Keep your phones on: how a new app will make classical music more accessible

The BBC Philharmonic orchestra will roll out their new web app Notes on Saturday, hoping to attract a new crowd to their concerts.

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Classical music audiences are used to hearing urgent reminders to switch off their phones as they take their seats. But tomorrow, the crowd at the opening night of the BBC Philharmonic’s 2019-20 season at Bridgewater Hall in Manchester will be positively encouraged to use their phones during the performance. The concert marks the rollout of their new web app, a “21st century version of programme notes” aptly called Notes, which sends audience members information to their smartphones in live time as the music plays. Members of the orchestra’s team will operate the “notes” to give specific insights and trigger a notification. Notes users will be seated in a specific area of the hall, as secluded as possible, so as not to distract those in the audience who do not wish to partake (it will also soon be available to those tuning in to the live radio broadcast from home). The aim, BBC Philharmonic director Simon Webb tells me over the phone, is “as broad a reach as possible for our orchestral performances.”

As classical concerts are one of the only public places in which using a smartphone remains taboo, this may well seem controversial. But it’s not a wholly new idea. In 2004, the Kansas City Symphony orchestra developed the “Concert Companion”, a pocket PC that provided an almost identical service – notifying users in live time of points of interest in the music using wireless technology, operated by somebody following the score. The BBC described the device at the time as technology that “may help re-invigorate people’s interest in live classical music”.

In 2019, this is even more urgent. “At the BBC, we have to understand our role in reaching communities,” says Webb. “There’s a generation that expects to have their phones out. Having a barrier to classical music removed will help young people.” The Philharmonic have trialled the app for the past three years at local concert series and for a year at Bridgewater Hall. They have already seen a significant increase in student attendance at their concerts, from Manchester’s 100,000-strong student population.

With the roll-out of Notes, the Philharmonic will make every effort to preserve the hushed concert atmosphere for those who desire it, but it has not always been the case that classical music is experienced in a state of silent concentration. Only in the 19th century did a concert become something to engage with intellectually rather than a social event at which to be seen. Romantic music – such as that of Tchaikovsky or Brahms – was serious and emotive, creating a more immersive experience than the lighter music of the 18th-century classical period – such as that of Haydn or Mozart – which often existed solely to entertain (rigorous analysis of such composers by music critics is mostly retrospective).

This shift in listening culture was bound up in subjective ideas about what music should be like. It was seen as necessary to sit in silence because of the intellectual attention required to appreciate this complex, emotional music. In other words, it was directly linked to music’s transition to something that was only accessible to an elite, educated section of society.

Classical concert culture and elitism remain tangled today. Aside from the price of tickets, the classical community still sees music, broadly, as something to focus on (rather than gossip over) and, as Webb puts it, “there are barriers: people can feel they don’t really know enough about what they’re experiencing.” Notes, theoretically, allows everyone to access that essential knowledge. Points of interest are signposted, as an audio guide in a museum, in a digestible format (each notification no longer than a tweet).

This all adds up. But it’s a strategy that differs from other contemporary attempts to draw a wider crowd to classical concerts, which often posit that listening to classical music doesn’t have to be an intellectual exercise, and focus instead on the music’s emotional, immersive quality or placing it in new surroundings.

The Multi-Storey Orchestra, for example, performs in car parks, removing the pomp of a traditional concert venue. The Aurora Orchestra often performs from memory, which overrides the conservativeness associated with adhering to a physical score. They sometimes invite the audience to lie on the floor on cushions or beanbags. On 28 September, their event “Mozart in the Garden” will invite audience members to “wander among the lavender, wiggle with worms and snooze to the music of a twinkling night sky”, and “experience an imaginative, multi-sensory storytelling concert”. Conversely, Simon Webb tells me that with Notes, the Philharmonic are “championing the experience of an audience sitting and listening to an orchestra.”

The difference between these two approaches represents, in a sense, the central dichotomy of classical music’s place in contemporary culture. Is it something we can appreciate only with knowledge, and should we therefore ensure everybody has access to education about it? Or is its intellectual status a red herring, something contrived in order to keep it elite? Should we therefore try to dismantle the idea that classical music is obscure and appeal instead to its emotional quality?

If you believe in any capacity in the value of music in society, the answer must be that we should tackle both problems. Technology like Notes could work on two premises: its appeal is not only the content but the concept, marking a subtle change in classical music culture. Though Webb would like everyone to engage aurally with what’s going on onstage, he’s not fussed that app-users might be tempted to use their phones for other purposes during the concert. “We’re not laying down rules,” he says. “We’re trying to embrace a cultural change and allow culture to evolve in an orchestral context. An orchestra is not going to change – what we can change is how we reach our audiences.”

Let’s hope it works in captivating anyone “curious about culture”, and a generation who – for better or worse – might prefer being engaged by something on a screen to being left in the dark.

Emily Bootle is the New Statesman’s editorial assistant.