Participatory music culture: the challenges for identity, creativity and recognition #crassh3c (Mark Thorley)


Crowdfunding (image source)

Mark Thorley (Conventry University): Participatory music culture: the challenges for identity, creativity and recognition
The advent of recording technology served to break down the link between musician and audience (Eisenberg 2005), and the music participant became the music consumer. Emerging digital technologies are now reversing this trend and music participation is all the more possible. Though the environment for recorded music continues to experience significant threat, the environment for music participation now thrives in ways not previously imaginable.
Much of this new participation is enabled technologically, and its likely impact has received attention. For example, the concept of the ‘Prosumer’ was originally established by Toffler (1980) and participation culture has been examined by Jenkins (2006). Additionally, the potential of networks is considered by Benkler (2006), and the concept of peer-production by Tapscott and Williams (2006). As the opportunities for the music creative expand, and the role of the music consumer shifts to participant, key questions emerge as to how this change challenges established roles.
Drawing on concepts outlined in a chapter in ‘Music and Virtuality’ published by Oxford University Press, this paper focuses on key impacts on the Producer and Fan. For example, in adopting Crowdfunding, how does the shift challenge the music producer? For the fan, what does engaging with the funding of projects do for their identity and recognition within the process?

The Value of Performance in Law: Performers’ Rights and Creativity (Ananay Aguilar) #crassh3c

The Bluebells – co-writers with Bobby Valentino, say the courts

Ananay Aguilar (University of Cambridge): The Value of Performance in Law: Performers’ Rights and Creativity
British copyright law has been criticised for privileging musical elements and practices that have been important in the conceptualisation of classical music, above those which have developed independently of that tradition. This conceptualisation has been associated with classical music’s aesthetic concept of the artwork: both law and the artwork treat composition as the culmination of creative genius, while performance is attributed little or no creative status. This asymmetry is further complicated by the domination of capital over labour in the protection of sound recordings, as copyright law vests authorship in the company that bears the costs of making and issuing the recording: performers are denied authorship over the record of their own performance. While the 1988 Copyright, Designs, and Patents Act introduced rights in performance, the depth and breadth of legal protection for performance-based musical practices, like most popular musics, remain limited. To overcome this asymmetry, commentators have focussed on how the concept of authorship might be extended to embrace collaborative practices that fall outside of the practices of classical music. My current project explores an alternative approach that places performers’ rights at the centre of the discussion. In this presentation I will attend to relevant case law to outline two main issues: firstly, the separation of creativity between composition and performance implied by these rights and, secondly, their relation to recent technological developments.

De-naturalizing Musical Authorship (Lionel Bently) #crasshc3 #copyright

Steve Norman, the Spandau Ballet sax player

Lionel Bently (University of Cambridge): De-naturalizing Musical Authorship
Determinations of who counts as an ‘author’ of a musical work has a number of legal consequences.  Most obviously, it governs who  count as the first owners of copyright, and thus who benefits from revenue streams associated with publishing/ recording (mechanicals) and performance (including broadcasting and streaming).  Secondly, it is relevant to the duration of copyright – the term of copyright in music and lyrics being calculated by reference (i.e. currently seventy years after) the death of the author (or in the case of co-authorship the last author to die). Third, being an author entitles a person to be named as such when a work is published or recordings are distributed: authors are granted what is known as the ‘moral right’ of attribution.
Copyright law has tended to assume that the legal concept of authorship maps onto a natural, flesh-and-blood, human beings. It thus is typically taken for granted that identifying who is an author for one purpose (say, ownership) necessarily operates to identify the author for other purposes (term, attribution).  In so doing, the dominant arena for determining authorship concerns ownership. Here the rules have developed rather restrictively, so as to exclude from the category of authors a perhaps surprising range of contributions (as seen most clearly in the Spandau Ballet case, Hadley v Kemp). But the effect of such an approach is not just to exclude contributors from counting as owners, but also from being entitled to attribution.
Certainly, one can see the logic in assuming that the word ‘author’ means the same thing in different parts of a statute, and indeed the convenience in so doing. However, if we consider the legal task of ascribing authorship as informed by matters of policy, the assumed unity or integrity of ‘authorship’ in copyright seems problematic.  The policy considerations that underpin restricting who counts as an author in the three domains – ownership, term and attribution – are very different. By exploring these policies in more detail, I want to suggest that copyright law could respond more flexibly to a diverse range of creative practices if it recognised that the legal concept of authorship is not ‘natural’. One consequence of so doing might at least to be to afford rights of attribution to a wider array of contributors than are currently accommodated by the moral right of attribution.

