I like the band name “Big Data”

Band names can often reflect societal trends so I’m not surprised that a group selected the name Big Data. I like the name: it sounds current and menacing. I’ve only heard their songs a few times on the radio so I’ll have to reserve judgment on what they have actually created.

It might be interesting to think of what sociological terms and ideas could easily translate into good band names. One term that sometimes intrigues my intro students – interactional vandalism – could work. Conspicuous consumption? Cultural lag? Differential association? The culture industry? Impression management? The iron cage? Social mobility? The hidden curriculum?

Almost 25% of Spotify songs skipped in first five seconds – and other song-skipping data

Here is some fascinating data about song-skipping patterns from Spotify users:

  • Nearly a quarter of all songs on Spotify get skipped within five seconds of starting.
  • More than a third are skipped within 30 seconds.
  • Nearly half of all songs are skipped at some point…

Lamere then broke this down into the last-second-listened frequency. If you’ve made it past the 12th second, you have demonstrated amazing commitment…

Lamere concludes:

“When we are more engaged with our music – we skip more, and when music is in the background such as when we are working or relaxing, we skip less. When we have more free time, such as when we are young, or on the weekends, or home after a day of work, we skip more. That’s when we have more time to pay attention to our music. The big surprise for me is how often we skip.  On average, we skip nearly every other song that we play.”

One interpretation: people simply don’t take much time to decide whether they like a song or not. Those opening seconds are crucial.

A second interpretation: another example of shorter attention spans today. Quickly moving through songs, scanning Internet headlines and viral videos, always have to be entertained…

A third interpretation: services like Spotify make skipping easier. Spotify has over 20 million songs and it is easy to just move on to another track.

A question: It would be interesting, however, to see if people consistently skip the same songs when presented with them – how much of this is dependent on their immediate context versus a skip representing a longer-term dislike for the song? Or, if people had to listen to a song for a longer period of time – like it was playing in a store they were shopping in – would they come to like it?

Earbuds have led us to a decade of treble over bass

Listening to music through earbuds tends to favor treble over bass and this has social consequences:

“At the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century, with the possibilities for high-fidelity recording at a democratized high and ‘bass culture’ more globally present than ever, we face the irony that people are listening to music, with increasing frequency if not ubiquity, primarily through small plastic speakers—most often via cellphones but also, commonly, laptop computers and leaky earbuds. This return to ‘treble culture,’ recalling the days of transistor radios or even gramophones and scratchy 78s, rep- resents a techno-historical outcome of varying significance for different practitioners and observers, the everyday inevitability of ‘tinny’ transmissions appearing to affirm a preference for convenience, portability, and publicity, even as a variety of critical listeners express anxiety about what might be lost along with frequencies that go unheard (and, in the case of bass, unfelt). From cognitive and psychological studies seeking to determine listeners’ abilities to distinguish between different MP3 bitrates to audiophiles and ‘bass boosters’ of all sorts lamenting not only missing frequencies but also the ontological implications thereof to commuters complaining about noisy broadcasts on public transport, there has already been a great deal of ink spilled over today’s trebly soundscapes.”

And the concluding lines from the full chapter:

As mobile devices, especially phones, make sound reproduction—however trebly—more commonplace and perhaps more social than ever before (hotly contested as that sociality or sociability may be), we can only wonder about, as we try to take stock of, the effects on listening as a private and a (counter?) public activity, not to mention the implications thereof (Warner 2002).
Imagining unheard bass calls attention to the active possibilities in treble culture. And indeed, as perhaps my own narrative offers, a lot of the dyads through which the public debate plays out—active versus passive, progressive versus regressive, public versus private, sociable versus individualistic—might be easily enough flipped depending on one’s perspective. This reconcilability suggests that treble culture, especially in its contemporary form, offers what writer and artist Jace Clayton (aka DJ /Rupture) calls a “strategy for intimacy with the digital” (2009). In the ongoing dance between people and technology, treble culture opens a space where imaginary bass can move us as much as tinny blasts of noise. As participants in today’s treble culture attest, the MP3 may play its listener, but people imagine a lot more than missing bits when they listen. Ironically, the techno-historical convergence that Gilroy mourns, in which “community and solidarity, momentarily constituted in the very process, in the act of interpretation itself ” (2003:388)—a lament which issues also from the anxious discourse around today’s treble culture—may yet find some resuscitation thanks to trebly audio technologies. For what do such acts of interpretation require if not listening together? And isn’t listening, perhaps more now and more collectively and publicly than ever, what treble culture is all about?

