play. But I wonder - does it really matter how we participate in musicking, aside from establishing why we do it? Does it matter who the transmitter is? I was left with the following question: what is the importance of raising such issues in the first place? While they make for an interesting (ethno)musicological analysis of contemporary listening modes, they do not further the understanding of the listening process beyond what is readily observable unless these experiences are synthesized into a larger more meaningful context. Magdanz has given us two such contexts. She concludes that the classical repertoire maintains an important function in our society, albeit within different listening modes, and that a paradigmatic shift of this kind warrants a different sort of exploration.

The greatest challenge of these changes lies within the scholars' own expectations of what classical music is and how it should be listened to. This theme runs through Magdanz' entire paper, and she herself points to this conflict frequently. Particularly telling is the short discussion on the definition of classical music provided by some of the subjects, and the analysis it initiated. The untainted views of the participants illuminates the popular “misunderstanding” (if a correct understanding could be forthcoming at all) for what was so fittingly classified by Simon Frith as “high-brow” music, when the only defining feature of this category is the ritual itself. The problem of establishing borders between classical music, instrumental film music and classical instrumental music used in film, is partially resolved when scholars start putting emphasis on context as opposed to syntax. This requires a suspension of our understanding of music and a corresponding sensitivity to what our subjects are actually telling us. In “Classical Music - Is Anyone Listening,” the 17 students provide us with a contemporary definition of classical music. Who are we to say that they are wrong? Schubert's compositions used in Too Beautiful for You can become film music, while Korngold's work can certainly make it into the ranks of “serious” music when played on stage, and if they both fall into the “classical” category, then so be it. That being said, I wholeheartedly agree with Magdanz' conclusion when she counters Said's alienated concert experience with the writing of Christopher Small, who embraces the inherent fluidity that accompanies all historical artifacts, particularly those that are re-performed, and hence re-interpreted. Hopefully, the same liberal concept will be applied one day to remove the “highbrow” aspects of traditional classical listening modes and expectations so people can return to the concert hall to listen “with real musical attention”.


Jauk, Werner. “Die Veränderung des emotionalen Empfindens von Musik durch audiovisuelle Präsentation.” Musik Psychologie. 11 (1994): 29-51.


1. Edward W. Said, Musical Explorations (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991) 3.