Sunday Feature: The Nash Equilibrium and Classical Music

A guest post by Tom Wilson

John Nash, American mathematician and Nobel prize-winner gained recognition as a Nobel laureate, but became really famous when he was portrayed by Russell Crowe in the hit film “A Beautiful Mind”.

Nash won his Nobel prize for conceiving the The Nash Equilibrium which spawned Game Theory. The Nash equilibrium is the same as the MiniMax theorum in game theory, which states that “with a zero-sum game, each player does best for himself by minimizing the other player’s payoff”

The easiest example to understand is the pie game. It’s a game of 2 players who can share a pie if they follow 2 rules:

  1. One player cuts the pie any way they want
  2. The other player has the first choice of slices

The winning strategy for Player 1 is to cut the pie exactly in half. Player 1 maximized the minimum size of the piece of pie that would be left after Player 2 chose.

Can game theory explain why new composers find it so difficult to break into mainstream concert programmes?

Here’s how the MiniMax Theorum might be applied to concert going: the concertgoer has a choice between a recital of familiar works by Bach or a recital of unfamiliar contemporary music. MiniMax Theorum  says choice is made by minimizing the maximum regret and suggests that the concertgoer’s winning strategy is to choose the Bach recital since he/she knows they won’t regret hearing Bach but could regret hearing the new piece. So it doesn’t matter how good the new music might be, mathematically the optimum choice is Bach!

Unfortunately, the concertgoer’s choice is further determined by the paucity of new music in mainstream programmes and venues. It comes back to the argument that if we are not exposed to new music, how can we decide if we like it?
For promoters, agents and venue managers, a rather more straightforward strategy is at work: that it is simply too risky to programme new music when a concert featuring familiar works by Bach is likely to ensure a full house, a contented audience and decent revenue from ticket sales.

With the odds apparently stacked against it, how can new music be brought to a wider audience? One very effective way is via social media: “teaser” tweets and imaginative Facebook posts can tempt audiences to try a concert featuring new music, and the promoter/concert organiser can reassure the prospective concertgoer that this may well be music that they will enjoy. One organisation which is doing this very creatively is New Dots, established in 2012 with the aim of creating connections between composers and musicians, and bringing these connections to a broader audience. Concerts take place in unusual venues, further stripping back to the perceived barriers between audience and musicians/composers.

Further reading:

Our Narrow Repertoire is Holding Classical Music Back (guest post by Simon Brackenborough)

New Music Needs Curators

Where has all the new music gone? (guest post for The Sampler blog)

Tom Wilson is an independent revenue management consultant and software developer.