The EU’s Trouble with Mashups – From Disabling to Enabling a Digital Art Form #crassh3c

Bernd Justin Jütte (University of Luxemboug): The EU’s Trouble with Mashups -­‐ From Disabling to Enabling a Digital Art Form
New tools for editing of digital images, music and films have opened up new possibilities to enable wider circles of society to engage in ’artistic’ activities of different qualities. User generated content (UGC), a term that already transmits a notion of amateur artists, has produced a plethora of new forms of artistic expression. One type of UGC are mashups, which are compositions that combine existing works (often) protected by copyright, and transform them into new original creations.
The European legislative framework has not yet reacted to the copyright problems provoked by mashups. Whereas the flexible US fair use doctrine has ac-­‐ commodated mashups rather easily, the strict corset of limitations and exceptions in Art 5 (2)-­‐(3) of the InfoSoc Directive does not leave any, or only very little, room for this innovative and widely popular form of artistic expression for commercial or non-­commercial purposes. The paper analyzes the current European legal framework and identifies its insufficiencies with regard to enabling a legal mashup culture. By comparison with the US approach, an attempt is made to suggest solutions for the European legislator, based on the policy proposals of the EU Commission’s “Digital Agenda” and more recent policy documents (e.g. “On Content in the Digital Market”, “Licenses for Europe”). In this context a dis-­‐ tinction is made between non-­‐commercial mashup artists and the emerging commercial mashup scene.

Digitisation and the Politics of Copying in Popular Music Culture #crassh3c



Keith Negus / John Street / Adam Behr: Digitisation and the Politics of Copying in Popular Music Culture
Musicians are at the forefront of discussions around revenue loss in the music industry, yet often neglected in existing studies which usually focus on corporate perspectives or audience activities. Drawing on extensive interviews with musicians operating in different genres – and at different points in their careers – within the broad field of popular music this paper presents initial observations from an investigation of how the notion of ‘original’ ideas and rights of access (and hence copyright) are negotiated by practicing musicians. How do they regard duplicating without permission in order to circulate free copies or bootlegs? How do they see the practice of appropriating, reusing, sampling and imitating? How does this relate to the existing legal and policy framework?

Pharrell vs Franz Ferdinand – plagiarism or coincidence?

Here’s the new Paloma Faith single, ‘Can’t Rely On You’. It has been suggested that it may be similar to Franz Ferdinand’s 2004 single ‘Take Me Out’.

In January this year Alex Kapranos tweeted “Hey @Pharrell – I love your tunes. If you want to borrow a riff, just ask…”

Let’s take a look at the notes.

Riff - Take Me Out
‘Take Me Out’ – the main riff in the original key of E minor.
Riff - Pharrell
‘Can’t Rely On You’ in its original key of B minor.
Here’s the ‘Can’t Rely On You’ riff transposed into the same key as ‘Take Me Out’ for easier/fairer comparison.
Both riffs aligned note for note. The transcription of 'Can't Rely On You' has been transposed into the key of E minor for easier comparison.
Both riffs aligned note for note. The transcription of ‘Can’t Rely On You’ has been transposed into the key of E minor for easier comparison.

They look and sound similar – but does this mean that Pharrell has copied Kapranos’s riff? Let’s look at the objective facts.

  • Take Me Out is seven note events (G E E D B D E). These appear on the 3rd, 5th, 7th, 8th, 9th, 11th and 13th semiquavers of the bar of 4/4.
  • Can’t Rely On You uses all of the same pitches and all but one of the rhythmic placements (the second ‘D’ is played one semiquaver earlier).
  • Can’t Rely On You adds three extra notes (E, E and D, on the 11th, 15th and 16th semiquavers of the bar).
  • Both riffs occur in the same harmonic context – that is, over the home minor key ‘i’ chord.


