Tuesday, 12 July 2011

See a concert or hear a concert?

A few months ago, I read an interesting piece by the trombone scholar Trevor Herbert about the influence of recordings on an audience's experience of live music. Looking back, he pinpoints a date, sometime in the mid-1980s I think, when his students stopped talking about "Going to hear a concert" and started referring instead to "Going to see a concert". Herbert infers from this change that his students are taking less in, musically speaking, from the live event, and that the ubiquity of recorded sound had had the effect of diminishing the live experience.
I'll happily confess to using the construction "Going to see a concert", but reading Professor Herbert's views, I'm starting to wonder exactly what I mean by it. Certainly, I avoid saying that I am going to "hear" a concert simply because it sounds pedantic. And perhaps I'm making a subconscious distinction between the event, the performers and the works. I wouldn't say that I am going to see a symphony, nor would I say that I'm going to hear an opera, although in the case of Wagner that could well describe the experience I often have in mind.
Of course the technology has changed since the 1980s, and if anything, the influence of recorded sound on the experience of live music has become even more profound and complex. I think that Herbert's students had some justification in saying that they saw a concert, because the visual dimension was the main thing that recorded sound did not reproduce. And seeing a concert does not imply you are listening less intently. On the contrary, the relationship between the visual and aural dimensions of a live performance are closely linked and mutually beneficial.
This is exactly where the technology is catching up fastest. Today, you can "see" a concert on DVD, in a cinema, even presented in 3D. If you go to a cinema for a presentation of a concert, what verb describes your reception of it? The notion of "seeing" in this context seems so predominant because of the novelty. If and when cinema streaming of concerts becomes a norm of concert life, will the grammar revert? I doubt it.


  1. I still say I am going to "hear" a concert, and the experience remains, for me, a largely aural one. Since I am normally at the back of the Wigmore Hall, I can't "see" much anyway!

    The book 'Performing Music in the Age of Recording'(Robert Philip) makes some interesting observations about the audience's expectations and perception of live music before quality recordings were readily available. I think in today's digital age, where recordings can be endlessly tweaked to create the perfect sound, audiences as far more critical, less forgiving of the odd slip or smear in a performance, than they would have been 50-100 years ago, when they had no recording on which to base their assessment. We hear a perfect recording at home, and we expect the same in the concert hall, forgetting that live music is a unique and risky experience - for performer and for audience.

    I think it's great that we can enjoy 3D opera in the cinema, and DVDs of concerts of amazing pristine quality, taking live music outside of its normal sphere and opening it up to a wider audience (hopefully).

  2. Personally, I'm as happy listening to a recording as going to a concert anyway, so even if the live event is being subordinated to the recorded version, I'm not too worried. The issue of expectation when it comes to the technical side of performance clearly does have links with the recording industry. So-called live recordings tend to be edited together from at least two concerts, so end up just as faultless (usually) as a studio recording. But performance standards continue to increase, and competition between musicians is just as significant as recordings when it comes to audience expectations of perfection on the concert stage.

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