May 4, 2020

Researching the Audience Experience of Contemporary Classical Music

Article by Gina Emerson

The Audience Research project, a collaboration between the HfMT Hamburg and the Ulysses Network, came to an end a few months ago. After a year of data analysis and writing up, following the final survey in Oslo in 2018, I handed in the dissertation titled Between the ‘Experimental’ and the ‘Accessible’: Investigating the Audience Experience of Contemporary Classical Music in December 2019. Here are some of the main findings and recommendations from the project.

The study is the first of its size on the audience experience of contemporary classical music (CCM). I conducted surveys at twelve CCM concerts in collaboration with the Ulysses Network. 1428 audience members took part across ten different European countries. The central aim was to offer a multidimensional view of audiences’ experiences, covering a range of aspects including demographics and motivations to attend CCM concerts, perceptions of the genre and audience’s aesthetic experiences in the concert hall, as well as institution-audience relationships and classical music audiences’ views of CCM (via a smaller survey of three classical music audiences with 670 respondents).

The core audience for CCM across the European contexts in the study is from an elite, highly educated sector of society, one with a very high level of general cultural participation. There is an urgent need for institutions (especially those receiving public funding) to respond to this and to consider how the audience for CCM can come to more accurately reflect the wider population. Within this core audience, however, there are a number of different forms of engagement with CCM taking place, from very committed attendees with a professional interest to more occasional, socially motivated visitors. Unlike other musical genres, CCM appears able to appeal across age groups; its often ‘classical’ forms and instruments attract older audience members familiar with that musical heritage, whereas elements of how it is presented and its connection to electronic music or experimentalism in other genres was found to be of interest to younger attendees.

Experiencing newly composed music in the concert hall is a complex task. I found that are many aspects in play while audiences sitting and silently listening. These can extend far beyond the music itself. Works with significant ‘extramusical’ features, from audiovisual pieces to participatory formats, were received more positively or more intensely than other works, deepening the audience experience. Audiences do not tend to see these works as a whole; they pay attention to different parts of them, weighing up the social, the visual and the musical. The social situation of knowing a performer and going to watch them, for instance, made for a more emotive experience with the music and brought about greater perceived performer-audience communication. Works by younger composers were more likely to be viewed as original. There is much evidence from this study to suggest that the context or frame ‘around’ the music is very important in the audience experience of CCM.

Audience members with lower levels of musical expertise and less familiarity with live CCM (e.g. first-time visitors) are more likely to emphasise the emotive and the original in their aesthetic responses. They are more hesitant when making judgements about pieces and report feeling significantly less informed about the music and less communicated with by performers. In contrast, CCM experts, often performers or composers themselves, can be irreverant in their critical engagement, more able to dismiss works as boring or annoying. Classical music audiences perceive CCM as challenging and report being unlikely to attend concerts with living composers on the programme, highlighting the clear need to improve wider perceptions of this genre.


audience research


In my conclusion, I consider how the field of CCM can be defined by a current tension between ‘the experimental’ and ‘the accessible’. There are outward and inward-facing environments in which different aspects of this music are valued, ranging from experimentalism and radicalism ‘at all costs’ in expert contexts to more relaxed attitudes and diverse programming in other settings. Audience members negotiate their own positions towards experimentalism and accessibility in their aesthetic experiences of CCM, with some irritated and discouraged by musical complexity and others stimulated or energised by it. Composers and other artists can decide how they wish to respond to these results, but it seems that greater awareness of audience members’ role as receivers of a work could be beneficial, potentially leading to fruitful ways of balancing the experimental and the accessible in CCM production.

Certainly, it is important for all who work with CCM to consider the barriers to attendance and to help those who are new and curious to not feel excluded. I propose four main recommendations to institutions and practitioners on the basis of the study results: think about everyone who might turn up (there may be newcomers alongside your core, returning audience), take risks with event formats, find ways for composers and performers to interact with audiences (e.g. create space for discussion or open up the creative process to them) and curate across genres to bring different audience groups together. In all of this, the aim is to create meaningful experiences, encouraging audience members to feel empowered in their engagement with new works.

I’d like to thank the Ulysses Network once more for their kind support in organising the surveys and thank all the audience members who participated. The full dissertation will be made available soon, arrangements for a final book publication are being made. In the meantime, you can download a short research report here.