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Top 5 Records:

OK, if you are reading any of the posts on this site you are probably a bit of a music geek (compliment, not pejorative)!  So, be honest – is there anyone who doesn’t (at least secretly) enjoy the ‘Top 5 Records’ game?  If you’re not quite sure what I am referring to then have a quick look at this clip from the film ‘High Fidelity’ from 2000 in which a group of record store employees indulge in a round of the game (as they do throughout the film).  Not only do they  demonstrate how the game works but they also show, and caricature, a lot of the other interesting attitudes that surround the choices that people make when asked to list their top 5 records.
[WARNING: Explicit Language]


A number of weeks ago I published a post on this site about the MOOC that I have been working on (click here to read that post) which is on the subject of music theory.  This course is now coming to a close and the assessment/evaluation phase is well under way.  Throughout the duration of the course, the learners and staff have not only explored the subject of music theory, they have also become a large community of people interested in music and how it works.  People have kindly shared stories about their musical experiences, posted links to their own material, helped other learners with problems that they may be having and shared extra resources etc.  – clearly this is a group that cares about music and wants to discuss it.

So, just for fun (with no intention of ever writing this post) I started a tread in the course forums which asked people to list their top 5 records by way of sharing our likes so that we can see what our peers like to listen to.  I thought we would get a couple of posts from people  who want to share specific tracks but it seems that I underestimated the interest that people may have had in a thread such as this.  My original post in the discussion forum was as follows:

“NO EXPLANATIONS, NO CAMPAIGNS, NO PERSUASION just a list of your top 5 pieces of music.  I’ll add mine below to get things started but lets use the following format:

Piece X by Artist Y”

Having spent the last 6 weeks reading through the vast majority of posts in the course forums as part of my teaching and support role on the course I was only too aware that my suggestion of no explanations or persuasion would be quickly disregarded.  In fact, I should also admit that as soon as the thread started to grow I also forgot my own request.  I am absolutely amazed at the extent to which the thread has grown and delighted to see the displays of joy and pleasure that people are clearly taking in sharing this information with the rest of the group.  I am also struck by three specific categories of response from people and would like to use this post to outline them briefly:

1.  Using the list as a way to project an image of oneself.

As soon as I started the thread I had almost immediate responses from people, both on the forum and on some of the social media channels that have been used for this course, saying that limiting people to only 5 choices was cruel and that this was an impossible task – ‘top 500 would be more suitable‘, joked one respondent.  Of course all these comments were light hearted and were only posted as a way of indicating that it is really difficult to select just 5 pieces of music when there are so many that people love.  Some people got round this issue by breaking the ‘rules’ of the game.  For example, some people decided to write a list of songs that they like but threw in something like ‘EVERYTHING by the Beatles’, for example; clearly this is a bit of a cheat but, fun never the less.

What I found particularly interesting is that there were also a number of comments which said things like ‘…5 pieces isn’t enough to represent me and my eclectic listening choices‘, or ‘…even if I had to choose 5 genres this wouldn’t be enough to sum up all the things I listen to…‘ and ‘this is too hard, I have been devoted to music all my life and I cant choose 5 things to sum me up…‘.  There were also a host of people who said things like ‘I should be careful what I admit to here…‘ or ‘I’d better not mention any of my guilty pleasures…‘ or ‘…which side of me should I show here?‘.  What I am trying to point out is that when simply asked to list their top 5 favourite pieces of music a great deal of people  in this group decided that this meant that they had to choose music that was representative of them, in some way, or that projected a certain self-conscious image of themselves.  Perhaps people were also aware of the type of criticisms that were made of Rob’s choices in the clip from High Fidelity (above).  Nobody wants their choices to be viewed as boring or obvious; of course not, this might suggest that they are also boring or obvious as people.

I have to admit that when drawing up my own top 5 records list to share with the group, similar thoughts crossed my mind.  The fact that people (including me) felt that there was an intrinsic and implicit link between music taste and identity is fascinating to me.  I would not disagree that there are some very strong links here – that seems blindingly obvious.  However, what was particularly interesting in this context is that in almost every case , none of the people taking part in this thread know each other personally, at least not beyond the thumbnail picture and screen name presented to other users.  So, it seems that there is not only a link here between peoples’ identities and music listening.  It also seems that there is an interesting connection between the identity that (otherwise anonymous) users wish to project to a group of people who they don’t know personally and certain types of music.  Do people feel that admitting to liking certain types of music will cast them in either a positive or negative light amongst their peers?  Do we inevitably associate certain types of music with certain types of people (or even identities)?  Does the fact that this is a forum within an online music theory course impact on the music that people are listing as their favourites (well, you wouldn’t want to seem obvious or unsophisticated among a group of music students)?  This issue has been explored much in much more depth in a number of other places (see further reading, below) but I think this is a really important issue and one that is interesting to note in the context of such a discussion.

2.  Biography and reminiscence.

For others, one strategy used to help whittle the enormous variety of music down to just 5 favoured pieces was to select music from important points in their lives.  For example, some people noted music that they associate with special events such as births or marriages, for example, and a great deal of people decided to select things from their childhood and teenage years.  In such cases, discussion around these choices led to other people agreeing with the choices and also offering some biographical information associated with this music.  Whether it was memories of past relationships (good or bad), teenage crushes on pop stars or periods of study, for example, people were keen to associate their choices (and those of others) with their own past.  Again, this is in some ways, another example of people using music as a way to create and project identity, but it is also a powerful way in which people can connect themselves with specific times and places in their lives.  A couple of contributors made a comparison with the power of other senses such as taste and smell to conjure memories and ‘transport’ oneself back to certain times and places, but ultimately decided that hearing specific pieces of music was a more powerful and effective experience!

3.  Pop Music

Although the collective, ever-growing list (I woke up to 196 emails informing me of new posts in this thread over a 6 hour period) is quite diverse, one thing that strikes me is that the vast majority of people have chosen to include pop music (particularly songs) exclusively in the their top 5 list.  Again, I am also ‘guilty’ of this!  This bias must have been so obvious to anyone reading the list that it prompted two would-be contributors to send me messages asking if it was OK to include classical music in their lists.  I responded saying that any music is appropriate and that I wanted to hear what people liked!  Although there is a reasonable representation of classical music in the thread, the vast majority would probably be classified as pop with jazz being the next most commonly listed genre.  I am fully aware that these distinctions are problematic but it is interesting to note that (in  crude and unscientific terms) there seems to be a very obvious leaning towards popular music forms amongst the contributors to this thread.  I will be curious to see if this ties in with any of the official data gathered from the participants via official questionnaires etc.

Regardless, this is is certainly very encouraging to me as someone who has grown up with and trained in the world of pop/rock and jazz.  Although our intention for the course was to discuss concepts in a way that would be equally useful and relevant to people from different musical backgrounds (pop, classical, jazz, folk etc.) it is particularly interesting to note the obvious love of pop music amongst this cohort and it raised the question of whether or not we should discuss more pop music examples for the next iteration of the course.

So, why not join us in a round of ‘Top 5 Records’ – feel free to use the comment boxes below.  I will add mine to get things started.

Further Reading:

MacDonald, R. R., Hargreaves, D. J. & Miell, D (2002): Musical Identities, Oxford University Press, Oxford.

DeNora, T. (2000): Music in Everyday Life, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

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Dr Zack Moir is a Lecturer in Popular Music at Edinburgh Napier University, and the University of the Highlands and Islands. He has a strong research interest in popular music pedagogy, music in higher education, musical improvisation and popular music composition. Zack is also an active musician and composer performing in ensembles and as a soloist, internationally. Zack is one of the editors of the 'Routledge Research Companion to Popular Music Education'.

27 thoughts on “Top 5 Records:”

  1. It’s very true, in making my selection I tried to pick a cross-section of music that I listen to which gives an insight as to who I am. Obviously with the constraints of 5 maximum, there were a lot of genres left out, classical included. One song is from my young teens, one is from my late teens and the rest are from that point onward.

    A lot of the tracks evoke a very powerful response and transport me back to the time in which I first heard them; one song (not listed) takes me back to my roller rink days and it’s not just about being there but the act of roller-skating is almost tangible as well.

    Mr Bojangles by Nina Simone

    The Long Road by Mark Knopfler

    Ella, Elle L’a by France Gall

    Red, Ready, Amber by Polecats

    In the Air Tonight Phil Collins

    …there are so many but for a shortlist that’ll do.

    1. Barbara – I second you on the power of music to transport us back in time. Many things do it for different people, but for me, smells (especially of certain foods, I’m a big foodie) and iconic or favourite songs pull me back strongly to the past. The brain is a mysterious thing, you never know how our senses may unlock an old, almost forgotten memory.

    2. I know how you feel, Barbara. I also had a really difficult time picking my top 5. There are so many that could/should have made the list!

      I really did try to pick some of the pieces that have been long term favourites and that are some of my most frequently played tracks.

  2. Excellent analysis Zack. I agree on several issues that you raised, especially the question of identity projection, which I believe is at the core of forum and social media participation. Or, rather, I should talk of identities, plural, as you also remarked. I feel like I have many musical identities, more or less linked to the past or to the present. That has also been a problem for me, when I was younger, because I just could not decide on a genre to play and specialize on.

    By the way, I won’t repeat here my top 5, also because I would probably post five different tracks! (I already posted more than once in that forum thread: once under my name and more times anonymously or semi-anonymously. I’ll probably keep posting there what my mutliple musical personality will suggest me. And it’s amazing to read others’ preferences and comment on them! Whenever I see the title of a song that I like, I feel in contact with the poster. It’s like I can understand her much better than after a long forum discussion. The power of music.)

    1. Hello Pietro! Very intrigued by your term – Multiple Musical Personalities – describes me to a tee. I’ve had trouble classifying my own tastes in music in the past when asked what kind I liked (Pop? Classical? Classic Rock? Ghazals? Old Bollywood music?), before I decided to say “ah the heck with it. I’m a melting pot of music choices” :) MMP sounds easier, I might just use it next time!

          1. Hi Jasneet and Pietro,

            Yes, I agree wholeheartedly that the plural is probably more appropriate, particularly when in the arena of social media. That said, I think that if you were to show my list of 5 to any of my nearest and dearest without telling them who chose the songs, most of them would know instantly that it was me. I think this may also have a lot to do with the combination of tracks, actually. I’m sure that there are millions of people who would have one of these songs on their list. Im also sure that there would be a huge amount of people who would have all of these – they are far from obscure. However, this particular combination would be a giveaway to any of my friends/family – particularly those who know about music. In fact, even if you played just the first 2 seconds of each track it would be enough. Interesting, as I write, I am starting to wonder if other people construct their idea of you through the music they associate with you…?

  3. What an interesting blog post. Glad you put up the link for this on the MOOC thread Zack.

    Reading this made me realise what a different view you must have of the MOOC, not just as a teacher, but as someone who is looking at various behavioural patterns when it comes to music discussion. I never really thought of it this way, being quite happy to chat one-on-one with other students, but reading this has made my perspective shift just a bit.

    I enjoyed reading the way you analysed the Top 5 songs thread. Very astute observations on all three points. If I may, I will share with you what those points made me think of as I read through them.

    1: Using the list as a way to project an image of oneself

    I completely missed doing that when I came up with my list ( I bypassed all the angst of choosing the top five songs from so many that I love, and decided simply to go with what was Top 5 for me right now)- but I can see how important it is for most people to be associated with music they feel best represents themselves, and by extension, their traits and attitudes, possibly?

    (this is very unscientific, but I guess a leaning towards Rock and Roll might signify a rebellious, passionate, non conformist person to most. While a love of Jazz might be associated with easy going, laid back, live in the moment kind of attitude. Pop? Hmmmm don’t know. Classical? I would think traditional and conformist, but seeing that I adore classical and am VERY non traditional, quite the rebel in my own way, makes me realise that our choice in music can’t always reflect who we are. Human beings are far too complex to be so easily described, but it’s interesting to see how we may instinctively jump to certain ideas about what someone’s choice in music may represent.)

    Also, as a final point, what might it mean when someone doesn’t care to choose their songs in order to project an image (I can’t help wondering what that says about me!). Argh, this psych 101 stuff is annoying when it rebounds on oneself. Heh.

    2. Biography and Reminiscence :

    did I resonate with this point or what! Reading this made me realise how so much of my life is wrapped up in memories of music. (I was about to launch into a small list of how I remember various points in my childhood based on the song that was popular at the time, when I caught myself and laughed.) I think it serves to demonstrate very deep human needs – the need for community especially with people who share our interests, and the need to tell our story. The desire to have our story heard is so powerful, it is one of the ways we feel connected and not so alone on this planet, IMHO. I have been pondering of late on how so much of human life is built on experiencing human bonds and interactions in all it’s forms. The Internet is a relatively new medium, with MOOCs being one of its newest forms I think.

    3. Pop Music : Really interesting to see how popular, well, Popular music really is! :) but I don’t see too many examples from current or very recent years (with the exception of Adele, who is really brilliant). Or is it that most of us on the MOOC are older and therefore talk of the music that was hip when we were growing up? I didn’t see too many references to Nikki Minaj or Lady Gaga or Katy Perry (I confess I don’t enjoy the stuff I see on VH1 these past few years, apart from Adele and a couple of Bruno Mars songs. I don’t get HipHop at all, although I really miss Old School Rap from the 90’s). I wonder what that says about people who signed up for the MOOC that very few current artists appeared on the list ….

    Apologies for my endlessly long post, but I am having such fun finally having discussions about music :) My post length makes me realise once again why the character count on Twitter never worked for me 😀 cheers! Off to make a cup of tea on what feels like an unusually cold day. Hint of Scotland in the air, methinks!

  4. Great post Zack and made me think a lot about the choices I put up.

    Just recently a good friend of mine, an audio engineer, who now lectures at Southampton University, asked us (his friends) via Facebook what 5 songs defined who we were today musically.

    This was obviously a highly personal list of the kind you mention in this article, i.e. of the tracks based around growing up and centred on ones that had big emotional resonance be it either in life/love, or musical directions re instrument choice, playing etc.

    So when you posted your Top 5 Records post, it was probably because I had just done such a list that I abandoned it entirely (none of them were in it) and for some reason chose to pick 5 tracks that portrayed my love of music from a wide variety of styles and eras. What is strange about my choice is that it is simply not my 5 fav tracks at the moment!! So why did I do that?

    On reflection I think it is because these days I am discovering so much new music through my guitar teacher, bandcamp, friends, etc that my 5 fav tracks at the moment would be ‘relatively’ obscure to most people (sweeping generalisation I know) but decided not to list 5 from those as I felt it would come across as being deliberately obtuse :)

    So it’s funny on reflection that I did not list my fav 5 for fear that my peers would think I was being pretentious :)

    I probably need therapy 😀

    1. That’s really interesting, David. I suppose that with so many people being worried about mentioning cheesy songs I hadn’t really thought about the potential for people avoiding things that were too high-brow or obscure.

      You know that you’ve just whetted my curiosity now…? Spill the beans – what was the obscure list?

  5. Picking five favorites is impossible, so I just had fun thinking of good tunes with some diversity, that might provide gateways for other students. The thread has already done that for me, by reminding me to dig into the UK folk revival, which is almost entirely new to me. God bless the web, YouTube, and Wikipedia.

    But the main point is, here are five more of my top five.
    Linus and Lucy – Vince Guaraldi,
    Tales of Brave Ulysses – Cream,
    Message in a Bottle – The Police,
    Of course, music is mainly about hot babes…
    Fingerbreaker (Jelly Roll Morton) – Stephanie Trick,
    Asturias (Isaac Albeniz) – Wiktoria Szubelak

    1. Thanks for the great links David! I was interested to read that you deliberately opted for diversity in your choices.

      I love ‘Message in a Bottle’ too – in fact I have a soft spot for The Police (and Sting too).

  6. Interesting perspectives. I think music is often linked to identity. Some, hopefully few, appear to rank musical genres in terms of perceived relative value. Classical is superior to popular music as one example. Years ago I was a DJ on a couple of non-profit radio stations. On one I played classical, on the other Scottish music. In addition, I arranged for a number of local concerts and live on-air broadcasts. This brought me into contact with a wide variety of performers as wellas supporters of the station. I remember that period as one of the more enriching experiences in my life. But sadly there were those who chose to place an elitist overtone on various types of music. I think this has hurt wider acceptance of classical music among younger audiences.

