Building an audience for symphony orchestra concerts — with video games?

According to stereotype, classical music in general and symphony orchestra concerts in particular appeal to an aging elite. That perception justifies cutting orchestras from schools, booking orchestras for school assemblies or college arts series much less frequently than in the recent past, and changing classical music radio stations to other formats. Orchestras must develop strategies for building an audience in order to survive.

Here is a video about the kind of orchestral music used as the sound tracks to video games. Someone on an email list I follow sent it along.

Several orchestras have presented entire concerts devoted to video game music, and more than one has found it so successful that they decided to  do it again in a later season. Concerts like this bring in an audience of people who would otherwise never think of attending an orchestral concert. Is that a good way to build an audience for orchestras and classical music in general?

One person on the list commented that it seemed to be a “desperate attempt to stay relevant” and called the cellist on the guitar-hero segment a sellout. It’s easy to understand how many in the classical music world might view with alarm an approach that gives an orchestral concert the look and feel of a rock concert. Will it destroy the central mission of the symphony orchestra and eventually allow it to survive only to play background music for a visual show?

To be sure, orchestras exist to perform music that can stand on its own for people who want to listen to it. When I go to the gym, I am a captive audience to piped-in music, the sound track of music videos displayed on television monitors visible from almost anywhere.

Would anyone be interested in listening to songs that consist of a measure or so of tune repeated over and over if there was no choreography to watch? Has the importance of video, along with ubiquitous and unavoidable background music in every store and restaurant, destroyed the ability to simply sit and listen to anything? Or even the desire?

I vastly prefer the music on the video clip to anything I get to hear at the gym. Some classical music lovers might wonder if anyone really thinks it can be as good as Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms. That’s not a fair question, actually. It doesn’t match up to the best music by the best geniuses of classical music, but it is at least as good as the popular orchestral music of the nineteenth century. Let us not forget that nineteenth-century classical music lovers often looked down their noses at Rossini and other Italian opera , as well as dance music like Strauss waltzes.

The whole concept of teaching music appreciation was developed to “improve” people’s taste by showing them that Beethoven et al. wrote better music than Johann Strauss or Giuseppe Verdi, and people who liked the former had more elevated taste than those who preferred the former. As it turns out, people don’t much want other people to come along and elevate their taste.

The very fact that video games and many film scores still use an orchestra instead of a rock band testifies that the rock band cannot provide suitable music for every popular purpose. Themes of heroism and adventure need an orchestra for movies and games as much as they do for opera. Composers who write the sound tracks for them can certainly bear comparison to any operatic or dance composer.

My community orchestra plays film score music for its summer pops concerts and for its children’s concert. It does not play it for its more formal spring and fall concerts. “Serious” orchestral concerts may occasionally include overtures by Rossini or Verdi, but hardly ever Strauss waltzes. By the same token, I suspect that orchestras limit film and game music to their pops concerts or otherwise less formal occasions.

From the invention of the pops (or more technically, promenade) concert in the 1830s to the present, serious concert music has taken its place alongside dance music and various novelties. At first, it was for the enjoyment of people who could not afford to attend the upper-crust symphony concerts. Now, perhaps, conductors plan their concerts hoping that people who come for the film scores will enjoy the ballet music or symphonic tone poem well enough to come back again.

If that’s the case, I see no danger of a deterioration of artistic integrity or  the orchestra being reduced to providing background for whatever is being projected on some screen. And it just might work in building an audience.

Among the 600+ comments the video has gotten on YouTube, these few, copied and pasted with typos and all, acknowledge a link between video game music and, shall we say, more traditional roles for the orchestra:

  • yeah…my cousing hinself has go a vionlin and i bet this playing videogame songs thing influentiated him
  • I know this is true for myself… but maybe not for such a simple an explanation. I REALLY enjoy orchestral (not video game) music, but usually only of a certain kind. The kind you might hear in a movie trailer, or in more modern pieces. Video game soundtracks tend to fall into this area of interest, sooo.. I like a concert that plays this music. It doesn’t have to start with video games, but obviously yeah, if you like the games, you would be there. Kinda obvious.
  • Nothing could have got me more into classical style music than the video game industry. Especially games like final fantasy, and the Zelda series. Both of those game’s composers are incredible. But it’s great to see other once small video game companies like blizzard come out with games with great music. I will definitely keep my eyes peeled on PBS for this program.
  • And yes, young adults are the base of the popular music industry, but I think VGL is talking more about getting young adults into symphonic music–and not just video games and movie soundtracks, but concert music as well.
  • oh yeh.. this is gonna be win. now, if we could only get this type of music into our school music programs.
  • It pains me to not see games like Everquest on here that started the whosle orchestrated sound tracks within MMO genre of games. WoW only took what EQ had done, because they realized how deeply cemented and nostalgic the music at even
  • It is true that many of WoW’s original designers were EQ players, so they certainly knew the music from EQs opening. On the other hand, Warcraft III had some orchestrated music as well (the Warcraft Suite in VG Live is a medley of music from both WoW and cutscenes from WCIII), and I seriously doubt anyone was thinking “Let’s totally ignore EQs music for the sake of WoW.” There’s simply nowhere near enough time to include a piece from every worthy game soundtrack, so you take what you can get.
  • In Los Angeles, this is the best gift possible. The cyber world of our quests and imaginations, being experienced with choir and symphony. It is an experience I will remember forever.

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