Popular music – Part I

The following discussion pertains mainly to Western popular music for reasons I hope to become apparent, mainly relating to the ways music becomes popular. Every region and country has its own popular musics and much of the below discussion, in general terms, applies to them as well, but for clarity of argument, my scope here is the Western popular music.

Why is popular music popular?

This might at first glance seem like a circular question, and in some ways it is. It is a different question than ‘What is popular music?’ The latter could be answered circularly: ‘Music that is popular.’

Let us start then with the notion of popularity. The dictionary definition of popularity is ‘the quality of being widely admired or accepted or sought after.’ The key word here is ‘widely’ as the quantitative term, while ‘admired,’ accepted,’ and ‘sought after’ are the qualities that are being measured.

In the field of music, we could think of e.g. The Beatles, Johann Sebastian Bach, and Miles Davis as being popular musicians by this definition. They represent different musical genres, but are all certainly ‘widely admired,’ ‘accepted,’ as well as ‘sought after.’ We can, however, immediately imagine that there would be different reasons for people to admire, accept, or seek after the music of these musicians. As they represent different musical genres – even traditions – we can imagine that people fond of these particular genres and traditions might admire, accept or seek after their music to varying degrees, based on their predilections. We can also make an educated guess that out of these artists, The Beatles is probably the most ‘widely admired or accepted or sought after.’ As musical genres go, the music of The Beatles is also probably recognised by most as ‘popular music.’

This late work of The Beatles is a fine example of popular music production. See the video description on YouTube for more.

Johann Sebastian Bach is in many ways a pivotal musician and composer in the development of Western classical music. Miles Davis is a central figure in the history of jazz. The same can be said of The Beatles pertaining to popular music. I.e. their musics meet the popularity criteria. However, we still wouldn’t call Bach’s or Miles Davis’ music popular music like we do the music of The Beatles.

Johann Sebastian Bach is generally recognised as the master of counterpoint and his music has since the early 19th century been essential learning material for any aspiring composer of Western art music.

Citing several music scholars, WikiPedia defines popular music as ‘music with wide appeal that is typically distributed to large audiences through the music industry’. This definition brings along another factor; distribution through the music industry. In Bach’s time, there obviously was no music industry and music was distributed through notations – printed or manuscripts – or by memorising, orally. When Miles Davis arrived at the New York jazz scene in the 1940s, there was already a music industry. Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and many more jazz artists had already become popular music stars through radio and records. The Tin Pan Ally was producing popular music – the first ‘pop music’ – for people to bring home as sheet music and play themselves on their pianos at home, or perhaps even player pianos. For my previous discussions about jazz as popular music, see Black music – Part IIa and Black music – Part IIb.

The 50+ year career of Miles Davis during which he was always on top of the musical developments. The jazz tradition is largely based on playing the popular music of the time, and Davis revived that tradition in the 1980s.

What is popular music?

The quantitative part of the definition of popular music seems rather straightforward. ‘Wide appeal’ can be measured in terms of record sales, concert ticket sales, streamings, online views, etc. But how and why is this music reaching these numbers? Is it gaining popularity, ‘wide appeal,’ because it’s ‘good’ or because it’s promoted by the music industry? And does the music industry pick up this music to promote because it’s ‘good’ or for some other reason? How can you know someone’s music will have a wide appeal before anyone has heard it?

Popular music in this sense is a commodity to be sold on the market. Like other commodities, it is marketed and advertised to create a ‘wide appeal.’ That’s how this music is brought to the market for consumption. I.e. popular music can only exist through the music industry.

Browsing records

But aren’t all kinds of musics commodities? The music of Bach is still played in concerts, recorded, and sold as sheet music and more in modern formats. And all this is done through the music industry. The same can be said of the music of Miles Davis. The numbers, however, do not reach those of The Beatles or other popular music acts. I.e. their appeal is not as wide.

If the ‘wide appeal’ is created through the promotional activities of the music industry, why can’t they make more artists popular? We are approaching considerations of musical taste and aesthetics. More people like the music of The Beatles than that of Bach or Miles Davis, for various reasons. As mentioned, Bach represents the tradition of Western classical music and Miles Davis that of jazz and black American music in general. The Beatles, however, were one of the first groups to gain a mass following at the early stages of the development of something we now recognise as popular culture.


The music industry as a particular sector of economic production relies on particular technologies. The above-discussed musics mostly share the production technologies of musical instruments, recording and editing technologies, etc., as well as the technologies of reproduction (amplification in live events and at home). When it comes to marketing and advertising, however, popular music is found on ‘mass media’ – TV, radio, and Internet – in ways and volumes not available for other kinds of music. Mass media has been instrumental in the emergence of popular culture by disseminating ideas through movies, TV and radio programs, music, etc.


