Popular music – Part II

All art is propaganda and ever must be, despite the wailing of the purists. – W.E.B DuBois

This is a continuation of my discussion about popular music. I concluded so far that popular music is popular largely due to the machinery of the music industry making it popular. Next, I will broaden the discussion to aesthetics as well as cultural and economic criticism.


If popular music is popular due to being made popular by the music industry, where does it leave it musically? Is there something in the music that makes it popular? The previously discussed tradition and genre matters aside, is it possible to define popular music musically? Are there specific musical characteristics that make particular music popular?

As briefly mentioned before, there is a genre referred to as pop music. As categorisations and identifications often are, pop music is most often defined in terms of what it is not rather than what it is; pop music is not classical music, nor is it folk, or rock music. Pop music is often viewed as inferior on the grounds of authenticity and musical quality. The authenticity argument is quite easy to understand, as by definition something that has a ‘wide appeal’ cannot be very authentic.

Bassist on stage

I have previously discussed jazz as popular music from a cultural perspective. Miles Davis was at the top of the jazz avant-garde for many decades, while his aim at the same time was to reach as many people as possible, i.e. to be popular. From the late 1960s until the end of his career, Davis experimented with elements of popular musics like rock and pop, but he would never compromise on his artistic standards – although opinions vary on this.

In the Western philosophical tradition, aesthetics have always been closely related to form and structure. Theodor Adorno, one of the Western philosophers most invested in music, has described the aesthetic experience of music as follows:

The fully adequate mode of conduct might be called “structural hearing.” Its horizon is a concrete musical logic: the listener understands what he perceives as necessary, although the necessity
is never literally causal. The location of this logic is technique; to one whose ear thinks along with what he hears, its several elements are promptly present as technical, and it is in technical categories
that the context of meaning is essentially revealed. (Introduction to the Sociology of music. 1968: 4)

Adorno was a strong critic of popular music. As a Marxist, he viewed it as a product of a capitalist form of cultural production. Popular music represented the opposite of art and therefore had little aesthetic value, as per the musical logic described above. For Adorno, popular music lacked the structural complexity required for a satisfactory aesthetic experience.

Yet, popular music is popular because many people like it, albeit the appeal being manufactured to some extent. Surely, people have aesthetic experiences when engaging with popular music, even if they don’t listen to it in the analytical manner Adorno described.  As it aims to please as many as possible to be commercially successful, it may borrow from any of the other genres. The orchestral sounds of classical music, the authentic-sounding singing techniques of folk singers, the swing of jazz, the steady beat of rock, and lately the rapping from hip-hop and screaming guitars from heavy metal and so on and so forth, can all be witnessed in popular music.

Already since the 1970s aestheticians have been moving away from analysis as the basis of aesthetic experience, allowing other, embodied, modes of aesthetic experience. Popular music is more likely to be enjoyed by dancing to it, singing, or humming along than by formal analysis of its harmonies or melodies, although that can also reveal insights to those interested and capable (see my previous post on analysis of popular music). Christopher Small coined the term ‘musicking‘ for all kinds of engagement with music.

Capability is here the key term pertaining to the ‘aesthetic emancipation’ of music. When the ability to hear formal relations in music is a prerequisite for acceptable enjoyment of music, it by definition becomes an elitist endeavour. Adorno’s sociology of music, then, falls short as a general aesthetic theory as it ultimately restricts aesthetic experiences to those with the ability to deduce the formal intricacies of music.

Max Horkheimer (left front), Theodor Adorno (right front) en Jürgen Habermas (right in the back) in 1965 in Heidelberg
Max Horkheimer (left front), Theodor Adorno (right front) en Jürgen Habermas (right in the back) in 1965 in Heidelberg

Cultural industry vs aesthetic value

Regardless of the shortcomings of Adorno’s sociology of music and the elitist bias of his critique of the cultural industry, popular music does remain a product of the said industry and this has aesthetic repercussions as well. We gain aesthetic experiences from engaging with aesthetic objects. ‘True art’ in Adorno’s view is a product of an artistic creative process with no other goal than the work of art itself. The cultural industry, however, produces commodities in order to make a profit.

For the music industry, popular music, obviously, has commercial value, but what about the consumers? We could say the music has economic, transactional value at the time of purchasing a record (or paying for streaming, more likely) or a concert ticket. The aesthetic value is derived from the aesthetic experience gained from engaging with the music. For Adorno, engaging with popular music doesn’t differ from consuming any other commodity. But that’s mainly because his ‘musical logic’ allows only one mode of engagement; the ‘structural hearing.’

People do, however, engage with arts in various ways. The value it affords is tied to the social context in which it takes place; a concert of one’s favourite artist attended with friends, a record or song listened, and perhaps danced, to at a party.

Perhaps, then, what Adorno – and many others before and after him – is trying to do is to claim aesthetic value as something objective. By locating it in the work of art and the singular mode of engagement, he claims that this is the route to ‘the truth,’ the one true aesthetic experience. Subjectivity, who is doing the engaging, where or when it happens, plays no role.

Band rehearsal

Art is, however, always ‘consumed’ in a social context. Music can be listened to in a concert, in one’s headphones at home or while on the way somewhere, or danced to at a party or a venue, etc. Not only all these different contexts, but also their accumulation affects the aesthetic experiences and the – subjective – value gained from them.

The cultural industry and mass media, thus, undoubtedly dilute the aesthetic value of the art they produce and distribute through the lack of uniqueness, both in terms of originality or authenticity, as well as availability and access (scarcity versus abundance). But the beauty of art is still to a large extent ‘in the eye of the beholder,’ i.e. the aesthetic value is not solely determined by the mode of production but largely by the agency of the ‘consumer’ within her social context.

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.

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