On Faux Musical Quality, Popularity, and Relevance

A few weeks ago I read a clickbait piece on mic.com, “How The Music Industry Is Brainwashing You to Like Bad Pop Songs.” It linked to a study showing how the emotion centers of the brain light up in fMRIs when familiar tunes were played to the test subjects. This isn’t a particularly surprising result.  The phenomenon has been well documented in psychological studies and is one of the most robust psychological phenomena around.  The seminal research was done in a recall test using Chinese characters.  It showed that test subjects could only recall characters they were shown previous at little better than chance levels, but when asked which characters the subjects liked, invariably the characters they were shown earlier were picked.

This is an aspect of human psychology that gives interesting ammo to both sides of the Classical Music Crisis debate.  The idea that Pop music is somehow more relevant to contemporary culture loses some of its force when we realize that the constant bombardment of [Euro-American] pop tunes insures that a relatively big audience will “prefer” them to Classical Music, or Bollywood Music, or whatever genre happens to not be dominant in the US at the time. It’s simply a reflection of the “mere exposure effect.”

Couple this with the phenomenon studied by Matthew Salganik and Duncan Watts documented in their paper, “Leading the Herd Astray: An Experimental Study of Self-fulfilling Prophecies in an Artificial Cultural Market,” and we have a perfect recipe for creating a music ranking landscape which has more to do with luck and economic power of large corporations (such as the media conglomerates which many big labels are a part of) than it has to do with “true popularity” (if any such thing exists), quality, and relevance. As economist, Alan Krueger, stated:

Now let’s see what happened when the download counts were flipped, so that the new participants thought the least popular song was actually the most popular. As you can see, the download count for the least popular song grew much more quickly when it was artificially placed at the top of the list. And the download count for the most popular song grew much more slowly when it was artificially placed at the bottom of the list.

In the alternative world that began with the true rankings reversed, the least popular song did surprisingly well, and, in fact, held onto its artificially bestowed top ranking.

Sadly, for the non Classical Music Crisis folks, these phenomena don’t help some of the arguments for their side either.  One of these arguments deals with the idea of Classical performing Organizations as curators or preservers of so-called “High Culture”–Orchestras shouldn’t have their funding or size cut because that would cut into the quality of their performances and their ability to produce the great masterpieces with the huge orchestras they’ve become accustomed to using.

I recently got a copy of Jan LaRue “Catalogue of 18th-Century Symphonies: Volume I” and was quite amazed to find 16,558 symphonies listed.  These are works from 1700-1799, so all the big masterpieces from the 19th and early 20th centuries aren’t listed. This wouldn’t even include any Beethoven Symphonies (his first wasn’t officially published until 1801 though sketches from the late 1790s have been found). The argument would go something along the lines of “well, those works aren’t performed because they haven’t survived the test of time,” or something similar.

As Krueger noted (see link above) in his piece about the economics of Rock and Roll, we rarely take into account the role of luck (or, Survivorship Bias) in determining the canon of popularity or quality, which means that we don’t take into account how systems of socio-economic power play into creating the canons of quality and popularity. I think that when the SOBs (Symphonies, Operas, Ballets) stop trying to be something for everybody and get back to the business of being specialists in preserving a very specific musical niche, they’ll all be better for it.


Let the “young and hip” folks create their own Video Game and Film Projection Orchestras, their Laptop and Mobile Phone Orchestras, their Soundpainting and Telematic Orchestras. This is simply the next iteration of a specialist split that we saw in the post 1950s Orchestra expansion when Baroque/Early Music groups and New Music Orchestras and Ensembles formed. There’s no need to turn the traditional Classical Music Institutions into the next HIP (sic) thing and constantly chase that elusive Savior Demographic. Focus on doing what you do best and don’t be apologetic about it. But also don’t make the mistake that what you’re doing is the only form of High Musical Art Culture out there.

Similarly, since we’re in a Post-Pop age, maybe we need to get over the Anglo_American popular music that isn’t really dominant anymore. I find it curious that the call for populism invariably ends up referencing the same tired old White-Euroamerican-Male tropes, if only because nearly all the popular culture industries in the US have been dominated by that demographic. In a country with an ever increasing hyphenated American population, you’d think we’d like to get past that in our popular entertainment.  That’s when we realized the socio-economic structures still favor (albeit, in a more fragmented way) a certain demographic which happens to be coincident with a majority population.  For a supposedly younger and more socially conscious demographic, it’s a bit ironic they seem content to replicate those dominant socio-economic structures. For example, the Classical Music Crisis folks don’t seem to be advocating Orchestras start playing Arabic and Chinese Repertoire like the numerous US based Arabic and Chinese orchestras are doing.

When all that is said and done, I think it’s not hard to noticed that on both sides of the debate, there’s still the implicit understanding that the only art (wither high or low or middlebrow) that matters is simply the art of the Majority White Euro-Anglo-American which is predicted to become a minority soon anyway.

7 thoughts on “On Faux Musical Quality, Popularity, and Relevance

  1. Hi Jon!

    Another most edifying post!

