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.


Multimediality of Hieronymous Bosch's Garden of Earthly delights

Approaching arts – and human experience in general – from the perspective of multimediality can be fruitful in opening different ways of understanding these experiences. We perceive the world first through our bodily senses and then construct various understandings and experiences of this sensory data through complex cognitive processes. While much of these experiences are non-conceptual I will here discuss mostly the ways in which music is conceptualised by using terminology from other artistic media. I. e we understand – or communicate our understandings of – music using words originally, or more often, used to describe other artistic media or realms of human experience.

Multimediality in music begins with one of the oldest ways of music-making; singing.  Although, as discussed before, singing may actually have preceded language and been a sort of “protolanguage”, singing as we usually think of it includes text, lyrics.

Intermediality and intertextuality

Multimediality cannot really be discussed without also addressing some neighbouring terms. Intertextuality became hip in the academic discussions of arts since at least in 1980s. It’s a helpful tool in analysing and understanding the ways in which meanings are created in multifaceted ways by various techniques such as quotation or some sort of reference. As discussed before, these techniques have been central to black American music-making since the times of slavery to the contemporary hip-hop.

Intertextuality tends to fall short when applied to performing arts. While there are certain benefits in reducing everything to “texts”, two dimensional layers of meaning, this comes with a cost when studying music as a performative phenomenon, e.g. through Christopher Small’s “musicking”. Multimedality is a more helpful concept in helping us study and understand how different artistic media are used, and can be used, to reflect and create rich human experiences by drawing from the tools and strengths of the different media in our disposal.

Multimediality in music

Multimediality in music is an old idea as music has always been a part of some “extramusical” performance or context such as a ritual. In fact “pure” music is one of those 19th century Romantic ideas still to some extent holding our experience of music captive. But more about that another time.

The gesamtkunstwerk of Richard Wagner‘s opera remain perhaps the most iconic examples of effort to bring all the art forms together. Whereas Wagner’s operatic works might stand as the ultimate artistic expression of modernity, the 21st century post-modern artists produce more fragmented works.

Whereas black American music has got from the cotton fields to White House (see below), western Classical music is now performed by native orchestras and singers all over the world – here also conducted by a woman, something which in Wagner’s time was quite unthinkable. Multimediality here includes also video projections and TV production.

Earlier I discussed how Jacob Collier presents his multifaceted talent in his YouTube videos and how Janelle Monáe implies multiple – or perhaps fragmented – identities in her performances of the song Tightrope with means of music production, the “music itself” (e.g. melody, harmony, groove), lyrics, video, live performance, etc. The Dutch group Tin Men and the Telephone is also a very interesting example of musical art that draws from multiple media in a very interactive way on and off stage.

Janelle Monáe’s performance in the White House by Barak Obama’s invitation has various multimedial layers. As discussed earlier, her performance style is rich in references to other black American artists, perhaps most notably in the James Brown steps in her dance moves. In this performance the “Funkiest horn section of Metropolis” becomes that of White House, opening up a myriad of interpretations.

Here’s Jacob Collier embracing the social medium of music making in a contemporary digital manner enabling music-making together across temporal and spacial boundaries.

Tin Men and the Telephone do various things with different media from “musicalising” recorded speech and other sounds to typing with the piano keyboard and collaboration with their audience through a special app.

Music in literature – Toni Morrison’s Jazz

One interesting form of multimediality is that of music in literature; the use of description of music in literature and use of musical techniques in writing. Describing music in words requires quite an effort from the writer and reader alike to convey and share an artistic experience across the media. To describe art of one medium with the means of another requires sharing cultural understanding on a deep level and the ability to imagine, in this case, music described with words.

One interesting form of multimediality is that of music in literature; the use of description of music in literature and use of musical techniques in writing. Describing music in words requires quite an effort from the writer and reader alike to convey and share an artistic experience Jazz by Toni Morrison, 1st edition cover across the media. To describe art of one medium with the means of another requires sharing cultural understanding on a deep level and the ability to imagine, in this case, music described with words.

When I first tried to read Toni Morrison’s Jazz, in the age of around 15 or so, I expected it to be “about jazz”. I didn’t understand much about it and quickly gave up.

Source: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Jazz-Toni-Morrison/dp/0679411674?SubscriptionId=AKIAILSHYYTFIVPWUY6Q&tag=duckduckgo-ffsb-uk-21&linkCode=xm2&camp=2025&creative=165953&creativeASIN=0679411674
Jazz by Toni Morrison, 1st edition cover

Recently I picked up the book again and was better able to appreciate the ways in which Morrison took jazz as a metaphor and method and used its compositional and performative techniques to tell the story of her book.

Source: https://www.abebooks.co.uk/servlet/BookDetailsPL?bi=15926347144
Amiri Baraka’s Blues People elaborates on the idea of music as the history of black Americans.

Like a jazz performance the book has a main theme, a story it wants to tell. However, the main characters are also given “solo spots” to elaborate on their personal stories giving depth to the main story and enabling the reader to approach – perhaps even experience – the story from the individual perspectives of the characters; much like in jazz performance the “tune” is approached differently by each of the soloists.

Jazz in Morrison’s book is also a metaphor for the black American struggle and experience. As briefly discussed before, jazz has come a long way from an unappreciated folk music symbolising the worst of human kind – even among some black Americans – to be heralded as the “American Classical music”. Whereas Amiri Baraka in his Blues People elaborated on the idea of “music as the history of black Americans”, Morrison gives the bones of this history the flesh of her characters.

At the time I’m typing this the first black American president has just stepped aside to make space for yet another white male, one whose rhetoric and first deeds clearly show how the struggle for human rights is far from over. Morrison’s story takes place in a period prior to the Civil Rights era when many – as some of the characters in the book – still had vivid personal memories of the Jim Crow treatment of blacks.

Music and visual arts

The painting on top of this article is the Garden of Earthly Pleasures by Hieronymus Bosch from 1500.  As sound is difficult to picture music in visual arts is mainly pictured through instruments and musical acts such as dancing and singing. Bosch’s painting is a classic one portraying music as a sinful – or at least not respectable – activity through placing some instruments of the time together with people busy with Earthly orgies.

The pianist Bill Evans wrote liner notes for the 1959 Miles Davis quintet album Kind of Blue, I’ve also discussed earlier. In his text Evans makes an analogy between the Japanese calligraphy shodō and jazz improvisation. He stresses the temporal nature of both media; just as the stroke of a brush leaves its mark on the paper and cannot be undone or altered, a musical sound cannot be taken back. Further challenge in jazz improvisation is the group setting in which it most often happens; there are in fact many “brushes” making strokes simultaneously to the “canvas” of temporal framework set, in this case, by Miles Davis.

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