Is musical taste derived from “free will” or are listeners programmed to like what is easy and available—conditioned to like what is spoon-fed by the media? Are music consumers falling for mass-produced musical products that are easily marketed and sold? Is pop music like a newspaper that needs to be written at a 6th grade reading level so that it is easily understood by everyone?
I teach a jazz history class at Moravian College to students (non-music majors) and one of the things that we discuss at the beginning of each semester is: What makes some pieces of music and some performers/composers more successful than others. Or put another way, why are Mozart, Frank Sinatra or the Beatles household names (so well known) yet many ordinary listeners are unfamiliar with the names of Salieri, Eddie Fisher or Bobby Sherman?
At one time Salieri, Fisher and Sherman were arguably as popular (or maybe more popular) than their contemporaries (Mozart, Sinatra and the Beatles respectively). Yet I think most people—especially younger music fans—will agree that one group is considerably more recognizable.
Part of the answer lies in the idea that the music of the great composers and performers possess qualities that allow the works to transcend time and still sound fresh, even after many years. There is something about the music these people produced that makes it timeless and relevant. And then there is the other type of music…
Contemplating “the other music” leads to a problem (at least for me) when educators and students propose to include “pop music” in the school music curriculums. To those who advocate such an approach, I always ask, “Which pop music? Do you mean Eddie Fisher and Bobby Sherman?”
But…that is a topic for another blog, so keep checking back for that installment.
People’s musical preferences for music or music styles are dependent on many variables including:
Many like the types of music their PARENTS played around the house or listened to while a young child. Whether your parents listened to classic rock, swing, classical or Country Western, the listener often becomes accustomed to and develops a liking for the music he/she heard while growing up.
PEERS also have great influence on musical taste. As individuals aspire to be associated with a peer group (in my day there were stoners, metal heads, motor heads, band geeks, etc.) they adopt the dress, language and also the music of the group. Adolescents embrace the fashion, language, habits and music that are different than their parents as they seek to establish an identity separate from parents.
Some people go beyond the influence of parents and peers into a world of musical self-discovery and exploration. Those interested in art music (i.e. classical, jazz, Avant garde) consciously go beyond parents’ and peers’ influences to find new sounds and plumb unorthodox musical structures.
So much of pop music is like McDonald’s food. It’s highly processed, easily accessible and doesn’t take much of an investment. That’s right—think of the investment of time, money and attention when eating fast food. The counter workers get the meal to the customer quickly; they want you to leave the restaurant in a timely matter (hence the uncomfortable chairs), and the food appeals to everyone (there is nothing subtle about all of the fat and salt in a value meal—but it makes the offerings very appealing if not particularly nutritious).
Pop music has similar attributes—the tunes are generally short (2-4 minutes tops), is easy to access (try finding art music on the home page of iTunes or some other streaming service) and is usually pretty unsophisticated in regards to the 7 elements of music (always in 4/4, no more than 3-4 chords, rather repetitive, basic forms, simple melodies in a limited range, restrained dynamic contrasts, texture is same from beginning to the end).
For those interested in seeking out art music, there is a requisite investment. Like learning about fine wines, gourmet food, or learning to appreciate fine art, it requires a self-directed connoisseur to ascertain the subtleties and seek out edifying artistic examples.
The reason so many people know of the Beatles, Sinatra, or Mozart is that they have stood the test of time. The works of these artists have that “something special” that transcends time and holds its appeal. I also think that the output of people/groups like these is often unique and groundbreaking—they are classics!
One may ask, “Weren’t the Beatles and Frank Sinatra pop musicians?” Well…yes.
I always ended the jazz class discussion with the question: “Who is popular now, that people will be talking about and listening to in 200 years?” If I knew that answer, I could make a lot of money!
BTW One of my guilty pleasures is a burger, fries and cola at the local drive thru…but I don’t eat fast food at every meal.