This seems to be an interesting counterargument to those who argue earbuds ruin public spaces because everyone is off in their own worlds. This may be temporarily true as one is listening – and it seems to be even more prevalent on college campuses, though I remember doing this with my own Walkman or Discman during college – but Marshall is talking about broader music culture and the sociability it fosters. People could be brought together by their trebly experiences as basically everyone with a smartphone can carry thousands of songs, if not access millions of songs through streaming services, from everywhere.

Another thought: the Beats headphones have been quite popular even with higher price tags. Is this due to an ongoing battle between treble and bass culture?

People in mosh pits act predictably like gas molecules

A graduate student in physics argues the behavior of people in mosh pits is similar to that of gas molecules:

Being a physicist first and a mosher second (“fieldwork was independently funded”), the student, Jesse Silverberg, can’t help but notice curious patterns in what had always felt like the epitome of chaos. “Being on the outside for the first time, I was absolutely amazed at what I saw — there were all sorts of collective behaviors emerging that I never would have noticed from the inside.” So for an even better perspective, he turns to YouTube, to figure out what happens to people under the “extreme conditions” borne of a combination of “loud, fast music (130 dB, 350 beats per minute) … bright, flashing lights, and frequent intoxication.”

What he found, of course, was the “collective phenomenon consisting of 10^1 to 10^2 participants commonly referred to as a mosh pit.” And he was able to prove his initial observation: While the individual movements of moshers may be random, their collective behavior follows a few simple rules…

Look familiar? Moshers, as they “move randomly, colliding with one another in an undirected fashion,” seem a lot like gas particles, the researchers note. Or, as Silverberg explained to me: “It turns out that the statistical description we use for gasses matches the behavior of people in mosh pits. In other words, people bounce around like the molecules in a gas.” And they can be understood using the same basic principles we use to study those molecules.

Using videos of heavy metal concerts, write the authors, allows them to study crowd behavior in a way that staged experiments haven’t been able to. According to Silverberg, the unique circumstances (re: loud music and intoxication) of mosh pits are applicable to other instances of collective motion, like riots or emergency situations, where panicked crowds tend to break into random, slightly hysterical motion. Better understanding their dynamics might serve to improve safety measures in buildings or stadiums. If nothing else, they may serve as a useful reference to EMTs in the very pits where the research originated (per one study, 37 percent of injuries that took place over the course of a four-day music festival were “related to moshing activity”).

Interesting research. While many may not typically think of physics providing insights into social interaction, a lot of good work has emerged from physics in recent decades on social networks.

This is a funny statement: “the fieldwork was independently funded.” It could be even better if an independent granting agency was willing to fund such research with mosh pits to develop insights into collective behavior. If the project was pitched at looking for insights into safety with such crowds, I imagine some funding could be found.

The similarities between opera and sports fans

People can be fans of a lot of things including sports and opera:

The sociologist Claudio Benzecry spent years studying opera fans in Buenos Aires and observed that their love of opera happened just the way other forms of love do — through an experience that made them want to keep going back for more. Not through reading up on it or going to lectures about it. I discuss Benzecry’s book along with a well-meaning tome called “Opera” that’s designed to deepen opera-lovers’ love, and conclude that Benzecry is right. Opera fans are like sports fans; you get into it, and you start to learn about it, and pretty soon you’re reeling off stats with the rest of them.

More from the review of Benzecry’s book on opera fans:

Benzecry’s book doesn’t try to communicate a love of opera: It simply depicts how that love happens. His subjects, none of them wealthy, attend the opera several times a week (often in standing room or the upper balconies, where tickets are not prohibitively expensive). They are not intellectuals; they are certainly not elitist; and they were not drawn to opera by any sense of social obligation. Secretaries and sports writers and blue-collar retirees, they argue passionately about singers, productions and composers, drawing on their own experience and on a wealth of information passed on orally by older and more experienced devotees.

And how did they fall in love with opera? Certainly not through academic introductions, or books, though many of them, Benzecry shows, do attend music appreciation lectures to augment their knowledge. But the initial spark is more likely to have been a powerful “aha” moment at the opera, when first taken by a parent, or a friend: an experience of falling in love that awakens in them a thirst to go back, and back, and back.

Benzecry’s book depicts a world that’s familiar to any frequent opera-goer. Such fandom is a long-standing part of opera tradition. Nineteenth-century opera was a populist art; most audiences experienced it viscerally, singing Verdi’s tunes on the street or swooning in titillated delight after hearing Wagner. You can still get dizzy listening to Wagner — I remember experiencing the “Tannhäuser” overture, at an early encounter, as a kind of psychedelic drug trip — and you can still get passionate about the opera singers who bring these works to life.