In Marxist analysis, these technologies would be the means of production of popular culture, including popular music. I.e. the music industry is the gatekeeper deciding whose music gets the chance to become popular. Of course, the Internet, mobile phones with cameras and microphones, and generally more affordable recording technology, have made it possible for more artists to get their art out to the public, bypassing the industry bottleneck. For anything to become truly popular, however, the more traditional forms – old, if you like – of mass media are required. Although many private productions ‘go viral’ on the Internet, they really only become popular – widely admired, accepted, and sought after – once the mass media picks them up and properly installs them into popular culture. Many of the things going viral are in fact first produced by the mass media, as they have realised the potential of short clips posted on the Internet.

I’ll leave it at this for now. Next time I’ll address popular music in terms of aesthetics.

Music and war

Contested spaces of the war in Ukraine

Wars always have repercussions beyond the actual armed conflicts and people directly impacted by them, especially when the war is initiated by one of the most powerful nations on the planet. In the globally connected world we live in, the effects of war quickly spread around the world. Global markets, movement of people, and modern technology extend our lived physical spaces by creating and enhancing the connections we have with each other. Part and parcel of these connections are also various imagined spaces, some of which I want to discuss here.

At the time of writing this, the war Russian President Vladimir Putin started against Ukraine is in its second month. Four million refugees have escaped the war, the majority of them heading toward Central Europe. Most Western countries are launching various efforts to help the Ukrainian cause, whether by supporting the war effort – mostly indirectly by offering weapons – or by helping to deal with the steadily growing humanitarian crisis.

The strongest action from the (Western) world against Putin’s unprovoked military action against Ukraine has so far been economic sanctions. Following suit, many businesses – including the music business – have also withdrawn from Russia. Some are even of the opinion (in Dutch) that (all) Russian music should be part of the sanction regime in the hope of compelling the Russian folk to rise against its leadership.

Contested imagined spaces of war

After the immediate destruction of lives, livelihoods, and physical lived spaces, the effects of war quickly come to bear on various imagined spaces as they get contested. The current conflict in Ukraine is an escalation of a longer conflict, fuelled and legitimized by competing interpretations of history. In this ongoing ‘war of memories,’ as the scholar Andreas Kappeler calls it, both sides use and abuse history – a history that, more than anything else, underlines the close cultural relation and shared origin of both folks.

Music as site of political struggle

Music enables (re)construction of imagined spaces in which cultural, social, political, and even economic relations can be renegotiated as musicians compose, perform and record music and listeners consume it by going to concerts and buying the recorded music. Unlike athletes competing on the international stage, musicians don’t wear national colours. Their nationality, political standing, and views are deducted by others from their background, actions, and the actual music they perform. Of course, musicians sometimes also compete with each other, and competitions such as the Eurovision Singing Contest has responded to the conflict by shutting Russia out, much like Russian athletes have been denied participation in international competitions.

While many Russian musicians speak out against Putin, others do not. One of the most prominent performers getting cancelled in the West due to his views is perhaps the conductor Valeri Gergiev. His support for Putin has been well known for a long time, but now he finds himself shut out of Western stages. Some venues find themselves having to cancel even Russian artists who have announced their solidarity with the Ukrainians.

While performers can be held accountable for their political views, Russian music – especially classical music Russia is famous for – was mostly composed by people who have no other connection to the events taking place today than their nationality. Especially, dropping the music of Piotr Tchaikovsky by some orchestras has been viewed as an overreaction by many. Not only was Tchaikovsky more interested in the musical developments in Central Europe while his fellow Russian composers were busy creating a national style of music, but he also had family roots in Ukraine and used Ukrainian folk music as inspiration, e.g. in his second symphony.

Music in the political space

For me, music – and art in general – is a site of celebration of human creativity. Music, as the most abstract form of art, easily lends itself to the creation of imaginary spaces. It is therefore also easily adopted as a tool in what Kappeler called the ‘war of memories’; the reinterpretation of certain cultural heritage in light of contemporary events to serve a political purpose. I’m not claiming that music is – or should be viewed as – apolitical, as all human action has its political aspects. Nor do I subscribe to the view that music’s meanings can be solely derived from the intentions of its creators, as such meanings arise from relations to the world around us at any given moment.

In Ukraine, music has been in the middle of political struggles since the time of the Kievan Rus’ a thousand years ago. More recently, the post-Soviet political developments in Ukraine have been favourable for the local music scene. As already mentioned (see the link regarding Eurovision above), the present war in Ukraine is affecting musical life as well as underlining music’s importance as a uniting force.

Where are you from by the Ukranian maker of electronic music Anton Slepakov. He used to sing exclusively in Russian due to better commercial opportunities but has been writing in Ukranian since 2014 (see previous link).

