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    ARIA Popular Classical Music

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The Puzzle of “Most Popular” Music Lists

todayJanuary 12, 2024 10

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Here at ARIA we are very focused on playing you the music you like – in other words, music that is “most popular”.  That is a simple-seeming objective, but how to actually do exactly that?  What music do you (and our other listeners) like?  And, beyond that (not) simple question, which pieces of music do you most like, which do you moderately like, and which are ones that, although you like them, would you prefer to hear less of?

Okay, so we can directly ask you these questions.  But it isn’t as easy as that.  First of all, the people who rush to answer such surveys aren’t always representative of all the people who listen.

Secondly, when asked a question such as “what are your favorite three pieces of music?”, what are the chances that, five minutes after answering, you’ll think of another piece that you actually like more than the three you mentioned?  If you’re like many of us, even if you can remember a list of your favorites; your favorite pieces of music depend on your mood, on the length of time you have to listen, and many other things.  And which of your many favorites are actually the top three?

It gets still harder!  When you consider that we actually have an active list of over 1,000 different pieces of music that we play in any given period of time, maybe we shouldn’t just be asking you about your favorite three or however many pieces, but asking you to give us an entire list of hundreds.  Can you even remember the names of 100 pieces of classical music, and be certain that you’re not overlooking other pieces that should also be in that list?  And how can you decide if a piece should be, eg, 23rd on the list, or 32nd on the list?  And so on.

What about the person who “knows the tune but not its name”?  How can they answer such a survey?

And even if we just ask for your top three, how much extra weighting should we give to your number one piece compared to your numbers two and three?  Do you like the top piece twice as much as the second?

There are many other issues and challenges as well as these, and it ends up making any sort of survey about music popularity very difficult to design and interpret.  We think these thoughts every time we look at someone else’s survey results, such as many classical music stations like to conduct and publish each year.  (It isn’t only classical music stations that create such lists, of course, we’ve just gone through the process on one of our regular “popular’ type music FM stations.)  We’ve nothing against these surveys, and think they’re interesting and fun and a good way to interact with listeners.  But we don’t think the answers are necessarily entirely authoritative and fully meaningful.

This is confirmed by looking at past year results from the same survey.  How is it that pieces of music which were written hundreds of years ago can go so wildly up and down in popularity from year to year?  Do people’s tastes change so dramatically?  Or are such swings in popularity indicative of very flawed survey techniques?

We believe we have some answers and explanations and context for such observations and outcomes.

We tend to vote for the music we are familiar with – in other words, radio stations may skew the results of their survey and create self-fulfilling prophecies by more frequently programming the music they want to make more popular.

This can be done even more by not just programming music more often, but immediately before then asking people to go answer the survey.  We tend to vote for music we remember – in other words, if we recently heard a piece of music, we’re more likely to vote for it; radio stations can bias this by advertising their survey after specific songs.

Another “bias” that might be introduced is by suggesting possible pieces of music to the survey takers.  If for example you’re allowed to choose three favorite pieces, you’ll probably pick them from the first several screens of choices.  Choices on page 10 or 100 of a long list of pieces of music will score much lower – a bit like how websites struggle mightily to get on the first page of Google search results.

A clear example of bias that may be more intentional than unintentional is a major classical station who conducts annual surveys to create their long lists of most popular pieces.  When going to provide your three most favorite pieces, you are presented with a list of 48 composers, in twelve rows of four.  The top row starts with Tchaikovsky, but the other three offered are Ludovico Einaudi, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, and Hans Zimmer.  None of those three composers would normally be expected to be so prominently offered.  Compare that to Beethoven, obscured almost exactly in the very middle of the list (second entry on row 7), or Mozart (on the very bottom row, with Fanny Mendelssohn on one side and Lili Boulanger on the other side).

Update – it seems the positions of the composers in this list change.  That is a very good survey technique, and shows their understanding that the top places are more favored in the voting.  But the top row choices remain very strange.  We returned to it subsequently, and now Beethoven is on the top row.  That is surely appropriate, but he is sharing that row with Ethel Smyth, and still present also are Hans Zimmer and Chevalier de Saint-Georges.  A third visit shows Beethoven down again, now in row 9, and the top row taken by Handel and Verdi, shared with Florence Price and Samuel Coleridge-Taylor.

In addition to these “tricks” (or perhaps just a lack of awareness of some of the finer elements of impartial surveying techniques) there are other factors that can cause musical pieces to go up and down the popularity list with larger swings than would be expected.

