Disappearing Moment

Interfaces, Shame, and Classical Music

I want to write about classical music. This essay is the first in a series.

If classical music is more interesting to you than the other topics of this essay, you can skip to the last section without missing much. At least for me, understanding classical music is bound to my experience of interfaces and shame. More to the point, my experience of classical music helps me understand these topics better.

One recommendation: Before reading further, please take five minutes to take a quiz that helped me research this essay. It will help you, too.


“We want our customers to feel smart.” My last boss, Paula Brehm-Heeger, made that a tenet for Cincinnati & Hamilton County Public Library. Paula is one of the most perceptive people I know. To me, this is her greatest insight. For many of us, feeling smart is intrinsic to feeling loved and lovely. Feeling right is circumstantial; feeling smart is fundamental.

Library customers visit libraries or library websites or apps for a variety of reasons. They want to accomplish something. Answer a question. Find entertainment. Feel acknowledged and worthy. While this isn’t unique to libraries, it is particular to them.

Libraries aim to be the most egalitarian educational agency. They picture themselves as inclusive safety nets. As welcoming public commons. For this to work, people need to feel smart as they interact with information and other people. As they move through a library’s physical or digital space.

Most libraries fail most of the time. That’s why Paula had to help us focus, again and again. Like library staff everywhere, a lot of our decisions and defaults would not have made our customers feel smart. People “never forget how you make them feel.”

Libraries are not legible. The most frequent question library staff get is, “Where is the bathroom?” The first time people visit a library, they stop near the entrance and try to orient themselves. They resort to trial and error, like mice in a maze. They stop at a desk near the entrance because the design and signs offer no help. Even if they know what book or other item they want, they often need assistance. The Dewey Decimal System is obscure and sadistic. There are Byzantine rules for comportment, using computers or Wi-Fi, borrowing books and other material, where they can sit and how long, the hours a library is open and closed.

One of the books that influenced how I understand design is called, Don’t Make Me Think. It is another way of saying, “Make Me Feel Smart!” If I have to think about something that other people understand, I don’t feel smart. If I understand something immediately, I feel smart. I want to know what formula to apply. I want to pattern match. Mystery writers understand that you will read the next book in the series if you can solve the crime. Screenwriters. Propagandists.

Some professions depend on making people feel smart. Others, not so much. Libraries are not alone in their inscrutable interfaces.

Casinos are infamous for their design. IKEA, which has done as much as any business to democratize product design, lays out its stores like escape rooms. Its instruction manuals are written and illustrated by mean-spirited, pre-teen, older siblings: Why are you punching yourself? Why are you still doing it? Emacs and Vim are secret handshakes palming challenge coins.

For casinos, IKEA, Emacs, and Vim, this is intentional. They have reasons for tilting reality. Libraries and most other agencies and businesses should be self-explanatory (airports and train stations, food markets, clothing stores, the IRS and state treasuries, licensing boards). The people making decisions should empathize with their customers and constituents, and embrace universal design and plain language.


Our interaction with shame is at the intersection of our personal attributes and our station. It is about social capital. Which is to say, power. It is how others treat us. It is how we see ourselves.

We feel shame when we feel inadequate. When we disappoint people whose opinion matters to us. When we feel exposed. This can be a function of how we think, how we look, or how we behave. These are not intrinsic or static. These aspects of our identity are inextricable from the resources we have available.

My wife says, “Shame is sticky.” She is a Gestalt therapist. As a therapist, she recognizes that her client is feeling shame because she is experiencing it, too. The part of themselves the client thinks others won’t accept, they have to disown. Think class, body image, abilities, behavior. They project it, and it sticks to the people around them. Then those people feel shame.

Shame exists because there is not enough support in the environment. Shame is rational and irrational. It is organic and constructed. Shame can be prevented or ameliorated by kindness and empathy.