They are both simple minor pentatonic riffs, so anyone composing this ‘type’ of riff would be using the same 5-note palette from which to choose pitches.

But the similarity is certainly striking. Can’t Rely On You copies some very specific and arguably (in combination) unusual characteristics of the ‘Take Me Out’ riff, including starting on beat 2 on the minor third, identical pitches for the first seven notes, a distinctive rhythmic pattern (a rest, 2 quavers, 2 semiquavers, after which there is a slight rhythmic deviation). And ‘Take Me Out’ is a very well-known song so it is extremely unlikely that Pharrell/Faith did not recognise the similarity.

So is it possible that two composers could have made the same note choices independently of each other?

An independent research study in (Frieler and Riedemann, 2011) suggested that independent creation in popular music is possible, and found under experimental conditions an example of two arguably similar melodies. I was unconvinced by their conclusions – the full research paper notated the melodies that were composed by the study’s participants, and there were similarities but also a number of differences, which would have served to make the melodies appear noticeably dissimilar – more dissimilar than most examples found in US and UK melodic plagiarism case law. Certainly their study did not show any similarities of the specificity that appears in the Pharrell/Kapranos example.

This is a difficult one to argue either way, because the riff is so short and because there are slight dissimilarities. My view is that copying has taken place – there are just too many coincidences (literally – that is, notes that coincide). Kapranos has decided to let it lie anyway. It might be possible to put this one down to cryptomnesia.

Did Robin Thicke steal ‘Blurred Lines’ from Marvin Gaye?

[edit: update 12 March 2015]

The case has now been resolved, and the jury found in the Gayes’ favour, despite the copying not being exact and the musical elements dissimilar, as my original February 2014 post (below) argues. In an interview with the Hollywood Reporter, Richard Busch, the Gaye family lawyer, describes how the Thicke side’s hubris and inconsistency contributed to the jury verdict going against them – but insists that the case was successful because of the characteristics of the music itself. For those who have said that this sets a dangerous precedent for creators (including me – see this MTV news interview), this may be so in terms of discouraging musical homage in arrangements. But in (US) legal terms, a jury ruling is different from a court ruling, so each case is judged on its merits and on the specific evidence presented. Therefore this settlement does not represent ‘case law’ (as attorney Brian D Caplan points out in the same MTV feature) but it has certainly made some creators rather uncertain about their future songwriting and producing practices… [JB]

[original post from February 2014 follows]

Earworms (interview on BBC Radio 4)

I appeared on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme this morning, talking with Elizabeth Hellmuth Margulis about her book ‘On Repeat: How Music Plays The Mind’ (Amazon link).

BBC Listen Again link.


It was an interesting discussion, and I thoroughly recommend the book for those who are interested in the psychology of music. Elizabeth’s own lab experiments are fascinating, particularly her rather mischievous (but successful!) attempt to ‘improve’ the music of Luciano Berio and Elliott Carter.

Top 10 songs of 2013 – analysis

Daft Punk, getting lucky with a great chord loop – Bm, D, F#m and E.

In my recent research I’ve become increasingly interested in the way mainstream songs behave like a Darwinist ecosystem (this is the book chapter where I set out these ideas in more detail). The theory goes that successful characteristics of songs self-propagate because hits influence songwriters to do more of the same – although this may eventually lead some songwriters to challenge what become mainstream norms. So it can be interesting to analyse the most successful ‘organisms’ in the environment to see which musical, structural and lyric characteristics are evident.

Early in 2013 I looked back at the top 10 airplayed songs of 2012 (see Take Me Down Like I’m a Four-chord Loop) and found a number of musically similar characteristics, notably a prevalence of four-chord loops and surprising lack of variation of tempo – half of the songs had a tempo of 128 beats per minute.

Understanding Collaborative Songwriting

“You Won’t See Me” – In Search Of An Epistemology Of Collaborative Songwriting

This research paper was published in the Journal on the Art of Record Production issue #8 – proceedings of the 8th Art of Record Production conference, Université Laval, Quebec (2013).  Full version

Université Laval, Quebec

This paper proposes an observational methodology by which we may gain deeper understanding of the creative processes used by collaborative songwriters. Almost every aspect of popular music production and consumption has been discussed and analysed in scholarly work, but the creation of the song itself has rarely been subject to scrutiny. This is perhaps due to the fact that very little of the songwriting process can reliably be inferred by listening to an audio track or reading a score. Therefore, two methods are proposed in combination – interview-based and participatory auto-ethnographic observation. In both cases the songwriters themselves generate the qualitative data. The aim is to construct a framework that researchers may use to provide answers to the question “how shall we know the mind of the songwriter?” The methods proposed here have been tested with more than 20 professional songwriters between 2009 and 2013, and a selection of these observed co-writes will be published as case studies in 2014.


Download full text (pdf)

Accidental plagiarism in songwriting

This article originally appeared in Total Guitar magazine issue 229. Reproduced by permission. Words: Joe Bennett. Illustration: Andy Watt. Click the image to download a pdf.



It’s a common feeling. You write a line and it immediately sounds just right. Timeless. Familiar. Almost… too familiar. You play the finished song to your mates and someone notices – you’ve copied someone else’s track. Gutted, you delete that great-sounding line and spend hours trying to write something that sounds as good.

This sort of accidental copying happens to every songwriter from time to time. Most of us just exhale sadly and hope wait for inspiration to flow again, following the tracks of our tears. But some take the darker path, keeping the copied section and hoping that no-one will notice. Leading us to the inevitable question: how much of someone else’s song can actually be copied?

The answer, frustratingly, is ‘none at all’. Contrary to popular myth, there is no maximum number of notes you can copy ‘legally’. If your song sounds recognisably like part of another song, and the other side can demonstrate in court that copying has occurred, you could end up owing someone a lot of money, or even lose ownership of your own work.

Every Breath ‘We’ Take – more plagiarism fun

Here’s a fun bit of arguable plagiarism from Sting.

Every Breath I Take (Gene Pitney) – excerpt from [0:58]
Only with every little breath I take
Only with every little step I make
Only with every little beat of my heart
And every single minute I’m awake

Here’s the Gene Pitney original from 1961, which was written by Gerry Goffin and Carole King and produced by Phil Spector, charting at #42 in the UK. Listen from [0:58].

RMA Study day session 2 – Laudan Nooshin, Joe Bennett, Nikki Moran

(Chair: Ruth Herbert, University of Oxford)

Laudan Nooshin (City University London)

Between a rock and a hard place: discourse, practice and the unbearable lightness of analysis. Methodological challenges in studying creative process in Iranian (classical) music

Since the late 1980s, an important strand of my research has sought to understand the underlying creative processes of Iranian classical music, a tradition where the performer plays a central creative role and which is therefore often described as ‘improvised’, both in the literature and – since the mid-20th century and drawing on concepts initially adopted from European music – by musicians themselves. Methodologically, perhaps the greatest challenge is tracing the relationships between musicians’ verbal discourses – usually taken by ethnomusicologists as evidence of cognitive processes – and what happens in practice. Of course, the relationship is a complex one and the dual ethnomusicological methods of (a) ethnography and (b) transcription and analysis don’t always tell the same story. In the case of my work, there was a disjuncture between musicians’ discourse of creative freedom, albeit underpinned by the central memorised repertoireknown as radif, and the analytical evidence which showed the music to be highly structured around a series of what could be termed ‘compositional procedures’, but which are not explicitly discussed by musicians.

Documenting Collaborative Songwriting

Today I’m at the Royal Musical Association study day at the University of Oxford, presenting a paper about the methodological challenges of observing and analysing collaborative songwriters’ creativity. For the convenience of those who are there today I’ve pasted the references at the bottom of this post. An academic paper with more detail will be published soon in the Journal on the Art of Record Production (Issue 8, December 2013).