    I listen to many types of music. I like jazz because it ‘plays with my head’ in interesting ways. I also like classical, rock, Americana (imaging a country-rock fusion), roots music, blues, and so on. The common thread for most of my favorite tracks is they invoke an emotional, visceral type of response. So many genres are linked and influence each other. It doesn’t make much sense to build too high a wall between them.

    1. Couldn’t agree more, Murdo. I really cant stand it when people become elitist about musical styles. I have to say that I encounter it a lot in the world of music education. It really winds me up sometimes that people can be so prejudice in their opinions of music – particularly when people bring up the ‘complex’ vs ‘simple’ argument when trying to look down at pop music, for example.

      1. I also can’t stand musical elitists- but I say so as a reformed elitist!

        As a teenager and young adult, I very much made judgements about people based on their muscial tastes. I would say that it was maybe something to do with being part of what I perceived as a subculture- around the late 80s or so when a large part of my listening was my bloody valentine and other artists who would use a lot of distortion etc etc (I would probably need a separate top 5 tunes from 1989!) also dressing primarily in black, wearing monkey boots and fringes…

        Having got to University it was kind of a shock to begin to understand that all people who liked similar music didn’t share the same politics, ideals and values. And also to learn that people who liked what I thought of as awful valueless music could be wonderful people, nonetheless. Of course it sounds silly now.

        Anyway, I think what I wanted to add was something about how those kinds of subcultures (goth, indie punk etc) would also use music to project something about your identity via music. Since the late 80s I guess everything including subcultural identities has moved online, so I’m not really sure how that works now. I guess I have online identity(ies) but I don’t try so very hard to control them!

        On which rambling thoughts I will end. I think 2 out of my top 5 have changed since I posted them on the course forum!

      2. LOL – b/c in the post I just made I essentially called art music sophisticated and pop not. I did put jazz in the “sophisticated” column. I don’t really know much about music. I just assume based on other peoples take, probably. Are there any pop songs and complex as Bach? But even if not, I *do* see different types of music having a different, but equal, value. E.g., I like fiddle tunes. Some of them do get technically complicated. But even if they are not Bach and Mozart, what I find fascinating is their longevity and how their whole being seems to be about being reinvented, replayed, varied. “Everyone” knows a version of Soldier’s Joy, but the versions are unending it seems. The tune is about as old (older?) than some of Bach and Mozart. That is fascinating to me and a completely different side of music.

  7. I feel people’s perceptions of us do alter with our taste of music; I recall, as a young teen, coming home with the vinyl 45 of Pie Jesu and the looks on even my parents’ faces was just one of astonishment and pure confusion; it just wasn’t the sort of music they listened to and certainly didn’t expect any of their children to enjoy.
    As a pre-teen and beyond, I also enjoyed listening to tunes such as those played on the 89 key Gavioli Fairground organ, amongst other similar organs, that was a very strange thing for my teachers of that era to understand; the old fairground organs fascinate me to this day.

      1. Must be hard to project your identity with an mp3 player though. In my schooldays, I remember one guy (who we all thought was fantastically cool) walking through the school, artfully carrying a Smiths 12 inch vinyl single. I guess vinyl would have an identity projection range of at least 50 yards :)

        1. True – except it was very common for us all to flick through each others’ MP3 players and piles of minidiscs etc. In some ways, it was a real way to demonstrate some sort of identity and I even remember thinking hard about what to put on the iPod, just so I could present the right image to anyone who might flick through.

          The vinyl thing didn’t really happen for me until uni when there was a big resurgance in peoples’ interest in vinyl (around 2003??). Then it was a case of carrying the records again – and weirdly, UNOPENED was better…!? I still have an unopened copies of Blue Trane and Soul Station – ridiculous really when you think about it!

  8. RE: using more pop music examples in FMT.
    Yes and no. First, most examples used in the course (except maybe the end) were simply tunes that people would be familiar with, e.g. Twinkle, so that a point could be made without getting lost in unfamiliar music. So I’m not sure there’s much room to add/exchange-in pop. But, if there is or if you do a part II… I like pop and listen to a lot of pop or jazz etc. while going about my day. When I come to wanting to understand music though (e.g. take a MTh course) it’s b/c I want to better understand things that seem complicated to me, e.g. art music. So what I like is to hear a point made with something familiar, be it pop or something “traditional” and then to see how that appears or is modified/extended in something more sophisticated. (I’d actually include jazz in the “sophisticated” column.) That’s why I try to learn MT. All that said, I was quite take with that video you linked to about the mixolydian cadence. I thought, “Wow, I sort of get this and it’s all over the place! (in lots of songs)”.