In a universe of perfect interfaces, there would be no shame. From behind a veil of ignorance, the obstetrician or midwife would deliver us to a parent who embraces us with all their heart, and we would embrace our lot. Society would celebrate difference and guarantee equitable access to resources for every being, now and henceforth.

The interfaces we create can decrease the distance between that universe and ours. Or they can enforce unnecessary barriers, feeding a cycle of shame.

Classical Music

I have yet to experience classical music without feeling shame. I cannot play an instrument or sing well. I do not know how musicians understand music. I cannot discern gradations of musical talent.

These are not barriers for many kinds of music. The spectrum of popular music is designed to be legible. Indigenous and Folk, Blues and Jazz and Rock, Soul and Dance — they are made for us. Experiments within these genres require little more than repeated, passive exposure to decipher. The best live performances are plentiful and free or inexpensive. Exclusionary prices save most of us from enduring dreck, just as they save most of us from leaving restaurant meals hungry. Classical music is the exception. The best musicians cost the most to see. And the music is not legible to the uninitiated. The more accessible it tries to make itself, the more it seems patronizing and remote. If no one has punched our tickets, or we have not put in extensive effort, it is not meant for us.

Music wasn’t absent from my childhood. My parents listened to popular or country music in the car. Dad would play his albums on his turntable, which had the same rules as the china cabinet: no touching. We had a kid-friendly stereo and a few of our own records and cassettes.

For the most part, music was a passive experience. No one around me played an instrument or danced. Within my family, only my father loved to sing. In addition to bedtime stories, he sang bedtime songs. Eventually, I heard professional recordings of these songs. It confused my kindergarten brain that he didn’t sound like the people on the records. My response limited my appetite for his singing, and his for singing to me.

My parents emphasized the skills that show up in SATs. It was more of a shared origin thing than a tactical decision. They didn’t mind that we kept music, arts, and language at arm’s length. They didn’t travel overseas or do the kinds of things that required us to cultivate these interests. If we abided a performance, art museum, or nice meal, that was enough. They did the best they could by their three kids. They stayed married until their youngest, my sister, was a couple of years shy of graduating from a Quaker high school. Except for that school, we went to public schools and state colleges. We dressed like our friends. We saw a fair bit of the United States. Compared to most people, we had every advantage.

Soon after I graduated from college, I got a job as a ghostwriter at the University of Pennsylvania, an Ivy League school in Philadelphia. I wrote thank you notes to philanthropists. I took up squash. Audited classes. Used a library with every book I could imagine. Attended Philadelphia Orchestra summer performances.

The Orchestra had a summer residency at the Mann Music Center, an amphitheater in Fairmount Park. The rows of seats near the stage were ticketed. General admission for the lawn overlooking the stage and the skyline was free if you knew where to look. You could bring a blanket and food, even wine. If you sat farther back, you could whisper with your date or a friend and not bother anyone.

I didn’t know the music they played. Maybe if a section was in a Bugs Bunny cartoon or action movie. The composers’ names were more evocative than meaningful. The musicians were constellations seen from an unfamiliar planet.

This is how I encountered classical music for most of my adult life. From behind a tree or around a corner. Anywhere I might see without being seen. On a summer walk through Chicago’s Millennium Park, I stumbled across an orchestra soundcheck. The musicians were in shorts and t-shirts, sitting in clusters, playing sections a minute or two at a time. I was mesmerized.

Experiencing a symphony in a theater, in hoi polloi camouflage, felt like scoring imposter syndrome. Pearls before goyim and upstarts. What does one do? My friend Sam’s father had a baton in his living room and conducted the symphonies in his headphones. We found it charming and embarrassing. Do I watch the conductor like a baseball pitcher? Distinguish fealty from creativity, measure technique against emotion, detect notes of honeysuckle, green apple, and canned peaches?

I spent the first half of 2023 listening to underrated, perfect pop and rock albums. Records that friends listen to without skipping songs. I got to know unfamiliar albums. I cultivated my attention span. Music felt more expansive.

