Going to school for performing "classical" music is rough, because it turns out most people don't really like classical music, at least not enough to pay me to play it for them. As a result, I spend a lot of my time wondering and trying to find out why people don't more closely share my taste--especially in an effort to understand my future audiences, but especially to see if their taste could be re-classified as some sort of medical disorder.
In all seriousness though, I discovered something this year that is at once completely startling, but also one of those things I kinda knew all along: people in general don't listen to, and are incapable of comprehending, form in music at anything but the smallest scale. In general, people listen to music moment-by-moment or minute-by-minute without making meaningful cognitive connections between larger segments.
More specifically, it means people don't hear key relationships in tonal music, and don't listen for tonal closure at intervals longer than about a minute. I remember going to a concert at Marlboro a couple of years ago where they played the Trout Quintet, by Schubert. The last movement is actually really unusual for a piece of that era, but relevant to this discussion, it divides into two parts, which are identical except that the first part starts in the home key and ends a fourth above, and the next part starts a fifth above and ends back in the original. Schubert also wrote repeats for both sections, making a total of four big sections of music about 3-4 minutes each. The audience applauded wildly after the first section, thinking the piece was over, and not realizing it had ended in the wrong key, and then tried to applaud again after the repeat, though this time Mitsuko Uchida was ready and waved a warning finger in the audience's direction after the cadence. Thankfully they didn't take the second repeat. Anyway the point is this: people don't get, or at least don't care, the whole key-relationship thing in music.
This phenomenon is replicated in controlled experimental settings, along with other unexpected ones. Perhaps the most heartbreaking study I read chopped up the first movement of Mozart's g minor symphony k 550 into eight parts and arranged them randomly, and subjects, musically trained or not, showed no significant preferences for any order over any other.
These experiments are a real kick-in-the-face because they purport to show that all the tireless effort that goes into constructing musical masterpieces goes more or less over our heads. For scholars of Western music theory and music history, form in music is taken to be its most distinguishing, characteristic factor, what separates the merely good from the great. Is it all just an illusion that we've accepted based on composers' own descriptions? Do we really know what we're talking about and how we're listening to music at all?
My take: musical form in its various aspects is definitely important to me, but I think these studies generally underplay the effects of repeated exposure....like, a lot of repeated exposure (as some studies do make their subjects listen to something 2-5 times).
At the same time, though, I've known for a long time that what separates great music from the mediocre isn't large-scale, but something much more essential. From when I was young, in my family we would regularly turn on the "classical" radio station whenever we'd go anywhere in the car, and we could almost always tell whether what we were hearing was worth listening to within 5 seconds. Even individual composers, most notably Bach, Mozart, Brahms, leave an indelible mark on their music on the smallest timescales. How do they do it? What makes their music so great, so quickly? That's the greatest mystery of all....