  9. Better late to the party than never. How wonderful to here somewhat about how the course appeared from the faculty point of view.

    I can’t remember what I put for my top five in the thread. I remember Barbara mentioning France Gall then, and reading it here again now, it makes me feel like crying, which represents some complicated (or not so complicated) set of feelings about not having listened to her lovely singing for so long (where are my France Gall CDs anyway?), and missing the joy of listening to her, and also perhaps it’s tied up with the fact that the year I was introduced to her music was an incredibly unhappy year in my life, and remembering her music is all tied up for me with that too.

    I can’t even think right now what my top five would be. There’s a YouTube video of John Cage playing a cactus with a feather, which I’d want to share. That’s very new for me, to be interested in that kind of non-traditional exploration of sound.

    Come to think of it, that’s a lot of what I feel like I’m doing with music these days (although in a traditional enough way that I’m doing it at a piano, not on a cactus): deconstructing and throwing away all the “rules” that I feel like I’ve been trying to learn in my music study, and instead just listen to notes, together and apart, and listen to what they sound like. And not in a structures way like “learn to name and reproduce intervals” or “learn what a major chord sounds like.” No, just grabbing notes at the keyboard and listening, and then moving them around one by one and listening, and then moving to a new set of notes and listening to the transition.

    I find it immensely valuable to have the formalities of music theory to give names to some of the sets of notes I find. But it’s as much in the breach as the observance that I’m using music theory ideas. For example, rather than listen to specific typical chord progressions, or even specific “wow aren’t those cool” chord progressions, I’m just keeping the idea of “one chord to another chord to another chord etc.” and listening to that with random sets of chords, or chords made by moving notes in certain ways, but not trying to reproduce the traditional music theory teachings about “here’s a way to move from chord X to chord Y.”

    Along with this, I’m turning things inside out. Rather than listening to a song and trying to hum what I think is the tonal center (an exercise from another music class), I decided to just hum one note all the way through, and see if it sounded concordant or discordant. Haha, I discovered any note pretty much sounded the same! So now I’m playing with seeing if I can make notes that sound really bad with what I hear on the radio. No use trying to hear concordant if I can’t hear discordant. But is this what anyone has ever thought of doing for “singing along with the radio”?

    Where was I? Ah, yes, five favorite songs. What I listen to these days is almost entirely classical (in the broad sense, not only the specific Classical period). That doesn’t seem to have anything to do with my musical experimentation, but my musical experimentation these days is about just trying to listen to what things sound like, not with trying to investigate any particular way anyone else has made music sound like.

    Maybe in a year I’ll be in a completely different musical investspace; maybe not.

  10. Before getting enrolled in with 2 MOOC suppliers I reflected (sufficiently?) about the consequences of self-profiling oneself in google- and NSA-times within these organizations., especially since having successfully avoided facebook up to now. Finally, the seduction to suck from these offerings let me fall for them.

    I came here for the Top-5 game, obviously, and I want to confirm all the psychological conjectures about the motivational backgrounds for all the lists, of course also pertaining to my list. I even tried to make this psycho-aspect more transparent by adding as my punch-line: “knowing me, knowing you …”. Only on revisiting this post for some comment, I noticed that this might have brought me into some connection, which were absolutely against my targeted projection of my ego: it might point to ABBA! OMG, has this been the subconsciously ouverted truth about myself?

    Just another point arose by reading this blog’s comments: As usual there there is a strong aversion against elitism. I am an elitist. I’m definitely “better” than others in some things, and others are “better” in other things than me. However, I strongly prefer to exchange thoughts and share events with those that are at least not too much below my level of current interest. I dislike the exploit of white upper class youth fascinated by gangsta rap.

    There is subtle, wiredrawn hairsplitting around, accessible to the refined only.

    It’s personal responsibility to refine oneself. Purgy

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