Musical nationalism

Nationalism – the idea of national cultural identities legitimising nation-states – is to great extent based on the idea of the German philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder.

A poet is the creator of the nation around him, he gives them a world to see and has their souls in his hand to lead them to that world.

Johann Gottfried Herder

Herder’s ideas, as well as those of Jean-Jacques Rousseau before him, started a search for the folk roots of various nations around Europe and a movement referred to as Romantic Nationalism. ‘Romantic’ refers to the Herderian idea that the ‘soul’ of a folk is to be found in its folk culture, language, music, food, textiles, etc. The movement took various shapes according to the situations of the regions it landed on. In Germany, it helped the folks unite after the Napoleonic wars – and was later high jacked by the Nazis. In Finland, an autonomous Grand Duchy of Russia at the time, it inspired the collection and compilation of the national epic Kalevala, which again inspired the Estonian Kalevipoeg, both helping create national unity that came to be of great importance during the next century’s struggles.

The musical equivalent of this movement also found its inspiration in folk art. Musicians, and what came to be known as ethnomusicologists – went around the countrysides collecting folk songs. Composers then used the melodies and rhythms of this repertoire in their works, creating national styles of classical music.

Fresco of skomorokhy in the St. Sophia Cathedral in Kiyv Source: http://www.encyclopediaofukraine.com

Russia was no stranger to the intellectual movements of Europe. The earliest and best-known Russian composer to use folk material in his work was Mikhail Glinka, generally recognised as the ‘Father of Russian music.’ However, in the current context, I’d like to emphasise Russian classical music’s indebtedness to Ukraine. Ritzarev goes as far as talking about a ‘Ukranization’ of Russian music in the 18th century (p. 7ff), without which neither Glinka nor Tchaikovsky would have written the kind of music they did. She traces this phenomenon to the skomorokhi culture dating back to the Kievan Rus’ and remained influential in the region’s musical life.

Folk traditions remain an important source of inspiration for contemporary popular music artists as well. GO_A’s song SHUM, is based on an old Ukranian spring ritual. Samikova highlights the polycultural trends in Ukranian popular music, speaking to the creation of imaginary spaces I have discussed here.

Music builds bridges, not walls

At times of conflicts, like the current one, I find it helpful to turn to music for ways to (re)connect with our fellow human beings on all sides of the conflicts. The imaginary spaces music creates allow us to build bridges over the walls created by various conflicts. Music, and arts in general, reminds us of our common humanity – especially of those who at times of conflicts may seem like enemies.

No music no life

Sting is one of many artists quick to response to crisis around the world. He was one of the highlights of the Live Aid concert in 1985 as well as the Concert for New York City after the 9/11 attacks. He had his own concert planned for September 11th 2001 in Italy and went on with it after a deliberation with his band.

When the war broke in Ukraine, Sting released a new version of his song Russians from his first solo album The Dream of the Blue Turtles. In addition to the message of the song being relevant again, the music has special significance to the present situation as well. The song uses the Romance theme of Sergei Prokofiev’s Lieutenant Kijé Suite. Furthermore, the glockenspiel used in Sting’s original version of the song also refers back to Prokofiev but perhaps also to Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker ballet and the children whose story it tells – although the libretto was adapted from a story of the German author E.T.A. Hoffman. And as a biographical reference, especially relevant at the present, Prokofiev was born in Donetsk, Ukraine.

Music matters – Part II

Music matters

As my earlier discussions of Black music have hopefully illustrated, music can also have a significant socio-cultural agency with implications reaching into the realms of politics and ethics. In a way it could be boiled down to the notion of “good music”. We’d all like to think the music we like is “good”, but there are nearly as many definitions – often less than precise – of “good music” as there are listeners.

Aesthetic spaces

This affords music an ethical dimension. Sharing musical tastes – musically marked aesthetic spaces – is a way of connecting ourselves with others; or distinguishing from them, i.e. performing our identity through musicking.

There are many factors and agencies shaping this “aesthetic space” in which we form and articulate our ideas of good music. Our musical tastes, much like all our other tastes, have their roots in our upbringing and socio-cultural environment. They are also subject to changes in our environment and our choices within it, shaping the development of our tastes.

Treme Sidewalk Steppers 2nd line February 6th 2011

And unless we consider music to be an “auditory cheesecake” – and I hope you don’t – the choices we make regarding the kinds of music we like and consume, are not irrelevant. They speak volumes about our socio-cultural, and even political, dispositions – albeit often quite ambiguously.

Music and ideas/ideologies

Let’s try and interrogate this proposition with some concrete examples, shall we? In what kinds of situations do musically created aesthetic spaces have an ethical dimension, and how does this happen?