It made me want to listen to more music. It also made me want to listen to different music. Instrumental works. Music I could have on when I didn’t want a podcast or to sing along. When Apple released its Classical app, I gave it a try.

The Classical app interface is thoughtful. It appreciates that classical and pop music have different metadata. Orchestras record the same work over and over. What matters is the year, conductor, label, the movements they include. You can listen to a composition you know without knowing what you’re hearing.

The Classical app assumes a lot of knowledge. If you don’t know what you’re looking for, even the playlists are confusing. While there are courses, I don’t want my apps to need instruction manuals. I want them to explain themselves.

I tried several dozen classical radio stations. I looked for websites that made it easy for me to understand what I was hearing. Make the stream easy to find. Display metadata and a narrative about each piece. Play music I enjoy.

These are the stations I listen to when I want to hear classical music:

All of them also have apps. These apps are dim shadows of their websites. In deciding which websites were dysfunctional, I eliminated their competition for lesser sins than their companion apps commit. Rather than encouraging me to listen to their streams on my phone when it is inconvenient to use a computer, they are driving me to the Classical app.

The other factor driving me to the Classical app is the composers they feature.


After listening to my favorite classical streams for a few weeks, I realized that I was hearing the same twenty composers. A score of long dead, European men. The only advantage my ignorance confers is a lack of allegiance. While my tabula is rasa, I can hitch my bliss to anyone.

One of the few things I knew about classical music was that it toppled gender norms decades earlier. In Blink, Malcolm Gladwell writes about, “Orchestrating Impartiality: The Impact of “Blind” Auditions on Female Musicians,” a study published in 2000, and preceded by a 1997 working paper. Orchestras started using screens at auditions in the 70s and 80s to mitigate hiring bias. Women gave their male competitors a beatdown and got all the good classical music jobs. Good riddance to patriarchy. Not knowing the brand name women composers was something else for me to learn.

If you took the quiz, you know where this is going. Feeling smart? I didn’t.

I created a short survey. I sent it to ten of the smartest people I know. For each of them, I had a reason to believe they were familiar with classical music. Either we have talked about it, or I know they played classical pieces at some point, or they follow media like the New York Times, New Yorker, and NPR that cover classical music. Each participant is a woman.

I assured them the survey would only take five minutes. I gave them two prompts.

  1. List as many acclaimed classical music composers as you can, living or dead, who identify as women. Work from memory only. Please time yourself and stop after 2 minutes.
  2. List as many acclaimed classical music composers as you can, living or dead, who identify as men. Work from memory only. Please time yourself and stop after 2 minutes.

Nine out of ten people in my pool responded to the survey. On average, they named 1.3 women, with a high of 4. On average, they named 11.3 men, with a high of 18.

While it confirmed my hypothesis, that was not the response I wanted. The issue is structural. Patriarchy and shame are sticky. Classical music fans like to feel smart. They like hearing compositions they recognize. Shame is bound to classical music even for people who know and love it. A representative text in response to my survey: “It took me 5 minutes. But the length of the self-loathing… a lifetime.”

I hope one of these classical stations commits to making their app useful, beautiful, and accessible. And I hope they commit to making either their primary stream, or an alternative stream, a celebration of gender diversity among classical music composers. Ideally, other elements of diversity as well.

I have written 2,500 words declaiming how little I know about classical music. You don’t want me to tell classical music professionals how to program their stations. You don’t want me to make a playlist for you.

There is a better option. Donne, Women in Music curates Hermusic playlists. They’re organized by genre (including orchestral, piano, and new). Donne also shares its research. For instance, in 2022, among “the 20,400 compositions lined up (by 111 orchestras across 31 countries), 87.7% were written by white men, and only 7.7% by women, most of them white (5.5%).” It appears that the practices documented in “Orchestrating Impartiality” missed something crucial.

I appreciate Donne’s welcoming interfaces. They are pulling back the curtain and inviting in sunlight. The endgame is not to make shame stick to new surfaces. It is inviting everyone to work together in making it evaporate.