The Innocent Ear

The Innocent Ear was a radio programme, broadcast on the Third Programme (which became BBC Radio 3) in which listeners were invited to “preserve [their] ‘innocence'” by not trying to guess the composer, and by approaching the music with fresh judgment, freed from prejudice”.  The music played would be identified afterwards, thus freeing the listener’s mind of preconceptions and encouraging a closer, more concentrated or deeper way of listening. (One of the main aims of the programme was to introduce lesser-known music/composers to listeners through this impartial approach.)

I quite often do this kind of listening late at night, to BBC Radio 3’s Night Tracks and Unclassified programmes, where pieces often segue into one another, without any interjection from the presenter. I find it encourages deeper listening, though this may also be related to the time of day and setting (I’m usually in bed by this time with the lights turned low or even off). I have also found myself listening to, and enjoying music by composers I thought I loathed!

Our listening is shaped by our personal taste, experience and maturity, and by external influences such as broadcasts, reviews, recommendations, shared playlists, music heard on tv or film soundtracks, current trends (composers and performers come in and out of fashion very regularly), and much more. More often than not, the concerts we choose to go to are based on both personal taste and the extrinsic influences mentioned above.

But what if we were to apply the innocent ear approach to concerts? There would be no programme (even words like ‘sonata’ or ‘quartet’ suggest a specific genre and structure, at once setting up preconceptions about what will be performed); no words of introduction, either in writing or verbally; just the music. How might the listening experience change?

The programme note remains a mainstay of the traditional presentation of classical music; alongside that we now have the “presenter” (especially evident at the BBC Proms) who can, but not always (and the best ones don’t), become a filter between audience and music, explaining why we should “appreciate” certain pieces, impose meaning where meaning may not exist, and attempt to connect the music to the context of our times, rather than the time in which it was originally created. This kind of presenting can become really distracting, irritating or problematic when the presenter sees it as their role to place their own personal stamp on the concert, rather than allowing us to listen without prejudice. What is worse, is the gushing adulation of certain artists or composers, and a deluge of post-performance superlatives, leaving the listener little space to reflect on their own response to the music.

And in the midst of all this, the score, and the sounds which the text produces when brought to life by the musicians, often seems secondary to what this or that piece of music is “about”.

Do we need to be told how to listen? And do we also need to be told what the “meaning” of the music might be (this especially applies to contemporary music, in my experience)?

Without a programme note or verbal introduction, the music has to impress purely on its sonic content, to be effective and affective, and any meaning ascribed to or drawn from it will be personal to the individual listener. In this way, listeners open their minds, and ears, to the experience of the music, without prejudging its merits based on when or by whom it was composed. In this way, works are appreciated for their intrinsic musical power, rather than extrinsic factors, such as the reputation of the composer or biographical or historical contexts.

Music does not have to have “meaning”, but rather it should be meaningful – as it undoubtedly is, for a multitude of reasons, and we each take our own personal meaningfulness from it.

Minimalist music has proved that fewer notes can still be powerful and arresting. Perhaps a similar “less is more” approach should be applied to programme notes, introductions and the presentation of classical music?

“Music doesn’t have to be understood, It just has to be heard” – Hermann Scherchen, conductor

A few of my late-night, ‘innocent ear” discoveries: