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.
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.