News & Events

Sound Science: Why We Prefer Live Music

Like most people, you’d probably rather see live music performed than listen to a recording.  But do you know why?  Actually, it is in part because we get visual cues from seeing musicians perform.  These cues inform how we feel about what we are hearing.  A few years ago, psychologists at McGill University tried an experiment: they recruited 30 musically-trained participants and played them a Stravinsky clarinet piece.  Some of the subjects saw the musician play, others just heard the music.  Each subject used an electronic slider to signal the level of tension they felt from moment to moment, and the impact of the musical phrasing.  What were the results?

“At times, the experience of tension and phrasing for participants who both saw and heard the performances was enhanced compared to judgments made by participants receiving information from only one sensory modality.  At other times, the addition of visual information served to dampen the intensity of emotional response – seeing the musician may have revealed complexities in the emotional character of the music, leading to a more comprehensive interpretation of the piece or to greater aesthetic satisfaction.”*

In other words, being able to see the musician perform lead to a fuller, richer experience – one quantitatively different from just hearing the music played.  Given this, it is unsurprising that 91% of theatergoers say the best part of Broadway is live music.  By replacing live music with recordings, some Broadway producers may reap extra profits for themselves, but it comes at the cost of the audience’s experience.

But now that you’ve read this, you know something those producers don’t want you to know: that seeing live musicians perform leads to what these psychologists called “greater aesthetic satisfaction.”  That is why we need to get the word out about the threat of recorded music on Broadway, so that people know what is going on! That is why we ask that you sign the petition against recorded music on Broadway, and why we ask that you share this page.  Only when deceptive producers know that the public has wised up to their tricks will they stop trying to cut corners at our expense.

*Vines, B.W.; Krumhansl, C.L.; Wanderley, M.M.; Levitin, D.J.  “Cross-Modal Interactions in the Perception of Musical Performance.”  Cognition Volume 101, Issue 1 (August 2006): 107


Posted in Audience, Broadway, Musicians, Science

Read All About It! Save Live Music in The New York Post!

The campaign to keep Broadway live’s new ad was covered in today’s New York Post!  A choice quote:

“Fans of musical theater love to bicker, but there’s one thing they agree on: A live orchestra, preferably a big one, is key to the experience.

Driving the point home, a commercial attacking Broadway’s shrinking pits and canned music started airing on NY1 last week. ‘It’s not the same energy,’ a ticket-buyer complains. ‘It’s not cool.'”


Posted in Ads

Prerecorded Production’s Profits Plunge

The controversial Priscilla Queen of the Desert, which has drawn fire for using a recorded string section in the place of live music, continues to see its grosses fall.  Last month saw the biggest drop in Priscilla’s average weekly take since June.  Despite a massive advertising campaign, it is no surprise that it continues to struggle given bad reviews and worse word-of-mouth.   More and more people are becoming aware of Priscilla’s canned tunes, thanks in large part to word of mouth and the grassroots support of nearly 20,000 fans of the Save Live Music on Broadway Facebook page.  Thousands of people have signed a petition to the Broadway League demanding that Broadway musicals be kept live.  Given the rising awareness of the importance of live music as a cultural legacy and the falling fortunes of Priscilla, hopefully producers think twice before canning live music in the future.


Posted in Audience, Broadway, Musicians, Priscilla, Queen of The Desert

Save Live Music on Broadway… on TV!

We are very excited to announce our new commercial!  If you are in New York City, you can catch it during select episodes of On Stage on NY1 over the next two weekends!

Posted in Ads, Audience, Broadway, Supporters, television

Canning Tchaikovsky

The threat to live music on Broadway, which goes back decades but is now rapidly escalating, is part of an unfortunate trend around the world.  A few months back we reported on the replacement of live music in several shows in London, including Les Miserables and The Wizard of Oz.  Scrapping the rich experience of live music for canned recordings is a trend that also affects other forms of live music, such as the ballet. Continue reading

Posted in ballet, dance, History, Musicians, nutcracker, Protest, tchaikovsky

Prerecorded Priscilla’s Persistent Plummet

Priscilla Queen of the Desert, the musical which has sparked controversy over its producers’ decision to use recorded strings instead of giving the audience the full live musical experience you expect on Broadway, has continued to see their weekly box office gross fall.  Perhaps more people are asking that key question, “But is it live?” before spending their hard-earned cash on a Broadway show.  Or perhaps people are reading the reviews which panned it for being “synthetic to the core” (Time Out New York) and ““mechanical and monotonous” (The New York Times).   Given the failure of this overpriced karaoke show to gain traction, it is not surprising that one of Priscilla’s producers is now singing the praises of live music, as documented in a previous post.  Hopefully this serves as a wake-up call to any other shortsighted producers who would sell audiences a subpar experience in order to squeeze out a few extra dollars in profits.

Posted in Audience, Broadway, Priscilla, Queen of The Desert

Your Broadway Memories

On Tuesday, we asked our Facebook fans to tell us about some of their favorite memories of live music.  Thanks to everyone who contributed, we got a lot of great responses!  To help visualize people’s thoughts about live music, we’ve created a word cloud.  If you’ve never seen one of these before, the size of the words is based on how frequently they were used.  Aside from describing your memories with words like “loved,” “magic” and “phenomenal,” it also reveals some of your favorite shows: Les Mis, Wicked, The Lion King, Grease, and, of course, CATS. Thanks again for sharing your memories with us, and remember to keep sending us comments, either through this site or on Facebook, about what live music means to you!


Posted in Audience, Broadway, Comments, Supporters

Priscilla Producer Changing Tune?

Now this is rich!  The Nederlander Organization both produced Priscilla Queen of The Desert and owns the theater where it plays.  Now the Nederlander Organization’s Broadway Direct newsletter and website features a glowing piece on their latest production, a revival of Sondheim’s Follies.  How are they marketing it?  Why, by heavily promoting the fact that it has a rich, full orchestra!   See this quote, for example: Continue reading

Posted in Broadway, Broadway League, follies, Priscilla, Queen of The Desert, sondheim

The Decades-Old Battle for Broadway

The ongoing struggle to keep Broadway music live actually goes back long before this year’s controversy over Priscilla’s use of recorded strings or last year’s decision by West Side Story producers to dilute Leonard Bernstein’s classic composition with synthesizers.  Back in 1991 the Tommy Tune directed and choreographed show Grand Hotel: The Musical already had been running for two years when the producers decided to cut out eight musicians – the entire string section – and replace them with a synthesizer.

In a precursor to the bait-and-switch move used by West Side Story producers two decades later, Grand Hotel’s producers took a show which had received the acclaim of critics and audiences alike, a show which had won five Tony Awards, and replaced the whole string section with an electronic simulation.  Do you think they advertised this fact, perhaps with some new posters proclaiming “Grand Hotel: Now with Synthesizer!”?   Of course not.

Would the show ever have gotten the accolades that it received if it had opened with the ersatz sounds of a synthesizer rather than an authentic full pit?   Obviously the producers didn’t think so, or they would have done it from the start.  Instead they waited for the reviews and awards to roll in before swapping out the strings.  The producers of Grand Hotel exploited the reputation built up over two years of quality performances by a top-flight orchestra in order to sell theatergoers a bill of goods, severely diminishing the audience’s experience while continuing to charge full price.

This perfectly typifies the deceptive tactics of some Broadway producers – they attempt to sneak in synths and recordings after the show has made a name for itself utilizing a full live orchestra.  Priscilla has taken this to the next level by not even bothering to open with a fully live orchestra: they have been using prerecorded strings since night one.   However, just as Grand Hotel and West Side Story’s producers tried to sneak synths in under the radar, Priscilla’s producers have made sure never to mention their use of canned music in their expensive ad campaigns.  This cover-up is not surprising given that market research has documented that three-quarters of theatergoers wouldn’t go to a show if they knew it was using recorded music.

