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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4 Responses to Popular Music and Classical Music as Social Currency

  1. This is a very interesting perspective. I have never considered the benefits of gaining knowledge of classical music vs gaining knowledge about popular music.

  2. Comment by Sasha made on August 2, 2014 at 6:42 pm

    Thank you for writing this, adn the link to the article. 

    I find these results rather confusing, however. I would have expected the opposite results: that tastes in popular music should be influenced by the tastes of others more than tastes in art music.

    If popular music is largely chosen based on "social currency", then shouldn't one's tastes in popular music be affected by what others in one's (actual or desired) social circle choose?

    Meanwhile, if fine art music taste/choice is not related to "social currency", then one should make independent aesthetic decisions on this music without reference to social comparison.

    Yet the results you describe sound like the opposite. I have not yet read the full paper, but would appreciate any further elucidation.

    (In my case, I place little or no value on "social currency" in the evaluation of either popular or art music; I evaluate music along two separate criteria: a judgment of good art based on aesthetic criteria; an evaluation of what I like based on preference. Those two may not coincide, although I attempt to refine my tastes so that they do).

  3. Comment by Sasha made on August 2, 2014 at 6:46 pm

    Perhaps the term "social currency" also must be clarified.

    There have been frequent criticisms of fine art music (and high culture in general) as a form of social currency, in that it can be used as a class marker to uphold and enforce class membership and distinctions. Thus those who are in the know regarding certain forms of art and music are marked as at least potentially belonging to a certain social class. Thence the accusations of exclusivity and elitism.

    Of course, whether or not such class/status determinations bear any truth should not negate the artistic value itself. One should neither accept nor reject the value of a work of art based on its class/status associations, but should evaluate it on its own artistic merits (or lack thereof)>

  4. Comment by Sasha made on August 2, 2014 at 6:48 pm

    As a further qualification: "low" or "common" or "popular" forms of music are just as amenable to use as social markers. Witness the various cliques that form around what is "cool" at the moment, and "cool" is always defined in contradistinction to an excluded "uncool" set. 

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