    That 16k+ figure blows my mind, especially since the symphony was a new form in the 18th century. Haydn wrote his Symphony No. 1 at the late date of 1759 (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_symphonies_by_Joseph_Haydn). Even if we give 100 symphonies per composer, that is still 160 composers. I have never heard of anywhere close to that number of 18th century composers. And surely a lot of these are going to be one-offs or some small number, so it is probably more like 10,000 composers or so!

    Yet, even among Beethoven’s mere 9 symphonies, most don’t get played very often. Ironically (with respect to your mentioning it and the relative infrequency with which it is played), I had the privilege of hearing the New York Philharmonic play his 1st Symphony a few years ago. My favorite Beethoven symphony is the 8th.

    The point about hearing something a lot = liking it more is well taken. I remember making the most of my small record collection in the 80s and experiencing songs “opening up” the more I listened to them. One may ask, however, if bad songs are really becoming more seemly to our ears through this process, or are we simply allowing the virtues of songs of a range of quality come forward.

    A thought experiment that one can easily turn into an actual experiment via YouTube is this: listen to some Top 10 hits from previous eras that one has never heard and assess their quality. I happened to do this a couple years ago when I was “catching up” on some No. 1 hits from the 70s that I missed as a kid. If all these songs were crammed into the public’s ears through brute force, then one would expect them not to appeal very much at the present date.

    Although there is the occasional song that just doesn’t seem good at all (“Sad Eyes” by Robert John in 1979 seems completely tuneless to me), in general the quality seems high. I may not *like* each song, but I can see why it made it to the Top 10, if not all the way to No. 1. By the way, I really came to hate pop music in the late 80s and definitely felt that corporations were feeding the masses absolute garbage. Even so, at the time I felt it was stylistic garbage but could at least comprehend why abominations like “We Built This City on Rock and Roll” became No. 1 hits. Sort of. 😦

    Why do we even need pop music with its seemingly arbitrary aesthetic, its gatekeepers, and whatnot? I think it comes down to people wanting a shared culture experience. Right now, that consists of pop music, TV shows, movies, and sports (did I miss anything? I feel as though I have…). Oh yes, novels, comic books, etc. But these are not so big as they once were, and fewer names dominate the roster of the Blessedly Experienced. I’ve mentioned to you before categories of shared experience that have largely disappeared: poetry, physical art (painting, sculpture, etc.), and of course Classical Music. We don’t have a Hemingway, Ginsberg, Dali, Rodan, or Schoenberg (or Bernstein, Copeland, etc.) alive today. Indeed, the whole highbrow-but-also-for-the-masses thing largely became defunct after WWII. Today, if you are into that kind of thing, more power to you, but don’t expect to talk about it around the water cooler.

    I don’t see pop music as being horrible today, but I do see its position as precarious. The Long Tail and downloading could turn it into the next poetry: “Oh you make music? How nice. I remember when people used to listen to the same thing and there were such a thing as ‘hits.'” I think in some sense, the record companies, radio stations (that play music), and other elements of the infrastructure are “legacy technology” that would never be established de novo today, much like magazines or newspapers printed on dead trees.

    I think large orchestras were the same kind of thing. Most of Haydn’s symphonies were played by an orchestra that would barely count as a chamber orchestra today (strings, horns, oboes, continuo). From his London concerts onward, we see him make use of relatively large orchestras, and then that spectacle only grew in the 19th century. And what a thrill that would have been! Huge sound and great music in a time of no recorded music and workable labor costs, people laying down cash money to experience it. Yet it is also clearly a product of its time and would not be created de novo today. I think it is very valuable cultural heritage that we should not lose, but we should also not lose site of the fact that it is rather absurd to have such a ratio of audience to performers in this day in age (perhaps if we had a more abundant outlook and a better economic system, it would not).

    That’s a lot of comments, but thanks again for the great post!


    1. Yeah, I was completely not expecting 16k+–granted, as you note, what’s considered a “symphony” was evolving the most at the time so there might be some wiggle room as to what might or might not be considered a “symphony” in the sense that we think about it.

      Yeah, the popular things from bygone eras seem to be such a different animal if only because there was a lot less fragmentation back then in US culture. I don’t think we can imagine a show with the truly broad appeal that, say, “I Love Lucy” had because there is nothing even close to comparable today–the highest ranking shows are barely a third of the ranking from the 50s and 60s.

      I think in some sense, the record companies, radio stations (that play music), and other elements of the infrastructure are “legacy technology” that would never be established de novo today, much like magazines or newspapers printed on dead trees.

      Legacy Technology! Yes, that’s a great way to describe them–Seth Godin said the same thing about Football. Technology and culture would never allow concentrated mass culture exist as it was able to in the last half of the 20th century.

      Lots a great points there Matt!


  2. Per my response in the McCartney Post–we might actually have a chance to see if that can happen given the changing power dynamics of the growing minority populations who are inevitably going to favor supporting their own forms of (high or low) entertainment!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s