For example, there may not be the same unchanging listener audience for the station.  There are several very different clusters of listeners, and depending on the changing numbers of each group of listeners there can be a linked significant change in music popularities.  This doesn’t actually mean the music is globally changing, just that the radio station’s audience is.  This is another thing that can be self-perpetuating.  A group of people all vote for a style of music, so of course the station plays more of that, which simultaneously attracts more people to the station who like that music style, and also encourages current listeners to become more familiar with it too.  So it seems the type of music is becoming more and more popular, but that is not actually the case in general, just for the one radio station.

Another possibility is in “the long tail” of a survey.  Even a survey with, say, 1,000 different pieces of music and 25,000 people voting on it will probably show that half of all votes go to the top ten pieces of music, half of the remaining half will go to the next 25, half of the next half will go to the next 50, half of the next half to the next 50, meaning that 135 pieces have taken 23,500 of the votes, leaving just 1,500 votes for the other 865 pieces.  In some of the surveys that show many hundreds of favorites in their results, there are probably very small numbers of votes for the less popular pieces such that a semi-random shift of one or two votes can represent a movement of twenty or forty places on the list.

Another interesting point is what to make of someone who votes for a piece of music like Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony as their most favorite piece of music.  There are two considerations here.

First, some participants want to show their “cleverness” so they vote for music they think they “should” like rather than music they truly like, and/or they tend to follow the group and choose their own favorites from pieces at the top of the list of most popular and best known pieces.  Certainly Beethoven’s Ninth/Choral Symphony is very well known.

The other consideration is that the entirety of this symphony comprises four movements and usually just over 70 minutes of time to perform.  But how many of the people voting for this piece have heard it right through, from start to finish?  We’re guessing that many people voting for it are mainly familiar with the last half of the final movement – the part with the singing.  Have they ever heard the third movement?  How do they come up with a decision that this is their favorite piece if perhaps they find some parts less appealing?

Some surveys treat individual parts of a work as separate pieces for voting on.  For example, Gustav Holst’s “The Planets”.  Some surveys will allow participants to vote on which of the different pieces is their favorite, others group them all into a single entry.  Other examples would be Bach’s Brandenburg Concerti, or Vivaldi’s Four Seasons.

Or, an extreme case – Wagner’s four opera set, “The Ring of the Nibelungen”.  Think of the well known excerpt, “The Ride of the Valkyries”.  Should people vote separately for that piece and all the other great excerpts from the four operas?  Or should they vote for the entirety of Act 3 of the opera, Die Walkure, it comes from?  Or for that opera entirely?  Or even for the entire four long-opera set as one single piece? Different surveys give you options at different levels of “granularity”.

At least each of the seven pieces of music in “The Planets” is very different.  How to handle a situation where a composer writes lots of very similar pieces (Haydn symphonies, Strauss waltzes, and so on).  This “splits the vote”.  All the votes for all the 104 different Haydn symphonies, in total, might place them in total near the top, but individually, maybe none of them register at all!

Sometimes groups of listeners coordinate together to all vote for a piece of music to try and game the system and send a message to the radio station.  We understand why people would do that.  In my own case, many of the pieces of music I treasure the most, never appear on the results of these types of surveys at all.  Not because they are not great pieces of music, but because they are not as well suited for playing on a popular classical music program.  For example, while two or three of Beethoven’s piano sonatas regularly score well in surveys, how about the transcendental colossus that almost defies human comprehension of his final, 32nd, piano sonata?  One of the most extraordinary pieces of piano writing ever, but never mentioned as a favorite.

If you’re curious about this piano sonata and find it boring and strange and unappealing, don’t be discouraged, and this highlights another problem.  Classical music exists and can be enjoyed on many levels, and not marveling at this piece of music in no way shades your enjoyment of any other classical piece at all!  There are many such examples of deservedly great music which don’t appear on these survey results, because the surveys aren’t asking a group of musicologists “what is the greatest music ever written”, they are asking normal listeners what are the pieces they most enjoy listening to.  Those are two very different questions/rankings, and sometimes the musicologist groups get frustrated at not seeing their favorite pieces on the popular music lists.

We could even reach back and observe that some recent music being played by classical music stations isn’t really classical music at all, and it comes into and goes out of fashion – for example, film scores, and even computer game music.  While some film scores have proven to be ever-lasting in their appeal (Gone With the Wind, dating back to 1940, still scores highly), other pieces burst into popularity while the movie is also popular, then fade away quickly.  Should these be included in a survey of classical music or not?  Well, that is probably getting into an entirely new topic for another discussion, isn’t it.

To try and conclude this 1900 word piece, surveys of the most popular pieces of music are always interesting, and fun.  They can be helpful for people wanting to expand their awareness of classical music.  But are they exact?  And are they helpful for a radio station in deciding what music they play, and how often?  Alas.  Not so much.

Written by: David Rowell

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