Documenting collaborative songwriters’ creativity using Linear Event Analysis

It is a little-known fact that almost half of the hit songs in the USA of the last 60 years were written by collaborative teams[1]. Songs acquire immense cultural and economic value, and good songwriters are celebrated in the music industry, but collaborative songwriting practices remain largely unexplored by popular musicology or cognitive psychology. Psychologist John Sloboda[2] identified the methodological challenges in understanding the creative mind of a composer, and concluded that the best way of acquiring evidence of compositional decision-making was real-time reporting of composing as it occurs. Such ‘verbal protocol analysis’ into composers’ creativity has been attempted by a small number of researchers (e.g. Collins[3]) but such methods are necessarily interventionist and therefore risk subjecting the composer to the observation effect. Collaborative songwriting is immanently communicative, so some of the methodology problems identified by Sloboda can be solved through ‘linear event analysis’ – i.e. audio recordings of the songwriting process. This evidence base can be triangulated with computer-assisted generation of iterative documentation such as ‘track changes’ lyric edits and ‘save as’ audio files. These evidence bases can then be compared with the finished product – the song itself – and tentative conclusions about authorial intent and processes can be drawn. In this paper the author will describe his emergent research into observation methodologies for popular songwriting, and outline the techniques and systems he has used to try to answer the question ‘what do collaborative songwriters do’ in a musically meaningful way.

Keywords: songwriting, popular musicology, music psychology, creativity studies.

[1] T. F Pettijohn II and S. F Ahmed, “Songwriting Loafing or Creative Collaboration?: A Comparison of Individual and Team Written Billboard Hits in the USA,” Journal of Articles in Support of the Null Hypothesis 7, no. 1 (2010): 2.
[2] John Sloboda, The Musical Mind : the Cognitive Psychology of Music (Oxford University Press, 1985).
[3] David Collins, “Real-time Tracking of the Creative Music Composition Process,” Digital Creativity 18, no. 4 (December 2007): 239–256, doi:10.1080/14626260701743234.


  • Bamberger, J., 2003. The Development of Intuitive Musical Understanding: A Natural Experiment. Psychology of Music, 31(1), pp.7–36.
  • Barnes, A., 2006. James Blunt goes to war with his mentor over royalties. The Independent on Sunday. Available at:
  • Bennett, Joe. Collaborative Songwriting – the Ontology of Negotiated Creativity in Popular Music Studio Practice. In Journal of the Art of Record Production, 2011.  Available from
  • Bently, L., 2009. Authorship of Popular Music in UK Copyright Law. Information, Communication & Society, 12(2), pp.179–204.
  • Bugg, J., 2012. Jake Bugg interview: “I’ve achieved what I wanted to’ – Telegraph. Available at:
  • Cantor, J.S., 2006. Fearless Innovation–Songwriting for Our Lives: Inspiring Learners with Arts-Based Practices that Support Creativity. Multicultural Education, 14(2), pp.57–64.
  • Collins, D., 2007. Real-time tracking of the creative music composition process. Digital Creativity, 18(4), pp.239–256.
  • Demers, J., 2006. Steal This Music – how intellectual property law affects musical creativity. University of Georgia Press.
  • Hayden, S. & Windsor, L., 2007. Collaboration and the composer: case studies from the end of the 20th century. Tempo, 61(240), p.28.
  • Hewson, J., 2009. Songbook: James Blunt. Available at:
  • McIntyre, P., 2001. The Domain of Songwriters: Towards defining the term “Song.” Perfect Beat: The Pacific Journal of Research into Contemporary Music and Popular Culture, 5(3), pp.100–111.
  • Moore, A.F., 2012. Song means : analysing and interpreting recorded popular song. Ashgate.
  • Padgett, A., 2008. Rhetoric of Predictability: Reclaiming the Lay Ear in Music Copyright Infringement Litigation, The. Pierce L. Rev., 7, p.125.
  • Sloboda, J., 1985. The musical mind : the cognitive psychology of music, OUP.
  • Smart, G., 2007. Now Blunt goes back to war. The Sun. Available at:
  • Zollo, P., 1997. Songwriters on songwriting, Da Capo Press.

AABA song form songwriting lecture

This post is mainly for the Masters in Songwriting students I’m working with today at our Corsham Court Songwriters’ Centre, but might be of interest to songwriters generally (or to anyone considering applying for the course).

