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 The Cocktail Party Theory of Classical Music
Author: Tony Pay 2017
Date:   2005-07-07 22:26

Playing classical music stylishly -- an evolutionary argument, and the cocktail party theory of classical music:

What does it mean, to play classical music in a way that is 'stylistically appropriate to the period in which it was written' (or, as I shall shorten the phrase for convenience, 'stylishly'?

Do we need to use period instruments? Or can we, as Nicholas Harnoncourt claims, do just as well on modern ones? Even on modern instruments, how much of our playing can still be our own? Are we condemned to be always considering what they did? Anyway, how much can we trust that they followed their own treatises, given that our own, modern musical treatises fall so far short of capturing how we ourselves play?

All of these questions have been given different answers by different people, so that it might seem that there are no objective conclusions we can come to. I would like to argue here, though, that there is actually an absolute sense in which we can play classical music stylishly. In fact, I think it probable that the most important difference between the way classical music is unstylishly played today, and the stylish way in which it was played by the best players of the time it was composed, can be deduced in just two moves of the imagination. The first move is to take seriously the question of why and how our auditory processing systems have evolved to be the way they are; and the second move is to notice how the scores of the great classical composers are constructed in order to take advantage of that evolution.

I mentioned this argument briefly in the course of an article I wrote in May 1996 for the Oxford University Press journal, Early Music. That article, called Phrasing in Contention, was a thought-experiment investigating the change of meaning of composers' slurs (also sometimes called ligatures) between the time of Mozart and the present day.

Early Music is available in any good library, but in order to make the article more easily accessible, I recently organised with Mark Charette that it be put on the web at

However, I have come to think that the first move, namely, to consider the evolution of our auditory processing systems, is more important than I made it seem there. So, this much shorter post is intended to throw into stronger relief what is implicit in the idea, which is that the classical style is not merely arbitrary or culture-dependent, but is instead determined in a much deeper sense by our human nature, which of course we share with people of quite different cultural backgrounds. What happens to be stylish in classical music is therefore not merely a way of playing that was adopted for a short time by musicians in the eighteenth century. If it were only that, then discovering and following the details of its practice would be little more than just being fashionable, or trendy, in retrospect -- and indeed, so-called authentic performances have often been accused of just such trendiness. The aspect of stylishness that I am concerned with, and the aspect that I claim is independent of any particular musical culture in which it is used, is instead a powerful and general attitude that has universal value. It can be used to great effect in many other sorts of music. It is often what is required to make complex twentieth-century music work well.

In writing Phrasing in Contention, I first tried to imagine in detail what the contemporary meaning of classical slurs had been, through considering what sort of interpretation would make most evident the structure of the best of the music of the time. Second, drawing at least partly on personal experience, I discussed how it might be possible to find a way of playing that would allow us to read and represent the slurs in this way. It turned out that finding that involved the adoption of a view of phrasing that I termed, 'beginning-oriented'. However, I argued in the article that adopting this view of phrasing does not compromise our own naturalness and expressivity. The argument is quite long; but that is because some players find beginning-oriented phrasing counterintuitive, in the sense that it seems to go against their natural instincts. Those players, in difficulties themselves, are then surprised to discover that some others, on the contrary, see 'beginning-oriented phrasing' as a perfectly natural point of view, and cannot understand what all the fuss is about. It was necessary in the article to talk at some length about why there is a difficulty in moving from one viewpoint to the other.

I want here to explain what lies behind what I shall (rather frivolously) call the 'cocktail party' theory of classical music. This is a very simple idea. I hope that interested readers who would like to know about the more complex details will follow the Web link (or look at a copy of Early Music, May 1996) for themselves.

The 'cocktail party' theory of classical music derives its name from the fact that we are able at a cocktail party to hear not only the conversation in which we are engaged, but also, if we want, other conversations that are going on around us. I would say that what is required to perform the best classical music well bears several striking similarities to what occurs at such a party.

