Bizarre Case of The New World Symphony

Friend o’ the blog, Rainer Glaap shared a video link to a session lead by Elliott Bruce Hedman, Head Design Researcher at, mPath an organization that researches how consumers engage emotionally with products. mPath uses skin conductivity sensors to measure the emotions people are experiencing during certain situations. The talk was hosted by Github for a technology oriented audience so Hedman characterized the examples he was going to use in his presentation as “bizarre case studies.”

So of course the first one was the New World Symphony (NWS).

The “bizarre” appellation aside the case studies were interesting (the others dealt with selling large shop vacuums and teaching math and reading to kids.) I have queued up the video below to start at the ~3:45 mark where he shows the results for the New World Symphony. (If you want to know about how skin conductivity sensors work, start from the beginning of the video.)

Hedman says he was hired by NWS to reverse the trend of classical music concerts  losing about 30% of their audiences annually. In one example he gave, he placed the sensors on veteran concert goers and novices. The emotional engagement of the veteran was very active through out Stravinsky’s “Firebird.” The novice’s engagement at the same concert was virtually flat through the entire piece and only peaks significantly at the applause.

Hedman makes the point that this doesn’t mean it is impossible for new audiences to become emotionally engaged, it just indicates people react to different things. He shows shows the graph of another first timer’s concert experience, this time for the whole concert.  This is particularly fun to look at because it shows where the attendee was bored by the person talking from the stage. However, when the music ends and the host starts talking, the engagement jumps before tapering off because something has changed about the experience.

This person was seeing Romeo & Juliet (I am guessing Tchaikovsky for reasons which will become apparent.) They had a much more varied experience than the person seeing The Firebird, especially during the quietest part and the main theme, the latter of which is familiar from basically every romantic moment in movies and commercials.

Hedman said he advised NWS to only program works that were about a minute long to prevent people’s attention from waning and music that was familiar rather than esoteric works that only experts would appreciate.

Yes, the concept of a short classical work, much less one people recognize does raise a chuckle. It wasn’t clear to me whether he meant this for concerts specifically for people who are new to classical music or as a regular feature. (It is probably the latter since he suggests more Red Hot Chili Peppers and less Beethoven.) If anyone knows how New World Symphony implemented his suggestions, which I imagine were more involved than depicted in the video, I would be interested to learn more.

At first it struck me as problematic to play things with which people are familiar if you are also trying to diversify your programming to include compositions by women and persons of color.  But it also occurred to me that what he suggests brings up the possibility of facilitating those choices by getting up during a concert and saying “Before we move on, next month we are performing The Rose of Senora. Here is a three minute excerpt that illustrates why this new work excites us. It will be that much better when Holly Mulcahy is here as a soloist.” The idea that everyone in the room is learning something new at the same time might help diminish the sense for new attendees that you need to be an initiate to enjoy the experience.

There were a number of insights Hedman shared at the end of the video which are worth noting if you are trying to improve the emotional experience of audiences, stakeholders, participants, etc:

-You won’t design the right experience the first time out. Hedman says his first attempts in most of his projects were wrong and he is still refining his program to help kids feel excited about reading.

-Businesses are obsessed with happiness, but confidence, attention and understanding, and play is what sells a product.  This is something to note – research has shown that people are often satisfied in an experience with a company even if they didn’t get their desired outcome. If they have lodged a complaint but didn’t get a refund/replacement, having felt heard and acknowledged still contributes to a constructive relationship with them. (This is me drawing a connection, not him.)

-Measuring emotion adds the much needed human element to your data. Hedman says the most important thing he wants people to take away is trying to collect emotional data from their customers. He said depending on website stats is insufficient and the emotional data adds depth to your understanding. While he obviously has a service he is selling to people, it is worth remembering that emotion is strongly intertwined in what we do and thus integral to our interactions with audiences and participants.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker (artshacker.com) website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (http://www.creatingconnection.org/about/)

I am currently the Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.

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