I have two premises for this thought experiment: First, music as sound is not capable of carrying meanings unless these sounds are – and they always inevitably are since musicking involves human agency – performed and/or experienced in a socio-cultural context. And second, choices, for the present purposes, are always “choices of” something within our reach.

Associations through musical sounds

I base the first premise on Martin Heidegger’s phenomenology and his notion of “Being-in-the-world”; the idea that we interpret the world around us immediately upon perceiving it. Any abstraction of the perception is an effort to “undo” the already made interpretation in order to “objectively” encounter the world. Heidegger’s example is an object we’ll immediately recognise as a table. Any attempt to perceive this object as e.g. a construction of specific material and particular assemblage requires an active attempt to “forget” that it is a table in order to abstract it. He also discusses “sound objects” to demonstrate his theory:

What we ‘first’ hear is never noises or complexes of sounds, but the creaking wagon, the motor-cycle. We hear the column on the march, the north wind, the woodpecker tapping, the fire crackling… It requires a very artificial and complicated frame of mind to ‘hear’ a ‘pure noise’. (Being and Time 34: 207)

Connotations of musical instruments

This also entails that it’s not so much the physical properties of the sounds of brass and wind instruments as such that raise in us e.g. an image of a pastoral landscape or a military band. Rather, this comes from the historical use of these instruments in western classical music to depict nature and rural life and the military music tradition. And this again recalls the use of horns as a signal for e.g. approaching postman in rural villages or when hunting and the association we still easily make between flutes and shepherds. Or at least it did when Beethoven wrote his 6th symphony.

Then again the sound of the French horn might not bring forth these kinds of associations for you, but perhaps rather remind you of film music as in the theme of Universal Studios or the brass intro of Richard Strauss’ Thus said Zarazusthra in the opening of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 Space Odyssey (see my earlier discussion of this). In yet other words, it depends on your musical background, including where and when you have lived, etc. – i.e. your socio-cultural background.

Probably needless to say that my examples here are drawn from my own cultural environment of Western Europe and should you be e.g. Asian, African, or South American you’d probably have different associations with these sounds; or imagine different sonic representations for e.g. nature and rural life.

Social life of things

The bottom line is that the sound itself is arbitrary. Any association(s) a sound may call forth is a result of the “socio-cultural life” of the given sound. This is akin to what the anthropologist Arjun Appadurai has discussed pertaining to the “social life of things“. Objects are usually made for a more or less specific purpose, and their value depends largely on their scarcity or abundance. As time passes and the world changes, all these factors may change; the original purposes may no longer be relevant, objects may become scarce or more abundant due to changes in methods of production and/or the availability of their raw materials.

All this also applies to music as materials to make certain instruments may become scarce – e.g. big enough trees growing on mountains for making double basses – or instrument-making techniques lost in generations – e.g. the violins of Stradivari for which the secret was long thought to be in the varnish he used.

A romanticized print of Antonio Stradivari examining an instrument
A romanticized print of Antonio Stradivari examining an instrument

As my examples above illustrate, the most significant changes impacting music, however, are socio-cultural. The widely different uses of music create various associations with particular compositions/instruments/genres, etc. These associations may again be quite remote from their origins, and impossible to predict as we continue to – not only consume – but make music in ever new ways. New music is made by recycling old musical ideas, and old music gets new meanings in new contexts.

Political music

Some rather radical political thinkers conceive of nearly all human actions and undertakings as political; even seemingly apolitical enterprise as e.g. popular music without a political message can be viewed as political as it doesn’t challenge, and therefore implicitly accepts, the status quo.

W.E.B Dubois in 1918
W.E.B Dubois in 1918

One such thinker was W.E.B. Du Bois, one of the leading post-Reconstruction black intellectuals in the United States. He wrote for instance that “a black artist is, first of all, a black artist” and was strongly of the opinion that the emerging Black American culture of the late 19th and early 20th centuries needed to reach, and preferably surpass, the mainstream white culture with any measures; an effort in many ways culminating in – albeit by no means concluding with – the Harlem Renaissance. This view was against the “pragmatic” one of Booker T. Washington and his supporters, who thought that blacks should rather keep to “their place” in society.

Du Bois’ life is a rewarding study for anyone interested in the history of racial relations in the United States, as it stretches from right after the Emancipation to just before the declaration of Civil Rights Act.

Celebration of life

But then again, even music not taking any political stance could be said to be political by its very act of celebrating life itself, sometimes against the odds. As I’ve discussed before pertaining to Black music, the social aesthetic of the music centres around the people and their lives, not on the actual music.

There’s a lot more to be said about the topics I’ve touched on here. Anyhow, I’ll stop here for now and come back with some further thoughts soon.

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