Why Go to Concerts?

An insane audiophile of my acquaintance recently remarked (in a locked LiveJournal, otherwise I'd link to it) that while live classical music is clearly superior to recorded classical music, it's crazy to go to a live performance of pop music because "you're not hearing actual instruments/voices, you're hearing them miked and amplified through speakers just like you would at home," and if speakers are going to be involved, you might as well not be there. This is space-alien logic, of course, but not all that far out there as insane audiophilia goes. Remember, kids, friends don't let friends read obsessive stereo geek magazines.

I pointed out there, as I've said before, that the attraction of live pop music is not the sound quality, but the spontaneity and improvisation that you get in a live setting. Good live acts rarely sound like thier studio albums, and most of them will either re-invent their own songs live, or play some cover songs that you won't find anywhere else.

It occurs to me, though, that I could perfectly well turn that around, and make it an argument against live classical music. After all, nobody ever came back from a symphony concert saying "Dude, you should've been there-- they totally re-did the Third Concerto as a waltz! It was amazing!" When you go to a classical concert, you know exactly what they're going to play in advance, and you know more or less what it's going to sound like. So, why should I want to get dressed up and spend a couple of hours sitting silently in uncomfortable concert-hall seats to listen to an orchestra working really hard to faithfully reproduce exactly the sounds written down on the sheet music? Why wouldn't it be better to just buy the very best recording of the very best orchestra with the very best conductor, and listen to that in the comfort of my own home?

It's a dumb argument, of course, but it's dumb in exactly the same way that "Going to pop concerts is crazy because they use microphoes and speakers" is. In fact, they're essentially the same argument-- not in any of the details, but in the crucial implied clause: Both of them are, at bottom, "It's dumb to go to live performances of music I don't like."

And, of course, in that light, both arguments are correct. My audiophile friend shouldn't go to pop concerts, and I shouldn't go to classical concerts, but the reason has nothing to do with the sound quality or the preserved-under-glass nature of the performance. We shouldn't go to those concerts because we don't like that type of music.

After all, the theater where we just saw Richard Thompson play often hosts classical concerts, and features exactly the same sort of uncomfortable concert-hall seats that I complained about it my anti-classical argument. If I had been dragged there to listen to some string quartet, I'd probably bitch about the seating, but I'll happily go there to hear Richard Thompson, or John Hiatt, or the Subdudes (to name three acts I've seen at the Egg). The difference is, I enjoy those performances enough that I don't think about the seats, but classical music doesn't really do it for me, and I'm left with free time to think about things that bug me.

I'm perfectly capable of coming up with reasons why pop concerts are superior to classical ones, but they're all essentially reverse-engineered arguments. I like pop music, and don't really like classical music, and with that as a starting point, it's easy to generate lists of things I like about pop concerts and things I don't like about classical concerts. It would be a mistake, though, to think that this constitutes an argument that ought to apply to anybody else.


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Rock and Roll is not audiophile. My scientist friends are amazed I use tube amps for electric guitar, "its not as linear as solid state, it colors the sound". Well DUH, its part of the instrument. I DO use a high wattage solid state amp for the PA and vocals, but if I'm singing or listening to Allman Brothers songs, I'm not doing it with a spectrum analyzer OK??? Now the sound CAN be bad, particularly vocals, particularly as the night goes on and the sound man gets drunker/higher, and he is essentially twisting knobs for fun. I've offered guys free beer if they'd just get drunk and leave the settings alone......One guy we'd pay him what the bar was just to walk away........

There are devices that will blast white noise, and set the EQ for the PA so the overall response is flat. THEN 50-200 people come in, and its still supposed to be set right? Ahhhhhhh its an art not a science most of the time.

But remember, the more you drink, the better we sound!!!!

It would be a mistake, though, to think that this constitutes an argument that ought to apply to anybody else.

Man, you don't know the first tenets of Debate on the Internets, do you?


I understand the meta-argument you are making, but I'm going to ignore that to address your anti-live-classical-music argument (hence sticking to the Debate on the Internets code Rob references). There are changes and surprises in live performances of classical music, but the differences are of a much different scale (ignoring the aleatoric and improvisatory components that do exist). Changes in tempo, dynamics, balance, color, articulation, phrasing, these are the things that make a classical warhorse potentially interesting. Plus, there are opportunities for improvisation, even in really old classical music: cadenzas in concertos, impromptus and chorale preludes, baroque embellishments and ornamentations, etc.

