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Some research:  

A large sample of people was given forty-eight recorded songs to listen to by different artists. The sample was divided into two main groups. Group 1 was a social group. It was allowed to review the songs and have discussion. Group 2 wasn't. Its members listened alone.

The results did not at all surprise me. In Group 2 (no conferring) no one song or artist emerged more preferable than any other. Within Group 1 (conferring) the contrasts were huge.

To further their argument the researchers had divided Group 1 into eight smaller social groups each of which conferred internally but not with the other seven. Within each smaller group, one song emerged as a distinct favourite while another song bombed. The extremes were considerable. No two social groups returned the same best or worst song.

The point reinforced here is that beyond a certain threshold of talent the value of music is determined by factors other than the music itself, often by peer influences. In other words it is determined by context as much as by content. I've been saying this for twenty years: that success in music is due not, as is commonly understood, to some innate quality in the work but more to the complex social, commercial and cultural factors that surround music-making.

Saying this out loud always draws a blank. Why? Probably because it undermines the mythology of music. It's a far more agreeable prospect to believe in the mystical essence of a work, that somehow the creator is tapping into some transcendent wellspring and pouring forth; or that some ontological force is being transmitted by the piece and your well-honed sensor is suitably tuned to appreciate it. The mythos sits better with the emotion felt from music than does the considerably more mundane aspects of the process such as liking something just because others do.

The experiment points to a consensus theory of quality. It implies that good music is simply music that gains sufficient numbers of followers. Ideally it should do so for a long period toward posterity. Then it can be said to be truly good. When you live in the desert like I do due to your radicalism it is always heartening to come across findings that support your radical view.

the value of music is determined by

factors beyond the music itself



music • 02.02.08