The reason is that the individual lines of a classical piece are written in such a way that each line is interesting in itself. Such lines often contain motivic references to each other, and so reflect the underlying unity of the composer's conception. The scores of the best classical pieces demand that we should be able to pick out such lines from the overall texture even as we respond to higher levels of organisation, such as the harmonies, and on a higher level, shifts of tonality. Perhaps no-one can hear all the individual lines simultaneously, but each of those lines should be at least potentially available to us; the possibility then exists that we may switch our perception between them, even at a rate that creates for us the illusion of simultaneity. For this to be even conceivable, the piece needs to be played in a way that allows all the important individual lines to be heard. That is why, in the preparation of a serious performance of a classical piece, a very large part of the effort of both players and directors is devoted to making the important parts audible.

But -- and this is the message of this post -- there is a great deal to be learnt from the very simple example of what occurs in the normal speech of people at a cocktail party. Understanding that phenomenon makes the problem of balancing a performance much more tractable, and explains why playing that follows the model of speech is much more effective.

Speech has evolved under the twin constraints of the need to be audible and the need to be recognisable, even in a noisy environment, so as to maximise the probability that our ears and auditory processing systems identify its message and pass it on to our other systems for possible action. The survival value of clear communication can hardly be doubted. You could almost say that the whole point of speech is that it be both audible and recognisable. (Not to be able to hear, and understand, "Look out behind you!" is to be at a considerable evolutionary disadvantage.)

Music and language have often been compared, with varying degrees of success. But the comparison I want to make here is much more straightforward and basic than most such comparisons. My analogy is only between the surface structure of speech itself and the surface structure of classical phrases. The analogy is apt because the property of being both audible and recognisable in a noisy environment is what is required in both domains. Not all music relies on such clarity, it's true. The intention of a composer may sometimes be to suppress the details of an accompaniment. But in the music of the best classical composers, the perception of individual lines is very often of crucial importance.

Now, one aspect of speech is that its syllables, in all languages, are what I shall call, 'beginning-oriented'. That is, in some sense, they begin more energetically, and lose intensity as they progress. This particular type of modulation, a clear beginning plus a falling away, contributes significantly to the audibility of spoken words. It is not an all-or-nothing phenomenon: it admits of degrees. For example, if we wish to make ourselves more heard or understood against the odds, we automatically increase the degree to which what we say is beginning-oriented. It is not time-symmetric either; a recording of speech played backwards doesnt sound like speech.

However, that all languages have 'beginning-oriented' syllables doesn't mean that 'beginning-orientation' is a simple thing to characterise. (I have been purposely vague in describing it.) In fact, the lack of such a simple characterisation was notoriously part of the difficulty in programming automatic speech-recognition software. Researchers found it very difficult to make explicit the rules that would allow their programs to segment the continuous sound of speech into syllables, in order to match them with the syllables that constitute dictionary words. That humans find this problem trivial in practice shouldn't blind us to the subtlety of what's involved in solving it. We just have very good speech-production and speech-recognition software 'built in'. And co-ordinately, we shouldnt be surprised that the corresponding musical techniques are difficult to characterise in detail too, even though young players often learn to execute them quite naturally.

It is actually the quality of being both easy to hear, yet difficult to pin down in prescriptive detail, that makes this aspect of the connection between speech and music profound rather than trivial. If being 'spoken' had a simple, unequivocal character, the subtlety and variety of musical expression would not be matched by the subtlety and variety of speech, and the analogy would break down. 'Spoken' phrases would just be the class of phrases that had that one particular character. The truth is precisely the contrary: spoken phrases can be subject to an infinite variety of nuance, and can actually be more or less 'spoken', shading into the quality of being 'sung'.

And there is a further simple, yet overwhelmingly important bonus for musical performance that we may obtain by following the structure of speech. This bonus is the most important part of the 'cocktail party' theory. It is that in the cocktail party, what allows us to be heard against the background noise created by the speech of the other guests is precisely what allows their speech to be better heard against us.

To appreciate this, recall that, at such a party, we can pick out a nearby conversation that happens to be interesting, and pay attention to it even as we continue to listen to the conversation of the person we are at present engaged with. The audible syllable-beginnings of one conversation don't consistently coincide with the audible syllable-beginnings of the other, and so each syllable 'gives space', allowing the other to be heard. Even if, by chance, two syllable-beginnings do happen to coincide, the fact that syllable-lengths vary, often quite widely, soon destroys the synchrony.

So, we see that if we adopt the analogous musical structure, the whole texture of a classical score is clarified. If everyone 'speaks' the music, to a greater or lesser extent, then much of the balance is automatically taken care of.