When you go to a classical concert, you know exactly what they're going to play in advance, and you know more or less what it's going to sound like

Depends what sort of classical music you're talking about. Most of the concerts I've been to feature music that is new to my ears. Admittedly, too many orchestras and chamber groups are too risk-averse to go much beyond the canon, but others seek out new music. Given the number of colleges and universities in the Albany/Troy/Schenectady area, you should be able to find one if you were interested.

But your larger point is spot on: It's dumb to spend money on music you don't like. That goes for albums as well as concerts. There's a reason the majority of my iTunes library is on the four- and five-star playlist, and most of the remaining songs have three-star ratings.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 08 Jul 2007 #permalink

I'll do live but only in smaller venues and talented musicians. The last couple of 'large big name' concerts I went to were loud, hard to appreciate, and sooo programmed with special effects that there was no room for any improv. Small room concerts (think <1000 seat Finney Chapel @ Oberlin College) and great musicians (think Bela Fleck) are so incredible it's hard to describe. For that kind music, live is better.

I'm not a classic music expert, but the orchestra and director do make a difference; they have great nights and they have flat not so great nights.

I also go to concerts for the music, not the 'WHOO WHOOOO DUUUUDDDDE' maniac flashing the Satan sign and jumping up and down. I don't mind crowd appreciation for a particularly awesome lick, but 2 hours of mindless shouting from fan boys/girls is a total turn off for me - I'll buy the album thank you very much.

I also go to concerts for the music, not the 'WHOO WHOOOO DUUUUDDDDE' maniac flashing the Satan sign and jumping up and down

True dat. As I get older I hate to stand for a whole concert, the parking is usually terrible, and it takes forever to leave sometimes. But playing live, if the dude is sober while yelling, maybe I'm more tolerant! Sloppy drunks yelling "youse guys is great" is not much fun. Women raising their shirts at you is also a very mixed bag.....I tried to save a drummer one night when a very drunk and unattractive women was chasing after him, I told her he was gay, but he couldn't keep a straight face and blew it....

Classical music is far more subtle, also far more restrained, a very good friend goes to many performances, and has over 2000 classical CD's. He has tried to educate me, and some has taken, but I'd take a good alt-country band any day. Some of the newer compositions are very nice, some are worse noise than Up With People.....

But when folks get excited whilst you play, it is a very big high, particularly if its for originals.

I see Scott beat me to it with the correction of your ignorance of classical music performance, and did so with more specificity than I could muster. The connection between conductor and orchestra and audience is different every time. It really does matter who is conducting, and how a piece is interpreted. I have heard pieces in the canon improved from "classic" recordings and also ruined. There are piano concerti that might as well be jazz, with cadenzas that are wildly different from performance to performance.

Much the same is true for jazz, rock, blues, and country ... although I'm not so sure about pop. ;-) That note might not be bent the same tonight as last night if the player is having a better time with the audience. The sound, even though it comes from speakers, is not coming from your speakers after being processed from a CD or vinyl.

I'll even push the audiophile's button and say that some 50s and 60s rock was meant to be heard on an AM car radio, and sounds much worse on a good stereo system than a bad monaural one. Only recordings made on good master tapes (like the rework on the Beatles' Love album) survive the transition to CD.

By CCPhysicist (not verified) on 08 Jul 2007 #permalink

Oh, yes, and you definitely need to hear some better classical music, like something from the last century that requires 8 people in the percussion section and a bass sax, or simply an orchestra of 100 electric guitars.

By CCPhysicist (not verified) on 08 Jul 2007 #permalink

>>>>CCPhys wrote

I'll even push the audiophile's button and say that some 50s and 60s rock was meant to be heard on an AM car radio, and sounds much worse on a good stereo system than a bad monaural one.

Oh yeah. You can probably push that some into the 70's as well. And for those that want classic rock/blues/country tones, there is a reason we love old tube amps and Hammond B3 Organs, those are the sounds. The amp modeling technology is great, and may even be better for the audience. Instead of sounding like a Fender Deluxe Reverb, they sound like a CD of a Fender Deluxe Reverb. They also don't quite have the touch sensitivity of a real tube amp. BUT they give the exact same (semi-processed) sound every time, you can plug a direct out into the PA and keep stage volume down, so lots of touring pros use them, and I can see why.

I love going to live music concerts because excitement is in the air. The musicians and the audience resonate. This is true of all music and for one to think otherwise means just that he has rigid tastes.