Reading Session

[C]redibility persists as a criterion of musical quality both because there is no more functional alternative criterion and because it is self-confirming. These mechanisms can help account for both conservatism of musical style and of musical evaluation.

Composers crave credibility. Even if we don’t care about popularity, or academic honors, or maintaining a cutting-edge reputation, we at least want the respect of other musicians recognizing that we know what we’re doing. As it turns out, there’s a lot more at stake than a bruised ego.

Back in 1973, Karl Weick, David Gilfillan, and Thomas Keith published a curious study in the journal Sociometry called “The Effect of Composer Credibility on Orchestra Performance” (from which the above quote is taken). They took two jazz bands and, giving them a cover story to conceal their true motives, had each band play through the same three anonymous pieces. (Fun trivia: two of the pieces were by Alf Clausen, now famous as the composer for The Simpsons.) The first was to establish a baseline for the skill level of each group. The second two comprised the experiment. For each piece, the conductor read a short “press release” purporting to be a publishing company’s promotional bio of the arranger.

The press release for the non-serious composer read as follows: “After spending many years writing thousands of the better known dance arrangements, the arranger is attempting moderize his style and is trying to reach a new audience, with the hope of getting into movies or television. We at Mission welcome the chance to reintroduce him to you.”

The press release for the serious composer read as follows: “This chart is a ‘classic’ done in the style that has made the arranger so popular. His credits include work done for the top motion picture, television, and recording industries. We at Mission are proud to welcome him and hope to publish many of his works.”

Which bio went with which piece was reversed for the two bands. They recorded the bands reading through the charts, then rehearsing them a little, then playing them again. They then analyzed the recordings for accuracy.

The seriousness or credibility manipulation had a considerable effect on the first playthrough of the tunes. Not only did each band make a smaller percentage of errors on its serious than on its non-serious tune, but in both cases the serious play of a tune was done with fewer errors than the non-serious play.

The graph says it all:

What’s more, subsequent testing revealed that the players remembered less of the “non-serious” tune than the “serious” one.

Here’s the really interesting thing: the effect pretty much disappeared once the bands had a chance to rehearse each piece. After a bit of familiarization, the “serious” and “non-serious” tunes were rendered with equal accuracy. And Weick et al can hear the implications loud and clear:

The present data, however, suggest that extended direct exposure to the work of art itself can reduce, and even eliminate, the impact of attested credibility. Brief exposure favors conservatism and rejection of the novel, prolonged exposure favors change. Thus, an additional unexpected contributor to conservatism in the social system of music may be the time pressure which musicians experience in studio orchestras, symphony orchestras, rehearsal orchestras, or in recording sessions. In each of these settings, abbreviated rehearsing is the rule, prolonged rehearsing the exception. This should reduce opportunities to study, gain familiarity with and positively evaluate the novel.

Weick, Gilfillan, and Keith weren’t studying music; they were studying organizations. Weick still does, focusing, in part, on how organizations use self-imposed limitations on the interpretation of information to reduce equivocality, that is, when one fact can be considered to have multiple meanings. The problem is, orchestras and the like are among those organizations for which the reduction of equivocality is almost necessarily happenstance.

Weick and Gilfillan (1971) suggested another reason why innovation is resisted—a reason that bears directly on the nature of evaluation in the arts. They demonstrated that if a social system produces a specific strategy from among a set of alternatives that are equally functional, plausible, and defensible, and among which choices can legitimately be made on nonevidential grounds (such as taste), the chosen strategy will persist unchanged for eleven generations. The strategy gains the force of tradition and when the initial choice is not demonstrably better or worse than an alternative, the choice is labeled warrentedly arbitrary.

In other words, since artistic taste is completely subjective, arts organizations are more likely encrust arbitrary operational procedures with the force of tradition, and less likely to break out of old habits. Not enough rehearsal time? Not enough repetition of a new piece to give it a chance at a foothold? Well, geez, that’s the way we’ve always done it. (If it’s good enough for Brahms, it’s good enough for you.)

Might this explain why so many new orchestral works sound suspiciously similar these days? Vaguely to overtly tonal, rhythmically simple, with gestures lifted whole cloth from the Romantic and Impressionist repertoire—I’m not saying there isn’t valuable music being written in that style; but there’s a whole lot of other styles out there that already have a strike or two against them going into a symphonic or operatic environment. And it’s a vicious cycle: without that major-arts-ensemble performance/commission on your CV, your credibility takes a hit, and it’s that much harder to get a proper hearing of your music. Schoenberg waited decades to hear some of his pieces; Cage’s experience with major orchestras was, to say the least, unrewarding; the minimalists got tired of the whole game and formed their own performing ensembles. Maybe that should be a warning sign—credibility applies to organizations, too.


  1. The Composer’s Datebook yesterday had an item about a concert back in 1837, where a then obscure Beethoven piano trio was played along with a new piano trio by a lesser-known composer. The performance was not in the order indicated in the program. The audience received what they thought was the Beethoven very warmly, and what they thought was the new piece very cooly. It’s the same thing.

  2. I didn’t know that one. I seem to recall reading that Ravel did something similar on purpose, omitting the composers’ names from a concert program and then sitting in mortified amusement as the pro-Ravel claque unwittingly booed his own piece.

  3. The novelist Doris Lessing did something similar with a couple of books she wrote late in her career under the pseudonym Jane Somers to see what the reaction would be if it wasn’t published as a “Doris Lessing novel.” It was a variation on the study you cite, interestingly enough.

  4. I think most young composers have suffered through this: nothing sucks more than watching musicians roll their eyes and mutter and declare bits ‘unidiomatic’ that, of course, they’d woodshed if the name in the upper-left corner was ‘Shostakovich’.

    Come to think of it, Fritz Kreisler’s career as a composer was basically a response to this effect.

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