Now, in music, the composer has control of the degree to which phrases are synchronous. If we look at the music of the great classical composers, it is easy to recognise examples of the use of both synchronous and asynchronous phrasing between different instruments, in order respectively to obliterate or enhance the perception of individual lines. But this can only work if the performers have a common, beginning-oriented view of phrasing that they generally follow. Classical style must include that beginning-oriented structure as a built-in normative element. We may not always follow it -- indeed, part of the expressivity of any style lies in how in execution its norms may be varied, or even contradicted. You cannot, though, effectively vary what isn't clearly perceived to be there. (Again, both this and other related issues are explored more fully in Phrasing in Contention.)

Of course, none of this is particularly original. There are many players whose playing embodies precisely the attitude towards musical performance that I have characterised. But there are others who find it strange, and still others who think that it is merely a quirk of music of the seventeenth and eighteenth century. ("That backward phrasing," I once heard a colleague call it.) Perhaps by talking about it in a different way I may have reduced that strangeness for them.

To sum up:

(1) The clear structure of classical music demands that we have available the clear structure of 'spoken' execution.

(2) This structure admits of expressive variation, which is important because a crucial part of musical performance is the expressive variation of stylistic norms.

(3) But, you can't expressively vary what isn't perceived to be there.

(4) The structure of speech is designed, by evolution, to guarantee that we perceive what is there; therefore, that structure is fundamental in the performance of classical music; it is important in much other music too.


Post Edited (2005-07-07 22:43)

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 The Cocktail Party Theory of Classical Music  new
Tony Pay 2005-07-07 22:26 
 Re: The Cocktail Party Theory of Classical Music  new
diz 2005-07-07 22:40 
 Re: The Cocktail Party Theory of Classical Music  new
Tony Pay 2005-07-08 21:14 
 Re: The Cocktail Party Theory of Classical Music  new
Tony Pay 2005-07-07 22:51 
 Re: The Cocktail Party Theory of Classical Music  new
ned 2005-07-07 22:57 
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Liquorice 2005-07-07 23:03 
 Re: The Cocktail Party Theory of Classical Music  new
Tony Pay 2005-07-07 23:17 
 Re: The Cocktail Party Theory of Classical Music  new
diz 2005-07-14 01:27 
 Re: The Cocktail Party Theory of Classical Music  new
hans 2005-07-14 02:59 
 Re: The Cocktail Party Theory of Classical Music  new
3dogmom 2005-07-09 03:29 
 Re: The Cocktail Party Theory of Classical Music  new
diz 2005-07-14 05:20 
 Re: The Cocktail Party Theory of Classical Music  new
larryb 2005-07-14 11:53 
 Re: The Cocktail Party Theory of Classical Music  new
EEBaum 2005-07-14 17:49 
 Re: The Cocktail Party Theory of Classical Music  new
Tony Pay 2005-07-14 21:25 
 Re: The Cocktail Party Theory of Classical Music  new
Tony Pay 2005-07-14 22:43 
 Re: The Cocktail Party Theory of Classical Music  new
larryb 2005-07-15 00:05 
 Re: The Cocktail Party Theory of Classical Music  new
Tony Pay 2005-07-15 01:02 
 Re: The Cocktail Party Theory of Classical Music  new
Lelia Loban 2005-07-15 14:00 
 Re: The Cocktail Party Theory of Classical Music  new
Tony Pay 2005-07-15 17:08 
 Re: The Cocktail Party Theory of Classical Music  new
clarispark 2005-07-15 19:48 
 Re: The Cocktail Party Theory of Classical Music  new
Lelia Loban 2005-07-16 12:19 
 Re: The Cocktail Party Theory of Classical Music  new
Tony Pay 2005-07-16 12:31 
 Re: The Cocktail Party Theory of Classical Music  new
Lelia Loban 2005-07-16 23:52 
 Re: The Cocktail Party Theory of Classical Music  new
Tony Pay 2005-07-17 06:25 
 Re: The Cocktail Party Theory of Classical Music  new
Bob Phillips 2005-07-17 01:54 
 Re: The Cocktail Party Theory of Classical Music  new
Tony Pay 2005-07-18 13:01 
 Re: The Cocktail Party Theory of Classical Music  new
sdr 2005-07-19 13:41 

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