Programme Snapshots | Hearing Wagner

Programme Snapshots | Hearing Wagner

Can you describe your Being Human event(s) in a 140 characters?

Hearing Wagner messes with your mind! Find out how we measure audience response! Sir Colin Blakemore hosts at Birmingham Hippodrome, 22 Nov.

Can you tell us a bit about the research that this relates to?

The world of music production and distribution has been transformed by digital technology. In our big project, ‘Transforming Musicology’ (, we’re aiming to encourage academic musicologists to take account of and exploit these changes, not just in the way research is done, but also in the range of music we can now study using digital tools.

We’re also using state-of-the-art psychology to find out how people hear and understand music. Richard Wagner’s operas are especially interesting, not least because the composer and others had so much to say about their conception, composition and reception. When people experience music, their bodies show certain unconscious indicators of how engaged, excited or emotionally affected they are which we can measure using devices originally designed for sports and health research.

We’re fitting some audience members with these devices for all 15 hours of a complete performance of Wagner’s opera cycle, Der Ring des Nibelungen, by St Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theatre under their charismatic conductor, Valery Gergiev, at the Birmingham Hippodrome. Our free Being Human event two weeks later, on 22 November, called ‘Hearing Wagner’, will offer some early answers to questions about how closely these human responses relate to what musicologists find in the scores. There’ll also be talks from Wagner experts and members of the Transforming Musicology team, plus a chance to try the technology yourself.

What will people learn or experience that they can’t encounter elsewhere?

For almost everyone on the planet, music forms a significant part of what it is to be human. In our Being Human Festival event, we’re looking at some of the most emotionally-charged music ever composed – Richard Wagner’s ‘Ring’ Cycle – and how humans react to it today, while attempting to understand something of its historical context.

Sir Colin Blakemore, the eminent neuroscientist, and himself a great Wagner fan, will host a day of discussion about Wagner and how his music affects audiences.

Gary Kahn, editor of the English National Opera’s published series of Opera Guides, will remind us that the sound of the music is only part of the picture – Wagner was above all a revolutionary man of the theatre!

We’ll show how a psychological experiment into audience responses to music has to be put together, and discuss how the resulting data needs to be analysed to answer such questions in an objective way, and how this can (or cannot) be reconciled with a more subjective, humanistic approach.

There’ll also be the opportunity to try out the response-measurement devices to see how you yourself react to music by Wagner and others. You’ll also be able to play with some of the other cutting-edge software being developed within Transforming Musicology.

How is this relevant to everyday life?

Music is a universal phenomenon. It affects all cultures in some ways, although these differ widely across the world, depending on cultural, historical and religious factors which make its study endlessly fascinating. With the advent of modern download technology, more music is readily available to more people throughout the world than has ever been conceivable before now.

An understanding of music at a deeper level than its mere appreciation and/or consumption (i.e. musicology), needs to be an essential part of humanistic scholarship. At the same time, the discipline of musicology needs to take advantage of tools and methods that have been developed by the music industry for selling music, many of which can be adapted to aid its study.

At the heart of all this is how humans respond to music. Using state-of-the-art methods like those we show in ‘Hearing Wagner’ is one of the ways in which science and technology can transform the way we do scholarship, without losing sight of the essential human motivations behind our work.

And finally, please tell us your 5 favourite things about your location/venue:

1. Birmingham lies at the heart of the UK and is one the most dynamic and diverse of Europe’s cities.

2. The Birmingham Hippodrome is the highest attended single theatre in the UK (404 performances attended by 625,732 patrons last year)

3. The Hippodrome is a few minutes walk from New Street Station, and from Symphony Hall (the finest acoustic in the UK)

4. It’s also just a stone’s throw from the iconic new Library of Birmingham, designed by Francine Houben and opened last year by Malala Yousafzai

5. Birmingham Royal Ballet, formerly Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet, is based at the Hippodrome, which is also the only English venue to present all of Welsh National Opera’s repertoire


Hearing Wagner is just one of many activities during Being Human which connects cutting edge research in the humanities to issues shaping our everyday lives. For updates on the latest Being Human news follow us on Twitter @BeingHumanFest, on Facebook, and on Pinterest. Don’t forget to sign up to our e-newsletter too!