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Whatever happened to music appreciation?

When I was at school, our textbooks mentioned a mysterious thing called ‘music appreciation’. This appeared to be a worthy pursuit whereby a neighbourhood watch group would get together and a local musicologist would lead them in weighty musical discussion about Wagner or Schubert. Like a book club but for classical music.

It was smug and stuffy, and so middle class.

The biggest problem with this system of music studying was the snobbishness it engendered: the idea that you couldn’t really enjoy music without properly studying first, and the repertoire (if my textbooks were anything to go by) was conservative : old or dead white men writing serious music for serious listeners.

The advantages of this system though, meant that there was an engaged and aspirational audience going to the concerts and buying the LPs. Television would broadcast music appreciation lectures by Leonard Bernstein, and commission new works from emerging and established composers to introduce their work to a casual but appreciative audience.

In time this system disappeared, and with good reason. It can be argued that it was exclusionary, and many of the worst habits of concertgoing audiences come from this era: Dress codes, shushing, corporal punishment for clapping between movements , all designed to keep out the outsider and reinforce the status quo. Today concert programmers are constantly having to fight against the conservatism and opposition to new music.

With the social demise of this pastime, orchestras and ensembles have been forced to undertake this project themselves. Under the name of learning and participation programmes there are some great audience development schemes, with casual concerts, marketing videos and engaging programmes opening up the music to a less experienced audience.

Similarly there has been a rise in classical music YouTube channels, ranging from the specialist (TwoSet Violin or David Bruce Composer) to the generalist (Vox, a channel with over 7m subscribers that won an Emmy for its analysis of a jazz tune, has published videos on a Philip Glass opera and the Bach cello prelude. These were perhaps a little less popular than their other stuff). These channels are using the same techniques and approaches as the old armchair musicologists, but reaching a younger and more diverse audience, one that doesn’t have a front room to host a gathering.

The element that is missing in this new wave of music outreach is the social. Despite the rich engagement and increase in accessibility programmes, this still relies on individual participation. Knowing people who share the same passions and interests is a hugely important thing. Watching a YouTube video, or following the LPO twitter is great, but nothing is as exciting as taking a friend to a concert you know they will love.

Book clubs have adapted to the modern world, perhaps music appreciation could too?

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