Why do we hate modern music?

In The Age A2 section thismorning there’s a really interesting article by Alex Ross (he wrote a great book called “The Rest is Noise in 2007) called “The schock of the dissonant.” I couldn’t find a link on The Age’s site, but the original article (titled “Why we hate modern music” was published in The Guardian a few weeks ago.

As you can probably guess by the titles, it’s about the interesting fact that generally speaking, modern music is a VERY difficult sell to most audiences. Why is it that “new” and “exciting” visual arts, or even dance, are embraced by the public, but when you apply the same adjectives to new music, the reaction is more likely to be one of suspicion, caution, or even anger? People still, to this day, pay money to attend, and then walk out of performances of contemporary classical works. I guess people are sometimes mystified by some contemporary visual arts works, but rarely would a show at ACCA, for example, cause people to actually get angry (the Turner Prize-winning show by English artist Martin Creed, where the work consisted of nothing except the lights in the gallery switching on and off every 5 seconds is a possible exception.)

It’s a very interesting read, and full of links to musical and video examples of the works he discusses, as well as scientific articles on the topic! These issues are of interest to us working on improving music appreciation for CI users, because one of the main complaints people have, if they lose their hearing later in life and subsequently get a CI, is that music “will never sound the same again…” In other words, they are understandably hoping to re-discover the familiar music they loved before they lost their hearing.  Some people get discouraged, and avoid music completely once they start to think that music “might never sound the same again.” Others, on the other hand, start to explore different types of music, and discover that although the sounds are new and unfamiliar, they can still find enjoyment once they explore this new musical space. One CI user we were talking to a few weeks ago said that although he grew up loving Hyden, Mozart, and all the 18th century classical composers, he now enjoys hip-hop and rock with his CI, which he probably would have disliked with natural hearing. The classical music is still disappointing, but he’s found a new genre of music that he does enjoy.

Another reason the article is interesting is because it relates to the work we’re doing with composers (and which I will be endlessly plugging as it gets closer to the performance date – sorry). In this project, the composers are writing new music designed specifically for the hearing impaired and CI users. Of course we’re hoping that our audience is going to enjoy the new work. However, before we even start, there’s the issue of the newness itself. New music, generally speaking, is not popular with general audiences. This is all a big generalisation with lots of exceptions, but people, for unknown reasons, generally don’t enjoy new music they way they enjoy new visual arts. So enjoyment is almost a secondary aim. Our first aim is that the audience will be able to appreciate the works – to be able to hear them, assess them, and for the punters to be able to decide, without fear that they’re hearing things somehow wrong, whether they like, or dislike, the works. In some perverse way, if people walk out of this show, because they’ve decided on the basis of what they heard that they hate the works, it will be a sort of success. I don’t think this is going to happen on the night though, on the basis of what I’ve heard so far, I think the audience will hear, assess, and then decide to stay to the end!

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