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.

Mehmet Polat – Musical Journeys and existing through music

Treme Sidewalk Steppers 2ndline February 6th 2011

I feel like I have to start this post with a disclaimer as there’s been a much longer pause in publishing activity here than usual – not that I’ve ever been extremely active. Most of my free time in the last couple of years has gone into a project I will certainly come back to here as well. Most of this article was written nearly half a year ago after the concert I discuss here. At the time of writing these words, I’ve sat in Corona self-quarantine for two weeks. Luckily I don’t have any health issues but it has thrown me off my – already delicate – routines.

The present pandemic also puts the below article in a different perspective. In this time of severe travel and movement restrictions, music and other arts can offer us precious means of ‘travelling’ to distant places and experience cultures and people from far without risking contagion. We  could call this ‘virtual’ – see my previous discussions of virtuality – but at the present moment that might be as real as it gets. The other topic of this article, ‘existing through music’ or ‘musical being in the world’ can also be helpful during this time of crisis. As we practice social distancing – even isolation –  the social aspect of engaging in musical activities, whether listening, making, learning, teaching music (the latter two most likely online) or something else, becomes more apparent. Many are already habitually using music to regulate their emotional states and help them e.g. ‘be sad in a certain way’. During this period music can help us remain connected to the world outside, to ‘musically be in the world’.

I’ll elaborate on the above thoughts later, but now a glimpse of the pre-Corona world in the hope that the post-Corona world still allows us experience and appreciate musical journeys and experiences in real social environments.

Bassist on stage

Recently I had the pleasure of hearing the internationally acclaimed Oud player Mehmet Polat with his new band Embracing Colours in Bimhuis, Amsterdam.

Music – like all art forms – is very personal to its creators, even if artists are not always very explicit about it as they might want to leave it for the listeners/viewers to find their own meanings and references in art. Polat, however, was rather explicit about the personal dimensions of his music and that’s what I’d like to discuss here.

Musical ontology

Polat’s introductions to his compositions were mostly quite personal and even biographical. At some point he mentioned that he ‘exist[s] through music’. This is an interesting philosophical statement that I won’t get into any deeper here but refer you to my earlier discussions regarding Martin Heidegger’s phenomenology and musical ontology in Hindu philosophy. In his discussion of music as identity the musicologist Simon Frith speaks of ‘musical-being-in-the-world’. Although he doesn’t cite Heidegger, I think his view is a musical application of Heidegger’s ‘being-in-the-world’. According to Hindu philosophy the universe consists of sound, which is perhaps slightly more literal ‘existence through music’ than Polat had in mind 😉

Polat is by no means the only musician to think in these terms. Below is a talk with the jazz guitarist Pat Metheny who (from 26’20”) talks at lenght of ‘way of being as a musician’.

Musical journeys

During the evening Polat frequently reflected on translating his life experiences into music. For the present discussion I’d like to draw a comparison with another Oud player Dhafer Youssef, although not in any normative sense as they’re both unquestionably masters of their instruments as well as resourceful composers and skilful band leaders. Both musicians started their musical journeys by immersing into their native musical traditions and later encountering and exploring other traditions resulting in intriguing combinations.

Polat has not only innovated on the instrumental technique as well as the construction of his instrument to serve his artistic needs; he also has a unique talent for working with musical materials of other cultures and have a musical dialogue with them. In such dialogues, he – together with the other musicians – explores these musical materials from his own background and roots in the Anatolian folk and Ottoman classical music.

Cross-cultural instrumentation

The Embracing Colours project is a jazz band with drums, double bass and accordion. Polat is of course not the first one to play the Oud with a jazz rhythm section. The best known today is probably the Tunisian Dhafer Youssef who has for a long time had a similar group but with piano instead of accordion. The choice of instrumentation has quite significant repercussions to the musical possibilities available for the groups. While Arab music – like most musics of the world – has repertoire that can be played on Western instruments, it does entail sacrificing some of the tonal richness of the musical culture. The micro-tonal maqamat are difficult to perform on instrumentation with fixed intonation. Youssef’s choice is to avoid the micro-tonal maqamat, whereas Polat has cleverly arranged his music so that the accordion doesn’t clash with the micro-tones he plays on the Oud. The Mozaiek Ensemble I have discussed previously also managed to arrange their music to combine piano and micro-tonal maqama.

Cultural encounters

Cultural encounters always require negotiations on various levels to reach mutual understanding – or harmony, which in this context is not a musical term. Musicians are often inspired by each others’ music and musical cultures. Depending on their aspirations and understanding of the musical cultures they’re involved with the results may vary from mere exotic flavour borrowed – or stolen, a.k.a cultural appropriation – from another culture to exciting mixes of and dialogues between different musical cultures.

No music no life

I’ve earlier briefly discussed how The Beatles – especially George Harrison – were inspired and influenced by Indian music. Even earlier the usual Western response to music from other parts of the world was to view them as primitive (see also my earlier discussion of primitivism in early jazz criticism). The first attempts of the British colonialists to engage with Indian music was to harmonize it as they viewed it as lacking this musical dimension – central to much Western music, but much less so in many other musics of the world. Power relations in cultural encounters may result in cultural appropriation. In music, this risk is greatest with agents in prominent positions in the music industry.

Polat’s and Youssef’s different approaches to music-making and their own musical roots speak volumes of their respective musical journeys. While Polat has immersed himself and draws from the musical heritage of his home region and other cultures in the region, Youssef had his formative musical experiences at a young age in his native Tunisia but paid his musical dues in the jazz scene of Vienna.

It would be too simplistic to try to draw any straight correlations between Polat’s and Youssef’s backgrounds and their musical expressions. It is, however, interesting to observe the musical journeys of these artists.

Specifically, my interest here is the relation Polat’s and Youssef’s musics have to jazz as some of their music is characterized as jazz or jazz-influenced. I have earlier discussed jazz as Black music. However, jazz has ‘gone global’ already a long time ago and there are various local jazz traditions and different kinds of fusions and hybrids with other musical cultures.

While Polat’s and Youssef’s musics don’t use musical elements of jazz in terms of melodic materials (blues) or the characteristic triple based swing of jazz as already mentioned, they opt using the rhythm section of jazz. While bass and drum set are nowadays common across genres, it’s good to keep in mind in this context that this form of ensemble playing started in the Storyville district of New Orleans in the early days of jazz at the turn of the 20th century. Jazz musicians at those times adopted their repertoire to the audiences they played for. This legacy lives on with contemporary jazz musicians who are typically rather versatile stylistically, even if they specialize on, or prefer, playing in certain styles or (sub)genres. Polat’s and Youssef’s ensembles consist of these kinds of musicians brought together for the specific projects that mark the musical journeys of these artists.

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