Et Nova et Vetera

Mark WigglesworthWed 9th November 2011

What makes some works more popular than others?

Conducting Dvořák's Symphony 'From the New World' recently made me wonder what it is that makes certain pieces of music so popular. Of course it's a fabulous work but is it any greater than Dvořák's 8th? What does Beethoven's 5th have that makes it so much more famous than his 7th and why is Mozart 40 used on mobile phone ringtones but not Mozart 41? What is it that links the compositions that have transcended into popular culture?

Beethoven 5, Mozart 40, Dvořák 9, the William Tell Overture, and Pachelbel's Canon are all based on small easily identifiable ideas heard over and over again. Cognitive scientists suggest that it's precisely this repetition that appeals to us as it seems that our ability to recognise patterns activates the pleasure and reward systems of the brain. But recent studies propose that our brain likes being surprised by what we hear too. After all, as Philip Ball has pointed out, if we only ever had our expectations fulfilled we would prefer simple and obvious music all the time. The music theorist Leonard Meyer has argued that it is a composer’s job to avoid boredom on the one hand and reward predictability on the other. As straightforward as all the most famous works appear, their musical patterns are actually highly sophisticated and irregular. It is the subtle transformations that the greatest composers affect on their motives that have allowed their works to stay so popular for so long.

Given the brain's enjoyment of repetition, it's understandable that of all the new musical styles of the last 50 years, it is minimalism that has had the most popular success. Music needs to have a certain familiarity for most people to enjoy it. But these neurological studies infer that over-familiarity can become just as much of a turn-off as novelty. And just as composers need to balance the predictable with the unexpected, it is crucial that we do something similar when it comes to programming concerts. At a time when everyone involved in the music business is worrying about audience numbers, the answer is not to only offer an undiluted diet of the already well-known but also to give people the opportunity of hearing something new too. By simply playing the same works over and over again in a short-sighted attempt to hang on to our audience today, we run the risk of losing everybody altogether tomorrow. Limiting people's exposure to a variety of classical music ultimately limits the pleasure they receive from it. Performers and promoters have a responsibility to increase the number of pieces that people recognise. There are many more great works than there are popular ones and the 'world's most loved classical music' does not have to be a finite list. Ultimately, lengthening that list is the only sustainable future. To be challenged as well as rewarded is a fundamental principal of life. Indeed the greater the challenge, the greater the reward. You don't need to be a neuroscientist to realise that.

Mark Wigglesworth

Leading conductor Mark Wigglesworth is equally at home in the opera house as in the concert hall – and, indeed, the studio, where his acclaimed Shostakovich symphony cycle for BIS is nearing completion. In 'Shaping the invisible' Mark shares his passion for music and his fascination with the philosophies and psychologies that lie behind it. (Photo: Ben Ealovega)

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