These are musical examples we’ll be discussing in the lecture/seminar. I’ve embedded the audio as YouTube clips for convenience.

Some further reading – John Covach on song form.

Allan Moore Song Means (Amazon link) – also in the BSU library and as a downloadable ebook.


What a beautiful combination


Quick quiz.

What do the following songs have in common?

The Beatles – You Never Give Me Your Money
Erasure – I Love To Hate You
Frank Sinatra (and others) – Fly Me To The Moon
Gloria Gaynor – I Will Survive
Train – 50 Way To Say Goodbye
Cat Stevens – Wild World

Type your comments here, or via Twitter/Facebook.

Will You Still Love [This Song] Tomorrow?

Last week I posted a research survey on this site to investigate the way listeners infer meaning from song arrangements. Thanks to all of the Facebook, blog and Twitter contacts who responded. Some of the respondents have asked me to publish the results, so here they are. The text below is part of a forthcoming research publication which should be available sometime in 2014.

Carole King in the studio


Song, Performance and Track – a listening experiment

Joe Bennett, 26 Sept 2013

It is self-evident, or perhaps a tautology, that an audio recording of a song carries cultural meaning for the listener, but to what extent does the listener infer meaning (from the track) that was not created by the songwriter? To borrow from Allan Moore’s terminology, to what extent is the track one of the ‘means by which songs can mean’[1]? To provide an objective/measurable example of the way ‘performance’ can create listener inferences I devised the following simple listening experiment, conducted using an online poll.[2] Participants were asked to select randomly one of two unidentified recordings ‘Song A’ and ‘Song B’ and listen to only one of them. ‘Song A’ was Carole King’s 1970 recording of the Goffin/King composition Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow? ‘Song B’ was the Shirelles’ recording of the same song from 1960. Importantly, both recordings share the same melody and lyric as each other, with near-identical harmony, but are performed in different styles (‘singer-songwriter’ and ‘1960s girl band’ respectively) and at different tempi. Listeners were asked to speculate about inferred/imagined events – that is, to provide information about the characters and story that is not provided in the lyric.

Songwriting survey – your ears needed!

PianoI’m currently undertaking some research into inferences in song – the story, characters and images that listeners imagine when they hear a recording or performance. At the moment I’m collecting data about two well-known recordings (take the survey – you’ll find out what they are at the end) and I’m trying to get as many responses as possible. The survey will take around 5 minutes (including the time it takes to listen to the song!) and there are 8 questions.

So please forward this link to everyone you know – and don’t forget to take the survey yourself.

Take the survey

32 bar standards – Adorno was (almost) right

I’m currently working on materials for a lecture about AABA song form for the Masters degree in songwriting. It’s a lecture I give every year and it starts from an historical perspective – contextualising AABA as the most common song form during first half of the 20th century. The 32-bar ‘standard’ is a remarkable formula – it was the dominant form of popular music (in the USA and UK) for around 50 years, and it follows some very simple rules – each section is 8 bars long, and form is verse-verse-bridge-verse . (Sometimes the ‘song’ is referred to as a ‘chorus’ because of an extended – usually slower – intro leading into it). In a standard, the title usually appears at the start or end of each verse, and almost never in the bridge. Verse 1 introduces the lyric idea; verse 2 develops its narrative; the bridge comments on the theme from a different viewpoint; the final verse summarises the narrator’s view or otherwise concludes the narrative.

Just An Echo
Here’s an example of a 32 bar standard. I’ve chosen ‘Just An Echo’ (Harry M Woods, 1932) because it’s less well known than the usual examples (Somewhere Over The Rainbow, As Time Goes By etc), and it illustrates the form really well.

For an overview of AABA form see my 2011 article from Total Guitar magazine.

Writing in 1941, the musicologist and sociologist Theodor Adorno described the ‘standardisation’ of popular music and deconstructed the 32 bar standard – which was, at the time, the song form used by almost every contemporary hit. Adorno held some rather extreme views about popular music, and it’s a fairly common sport among contemporary popular musicology to attack his arguments as prejudiced and elitist (although some have attempted a more nuanced approach). But here’s the thing – Adorno’s analysis is musically accurate.

