So far this year I have played Mozart and Beethoven at assembly. I have chosen these composers because the school has a theme of ‘special people’, and Mozart and Beethoven are two of the most special composers who have ever lived.

Today I played music from the other very special composer, Johann Sebastian Bach. I played the beginning of one of his most special piece of all, the Goldberg Variations. Here is a video of the first part of this played on a harpsichord (I played the Aria and Variation No. 1—this finishes at 3:33 on this video):

Beginning of Bach’s ‘Goldberg Variations’

However, like my other talks this term, I didn’t talk about this music. Instead I talked about why live music is so much better that a CD.

First things first though, I have two incredible stories to show that some people think live is so better than CD that they will pay a huge amount of money to hear it.

  • Story 1: When I was about 9 or 10 years old and beginning to learn the piano, my father said he’d pay me $100 if I ever played the ‘Goldberg Variations’. He was very serious about this. Now this was in New Zealand many years ago (I told the children it was about 100 years ago!). I guess $100 in New Zealand then would be worth about £1000 today. So my father was willing to pay £1000 to hear me play the ‘Goldberg Variations’. Why would he do that when he could but a CD of the music for about £10? (And in case you’re wondering, I have not received any money—I can’t play the whole piece because it’s too difficult!).
  • Story 2: I have a friend in New Zealand who is a great fan of Mahler. This friend had always wanted to hear Mahler’s Symphony No. 8 live. Well, one day I saw a concert of this coming up in Birmingham. So I sent an e-mail to my friend telling him about this. He didn’t think twice. My friend took time off work and came all the way over to the UK to hear Mahler’s Symphony No. 8 live. I don’t know how much money he spent on the trip. But I know it was a lot more than a CD! Not only that, but his boss didn’t want him to take the time off work. My friend actually put his job at risk by going to this concert of live music!! Why on earth would he do this instead of just listening to a CD?

I have five reasons why live music is so much better that a CD..

  • Reason 1: The sound is so much better! No matter how good the CD is, and no matter how good the stereo is, it will never sound as good as the real thing. The sound of a live instrument is always so much richer that a CD.
  • Reason 2: You get to see the music being made! It just so happens that yesterday I took my daughters to a grown-up classical music concert. There were no instruments, just a choir of about 70 people. Some of of the music they sang was about 500 years old (there were many pieces by Tallis). And some of the music was brand new and sounded very modern indeed! This was serious music. And it was the first ‘grown-up’ concert I had taken my 7 year old too. I was worried about whether they would like it. But I needn’t have worried. Both my daughters loved it! So I asked them a few questions about it this morning:

    ‘Would you have listened to that music on a CD?’ I asked.

    ‘NO!!’ they replied very quickly.

    ‘Well why did you like it then?’ I asked again.

    ‘Because I could see the people singing,’ my younger daughter replied.

    ‘Because I could see how they made the music. I was interested to how they watched the conductor and how hard they were trying when they sang,’ replied my older daughter.

    So seeing music is a very big thing! You don’t get that on a CD.

  • Reason 3: The music can be played to suit the room and the people listening to it! Every week at assembly I play ‘Happy Birthday’ for the children who have a birthday that week. In the second-to-last line of the song where you sing the name of a person (‘Happy birthday to name&#8217) the school repeats the ‘name&#8217 bit for each child. This means I have to count the number of children standing up and play that bit on the piano the right number of times (and I’ve never got it wrong—yet!!). You can never get that on a CD!

    And then last week (see last week’s news item) I played some quiet music while children came up to the front in pairs and put cards on a table for a special event. I kept an eye on what was happening the whole time. I carried on playing until it was finished. And when it was finished, I finshed off what I was playing and stopped. You can never get that on a CD!

    There are many other ways musicians play to suit the room or the people listening to it. They might play quieter in a small room. Or they might play something a bit louder or faster if it’s a party. Most people are not aware of this. But they would certainly be aware of it if a musician played something the wrong way. For example, everyone would notice if a musician played too quietly or too loud!

  • Reason 4: The music is gone as soon as it is over. A lot of effort goes into making music, but when it’s over, it’s over. It can never be repeated in the same way ever again! I have spent this year talking about how much effort goes into making music—how much preparation (see the Making Music is Tricky! news item) and how much effort it takes to play music (see the Making Music is Costly! news item). The musician gives their time, their energy, their feelings, their thoughts… The musician gives everything he or she can. And it all for the people listening to it! Once it’s over, it can never be heard again.

    When a writer writes a book, this book can always be read. When a painter paints a picture, this picture can always be seen. But when a musician plays music that is not recorded, this music can never be heard again. When you hear live music, you are hearing something just for you! That is very very special. And you will never get music that is special in quite the same way every again. You will never get that on a CD!

  • Reason 5: This is the most important reason of all. It is so important that it needs a talk all by itself. So you’ll have to wait until next week!!!

And Finally…

As I was leaving school today I passed some of the younger children (aged about 5 or 6, I think). One of them turned to me and simply said, ‘Nice music!’.

How many adults would think that a 5 or 6 year old would listen to the ‘Goldberg Variations’ and say ‘Nice music!’? I doubt whether she would have said this if she’d simply heard it on a CD!

Video credits
  1. Pierre Hantai Plays Goldberg Variations (Aria, Var.1 &#045 8&#041. Pierre Hantaï plays Aria, Var.1 &#045 8 of Bach’s “Goldberg Variations”(BWV 988) on harpsichord. Recorded in Villa Medici in Rome, 2000.