Popular Music and Classical Music as Social Currency

Last month three Harvard researchers published conclusions drawn from a four-year study of the influence people’s Facebook friends’ “likes” have on their own tastes. (Clicking this link will take you to their published paper, though it costs $10 to access if you don’t have a subscription to The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA.) The researchers’ conclusions concern marketing and advertising on Facebook: their study indicates that while people select Facebook friends on the basis of a shared interest, they do not tend to then adopt each other’s other interests. The study focused especially on shared interests in music and movies. So, for example, if I “like” The Black Eyed Peas and Nicki Minaj on my Facebook page, and you “like” The Black Eyed Peas and Bruno Mars, then we might become Facebook friends on the basis of both liking The Black Eyed Peas, but I am unlikely to like Bruno Mars because you like him, and you are unlikely to like Nicki Minaj because I like her. According to the paper, then, our tastes are not “contagious,” despite what social media marketers have long assumed.

Most interesting for me, though, is that the study shows that classical music and jazz are the exception to this. Interest in fine art music is contagious on social networks. And this is evidence to support an idea that’s long made sense to me in explaining the difference between fine art music and popular music: fine art music is music primarily for its own sake, where popular music is music functioning primarily as “social currency.” That isn’t to say we don’t care how it sounds, but a wealth of evidence indicates that social concerns are the primary factor compelling people to choose which popular music acts they listen to. Western society fragments into countless little sub-cultures and sub-sub-cultures, each of which is represented by sub-genres and sub-sub-genres of popular art — in music, movies, television, etc. Knowledge of a sub-culture’s representative arts facilitates social interaction within that sub-culture, just as dollars facilitate interaction within the American economy. So I won’t be particularly interested to listen to a new band just for the sake of exploring a new musical style; it’s when gaining knowledge of that band will allow me to better relate to members of a particular social circle that I’ll tend to become interested in exploring the new band’s style.

In classical music and jazz, the situation is entirely different. Fine art music has little value as social currency. Wynton Marsalis has described fine art music as musicians’ ongoing dialogue with the forms, and with other musicians, across time, through the medium of the forms that comprise a fine art musical genre — small-group bebop jazz, for example, or the symphony. Those who listen to classical music, then, do so to increase their knowledge of these dialogues as they’ve been carried on through the course of music history. As you become more and more familiar with these ongoing dialogues, as you hear how different composers have revealed different facets of the forms in different ways, you become better and better able to perceive the beauty in those forms.

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