Standardization extends from the most general features to the most specific ones. Best known is the rule that the chorus consists of thirty two bars and that the range is limited to one octave and one note. The general types of hits are also standardized: not only the dance types, the rigidity of whose pattern is understood, but also the “characters” such as mother songs, home songs, nonsense or “novelty” songs, pseudo-nursery rhymes, laments for a lost girl. Most important of all, the harmonic cornerstones of each hit — the beginning and the end of each part — must beat out the standard scheme. (Adorno, 1941).

Where Adorno’s argument falls down is in his inferences; he assumes that because a popular song’s content may be partly predictable for the listener, this is a reason to contrast it with ‘serious’ music where listener expectations may be more challenged. Actually, he argues that  popular music’s ‘standardisation’ is not to be characterised by comparative simplicity. It’s hard to disagree with the following quotation on musical grounds;

The difference between the spheres cannot be adequately expressed in terms of complexity and simplicity. All works of the earlier Viennese classicism are, without exception, rhythmically simpler than stock arrangements of jazz. Melodically, the wide intervals of a good many hits such as “Deep Purple” or “Sunrise Serenade” are more difficult to follow per se than most melodies of, for example, Haydn, which consist mainly of circumscriptions of tonic triads and second steps. Harmonically, the supply of chords of the so-called classics is invariably more limited than that of any current Tin Pan Alley composer who draws from Debussy, Ravel, and even later sources. (Ibid).

Adorno had done his research about popular music, and it is inaccurate to say that he criticises it for its structural simplicity. The problem with his critique is that he wasn’t habituated in songs as a listener – or rather, [I infer that] he didn’t seem to derive personal emotional impact from them. Speaking personally, as a pop music consumer (and musicology geek), of course I recognise structural similarities between pop songs (here’s a brief analysis of 2012 hits). But as a listener I’m influenced by the differences between otherwise predictable musical content. These may well be, in Adorno’s terms, ‘conditioned reflexes’, but the skill of the songwriter, and the emotional power for the listener, is contained within the deviations from the predictable, not the predictable content itself. Standardisation in popular music is powerful and self-perpetuating, and here I agree with Adorno’s statement that ‘the standard patterns [of 1940s pop songs] have become invested with the immunity of bigness — “the King can do no wrong.”‘ – but this is just economic and cultural Darwinism in action (here’s a short article discussing the market forces that drive song standardisation; here’s a much longer academic one).

Because he was writing in the 1940s, Adorno did not differentiate between ‘song’ and ‘track’ because, as in classical music, the ‘work’ in popular music of the time was defined in sheet music form. In the early 20th century, the song was usually more famous than the singer. If he were writing now there would be a whole new landscape for him to discuss because late 20th century popular music is defined as an audio product, not a musicological one – the song is the recording. Listeners are responding simultaneously to the song and the track (that is, the production), so the bandwidth of information we receive is so much greater. ‘Serious’ music (or at least a proportion of it) uses a known timbral palette – a piano, or an orchestra for example – but popular music production allows pretty much any sound to be incorporated into the mix.

So I agree with Adorno musically and, mostly, economically; his descriptions of the 32 bar standard and the market forces that perpetuate it are well reasoned and IMO evidence based. But he applies a structural and sociological analysis to popular music that he refuses to apply to ‘serious’ music, even though  all music contains some constrained elements and some challenges to constraint. As listeners, we respond to the difference between constraint and freedom, repetition and contrast, form and content. All music is a balance between standardisation and innovation.


Daytime is over, night time is here
Church bells are ringing, mellow and clear
I feel so lonely, beneath stars above
Listening to one thing, the one thing I love
Just an echo, ooh-hoo!
In the valley, ooh-hoo!
But it brings back sweet memories of you
Can you hear it, ooh-hoo!
Through the twilight, ooh-hoo!
When it answered I love you, I do
How I wish we were here
Just like we used to be
But since you have gone
There’s nothing left for me
Just an echo, ooh-hoo!
In the valley, ooh-hoo!
But it brings back sweet memories of you