So we see with Grand Hotel that Broadway history has been repeating itself: first in the insulting move of swapping of synths for strings in Leonard Bernstein’s classic score, now in Priscilla’s overpriced karaoke on display at the Palace Theater – simply the latest and most brazen attempt to grab a little more profit by cutting live music.  But what good does it do for a few people to profit if the price is live music, the very soul of Broadway?

The best way to fight back is by making sure that the less conscientious producers know that you are onto their tricks, that you will ask, “But is it live?” before you hand over your hard-earned money.  That is why so many theatergoers across the country have signed our petition – to let producers and theater owners know that you care about the irreplaceable experience of live musical theater on Broadway.

Posted in Bernstein, Broadway, Grand Hotel, History, Musicians, New York Times, Supporters, West Side Story

“But Is It Live?”

The current controversy over the decision by producers of Broadway’s Priscilla Queen of the Desert to use recordings in place of string musicians is not the first such situation to create a stir.  Last year, after playing over 500 shows, producers of Leonard Bernstein’s classic West Side Story decided to bet against the taste of their audience, hoping that ticket-buyers wouldn’t notice when they swapped out five world-class musicians for a synthesizer.

This underhanded tactic, allowing a show to run for some time before replacing live music with machines, allowed them to avoid the bad reviews and negative publicity that would come from opening with a watered-down, partly synthetic orchestra.

Theater lovers, having  seen reviews for a fully live show and expecting just that, ended up going to see West Side Story without knowing that half the string section had been replaced by a machine – all so the producers could pocket a few extra dollars.  This is the worst kind of bait-and-switch.

These cuts prompted violinist Paul Woodiel to tell AFP last year, “I was a student and a friend of Leonard Bernstein and it’s almost certain he wouldn’t have allowed this. This isn’t dinner theater, it’s not Las Vegas. It’s Broadway and Leonard Bernstein was the greatest American musician.”

Peter Reit, French Horn player in Phantom of the Opera, said in that same piece, “You get the feeling that if they had their way, ideally, they would have an entire virtual orchestra…. They would have all of us replaced with one electronic instrument, then feed that to the public and make more money.”

This was only the beginning.  Priscilla has a recording doing the work of half the band.  Will producers stop there?  Does anyone really want to pay top dollar for “an entire virtual orchestra”?

You can see quotes around our site from luminaries as diverse as Stephen Sondheim, Tommy James, Coati Mundi, Scott Frankel, and many more on the importance of live music, and we hope you’ll take the time to see what they have to say.  From pop songwriters to classical concertmasters, so many musicians and composers have come out in opposition to second-rate canned music being foisted upon audiences.

Musicians aren’t alone in their opposition to this practice.  Almost 5,000 of you have signed the petition demanding the producers keep Broadway live.  Many of you – middle school band members, college music students, aspiring actors, Broadway fans of all ages – have written to tell us how much live music in the theatre means to you.

But we have to remember that it is not just musicians or fans that we need on our side.  It is the producers of the next West Side Story, the next Priscilla, who are looking for ways to make a few extra bucks. We need to make sure that those producers know that audiences demand the full, authentic Broadway experience.  We need to make sure they know that audiences want live music.

That is what this campaign is all about.  That is why we need your help sharing this petition and this website, online and in real life, with people who truly care about Broadway.  We are building a network of theatergoers who become aware of what’s going on, people who ask “But is it live?” before they buy their ticket.  This is bigger than just Priscilla or West Side Story.  Only when producers know that audiences are on to these tricks, only when they are sure that the cost of lost ticket sales will outweigh the 1-2% of the budget that they save by replacing part of the orchestra with recorded music, will the proud historical tradition of live Broadway be secure.


Posted in Audience, Bernstein, Broadway, History, Musicians, Phantom of the Opera, Priscilla, Queen of The Desert, sondheim, Supporters, Tommy James, West Side Story