The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Do you like to preview the music you will hear at a concert – or not? | June 9, 2016

By Jacob Stockinger

Starting this Friday night and over the next three weekends, the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society (below top and  bottom), marking its 25th anniversary season, will perform dozens of chamber music works, some familiar and some unfamiliar.

See for yourself:

BDDS 25th poster

Do you like to listen to the same work ahead of time before going to hear it live at a concert?

Some people urge listeners to do just that.

In fact the Madison Symphony Orchestra often has links to the same works it will perform, and conductor John DeMain has urged listeners to familiarize themselves with the music to appreciate it better.

The Madison Symphony Orchestra is not alone in taking that approach.

BDDS 2014 Shostakovich Trio

But The Ear disagrees.

He generally avoids listening to the same music that he is about to hear live.

He prefers to go into the live event with no preconceptions or comparisons so that it can stand on its own terms.

He prefers to let the music and the performance of it take him fresh – if they are capable of doing that.

It is more like hearing the music anew.

And he does the same with drama. He prefers to see a Shakespeare play at, say, American Players Theater in Spring Green or at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, with no preparation except perhaps some program notes. So he doesn’t read the play before going to the performance.

It seems kind of like eating the same food at home before you go to the restaurant, or watching the same movie before you go to the cinema.

Yet good cases can be made for both approaches.

So The Ear wants to know: What do you like doing and why?

Leave a comment.

The Ear wants hear.


  1. I never preview performances, for the reasons you state, Jake, but I do find it rewarding to have heard or had occasion to memorize a piece of music before hearing a fresh performance of it. I recently heard the Milwaukee Symphony, Chorus and soloists perform the Verdi Requiem, and had some exquisitely pleasurable moments hearing familiar parts played or sung in a far more expressive way than I had ever heard before.

    Comment by Ron McCrea — June 9, 2016 @ 11:51 am

  2. I don’t generally preview pieces of music before hearing them live. It tends to give me preconceptions about how that music should sound when it’ s actually just one interpretation. And that an take the edge off it.
    What I’m more apt to do is to listen to a different performance of it afterwards– if I liked it live.
    At my age I’ve frequently heard a piece before, so it’s the pleasure of familiarity when I hear it again. I might be comparing it to what I remember from previous hearings, or else mentally hum along.
    What I DO do sometimes is to sample the voice of a performer in advance when deciding whether to attend a vocal concert.

    Comment by Ann Boyer — June 9, 2016 @ 10:48 am

  3. I agree with you for theatre and music alone. But not for opera. Given that it is usually in another language, it helps to be thoroughly familiar with the story. And if it has a famous aria, chorus or overture (or even if it doesn’t), I find it very beneficial to learn the music before attending the opera.

    Comment by Larry Bechler — June 9, 2016 @ 9:14 am

  4. Sorry: I hit enter key to early by mistake. But you get the idea. However, as far as Shakespeare goes, I agree with you, Jacob.

    Comment by Steve Powell — June 9, 2016 @ 8:27 am

  5. I agree with “dechareli.” I find most 20th century music unenjoyable. However, sometimes, if I listen to it before hand,

    Comment by Steve Powell — June 9, 2016 @ 8:24 am

  6. I almost always like to preview the music. It takes nothing away from the performance as long as you realize that there is “not one singular way” to play music.

    Comment by foodloversofchiangmai — June 9, 2016 @ 7:33 am

  7. It depends very much on the music. If we are speaking about Renaissance, Baroque, Romantic music or the Vienna Classics, all enjoyable and accessible, I feel no urge to listen to the piece before I hear it performed in the concert hall. However, once we venture into the 20th and 21st century, I prefer to get an idea before hearing it live. If I hadn’t familiarized myself with Ligeti, Boulez, Messiaen etc. before the concert, I would have missed all the interesting acoustic details I later wrote about in posts. The Neue Musik is more an intellectual stimulant and much less an emotional experience. And listening to the piece before helps me watching out for the interesting parts in the live performance. I believe the question you ask cannot be answered by yes or no, like so many questions in life!

    Comment by dechareli — June 9, 2016 @ 2:50 am

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