Few art forms stir the emotions like music. From the light, delicate phrases of a Mozart string quartet, to the fiery, frenetic movements of a Mahler symphony, classical music seems to have a particular ability to connect with audiences throughout the world.
But to what extent does the format of a classical concert affect how audiences respond to the music? And could concert formats be altered to enhance, perhaps even ‘engineer’ how the audience respond?
Dr Hauke Egermann, director of the York Music Psychology Group and lecturer in our Department of Music is exploring these intriguing questions - in an ambitious project involving large scale audiences at some of Europe’s most celebrated classical music venues.
“I’ve been interested in understanding our responses to music for a long time,” says Dr Egermann. “I’ve done lots of different experiments looking into why people respond to which music, in what way and in what situation but most of the research in this area has been in a very artificial setting, using laboratories and headphones.
“Over the last couple of years we’ve tried to broaden this research area to look at more contextual factors of music experience. So we’ve looked at things like the presence of others while listening to music, the effects of social influence and how other people’s reaction to music can affect your own.”
Drawing on this experience from previous research, Dr Egermann is soon to embark of his most ambitious project yet: to use two of Germany’s most prestigious concert houses as research laboratories.
“I got in touch with a couple of colleagues in Germany who have been working on similar ideas,” he says. “And we now have funding to carry out a large-scale project on measuring audience experiences, which is what the ‘Experimental Concert Research’ is about.”
‘Large-scale’ could be an understatement. Dr Egermann and his colleagues are organising a series of concerts to take place in Berlin’s famous Konzerthaus - one of the world’s foremost classical music venues - and the Radialsystem V, a newer venue in the same city, noted for its innovative music and dance programming.
Dr Egermann explains: “The concert will feature a string quintett which will play the same repertoire over several nights, there’ll be eight concerts in all, played to an audience of 100 people, and each concert will have certain different characteristics.”
The first of the concerts will be a ‘typical’ classical concert format, then over subsequent nights the audience will be presented with a range of programming innovations.
Introductory lectures, musical improvisation, audience interaction, sound and lighting will all be adjusted for each performance as a means of engaging the audience. On one occasion the music’s movement order will be altered, meaning the audience won’t necessarily hear the music in the order it expects, while on another, the musicians will personally greet each audience member. And their reaction to every concert will be recorded in detail.
To gather the required data the audiences will answer questions both before and after the performances, and wear sensors to monitor their emotional responses as they happen.
“All of this will test which elements of the concert affect the audience,” says Dr Egermann. “We’ll measure these effects by way of physiological sensors, measuring skin conductance, heart rate, motion energy (movement recording cameras), facial expressions, even noise from the audience.
Dr Egermann hopes the audiences will be as close to a ‘typical’ concert-going audience as possible, and, while they’ll be fully aware they’re being observed, they will not be overly aware of the rationale behind his research. Too much awareness, he says, could colour how they respond to the music, and he needs those responses to be as authentic as possible.
“I’ve done several experiments of this kind and my general perception is that most people are actually quite comfortable with this,” he says.
All of this comes at a time when concert promoters are developing ever-more elaborate ways to present classical music, and Dr Egermann hopes the impact of his research will be to give those staging classical music events a clear indication of the best way to engage audiences.
“This is a test of what these formats add to the experience - if indeed they add anything at all. If we can show these innovations have a particular effect, then anyone designing or curating a concert will have the benefit of knowing what the effects will be.
“We’ll definitely learn what is special about the social experience of these concerts, and we can use that knowledge in improving audience engagement and development.”
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