Yet few opera guides touch on these aspects of opera. This is partly because even the hardest-core opera fans tend to put opera on a pedestal, subscribing to the notion of it as something better, something higher, something that gives color and meaning to life. This worshipful attitude toward opera, through which even the drollest opera buffa is seen through a more rarefied lens than much more serious but populist contemporary art, is part of what makes the form so off-putting to first-timers, who see it as something that involves unfamiliar rituals, special clothes, expense and jargon, and that is probably boring.

Two things I like here:

1. Sports fans are sometimes used as examples of people who have irrational emotions about something that is just a game. How could they get so worked up over something so trivial? But, lots of people have deep interests and emotions wrapped up in all sorts of activities and hobbies. Indeed, I’ve thought over the last few years that one true sign of being part of the American middle upper class or above is that a person has to have some “irrational” interest to show that they not only enjoy something but they are wholeheartedly devoted to it and are willing to spend a lot of time and money on it. Perhaps it is physical activity, perhaps it is woodworking, perhaps it is sports, perhaps it is indie music, perhaps it is snowboarding. Perhaps this is all driven by the need to feel like an individual?

2. I bet there is some fascinating sociological material here. When people start talking about “falling in love” with opera, there have to be some underlying processes behind this. This reminds me of sociological research in certain areas like fashion or stock trading where employees talk about having “intuition” but there is actually a long process by which someone acquires this “intuition.”  I bet there is something similar going on here: opera fans have developed ways of talking about their interest but there are some common themes across them as they moved from an initial exposure to a full-fledged fandom.

The rise of “Seven Nation Army” to sports folk song

Deadspin has the story of how the song “Seven Nation Army” became ubiquitous at sporting events around the world. Here are a few of the important steps in the rise of the song:

The march toward musical empire began on Oct. 22, 2003, in a bar in Milan, Italy, 4,300 miles away from Detroit. Fans of Club Brugge K.V., in town for their team’s group-stage UEFA Champions League clash against European giant A.C. Milan, gathered to knock back some pre-match beers. Over a stereo blared seven notes: Da…da-DA-da da DAAH DAAH, the signature riff of a minor American hit song…

But in Milan, at the beginning, it was purely spontaneous and local. Kickoff was coming. The visiting Belgians moved out into the city center, still singing. They kept chanting it in the stands of the San Siro—Oh…oh-OH-oh oh OHH OHH—as Peruvian striker Andres Mendoza stunned Milan with a goal in the 33rd minute and Brugge made it hold up for a shocking 1-0 upset. Filing out of the stadium, they continued to belt it out.

The song traveled back to Belgium with them, and the Brugge crowd began singing it at home games. The club itself eventually started blasting “Seven Nation Army” through the stadium speakers after goals.

Then, on Feb. 15, 2006, Club Brugge hosted A.S. Roma in a UEFA Cup match. The visitors won, 2-1, and the Roma supporters apparently picked up the song from their hosts…

“Seven Nation Army” made a beachhead in American sports in State College, Penn. According to a 2006 story in the Harrisburg Patriot-News, Penn State spokesperson Guido D’Elia—who is still the director of communications and branding for the embattled football program—was inspired by hearing a Public Radio International story about A.S. Roma’s use of the song. D’Elia, who also introduced the now unavoidable German techno track “Kernkraft 400” to Nittany Lions fans, had found something new…

By the middle of the 2006 season, “Seven Nation Army” was a Beaver Stadium staple. (This year, as Penn State students gathered on Nov. 8 outside the university administration building, they began singing Joe Paterno’s first name over the riff.)

Is this what globalization looks like? The song was recorded by Americans, found its way into bars and soccer stadiums in Belgium and Italy, and then back to the United States as a marching band piece. Along the way, the song crossed national and language boundaries as well as musical instruments.

I bet there could be some interesting musical analysis regarding why this song has become so popular. It doesn’t require words to be sung, particularly helpful for large crowds of (rowdy?) people at sporting events. It only includes seven notes. It has a particular minor edge to it, described in this story as a sound of “doom” which is no doubt helpful in celebrations as the scoring team’s fans want to celebrate as well as taunt the other side.

I would be interested to know how much in royalties Jack White is getting from all of these plays…

The increasing sadness in pop music songs

A psychologist and sociologist looked at Billboard pop music hits since 1965 and found that the songs have become more sad:

“As the lyrics of popular music became more self-focused and negative over time, the music itself became sadder-sounding and more emotionally ambiguous,” according to psychologist E. Glenn Schellenberg and sociologist Christian von Scheve.

Analyzing Top 40 hits from the mid-1960s through the first decade of the 2000s, they find an increasing percentage of pop songs are written using minor modes, which most listeners—including children—associate with gloom and despair. In what may or may not be a coincidence, they also found the percentage of female artists at the top of the charts rose steadily through the 1990s before retreating a bit in the 2000s…

Strikingly, they found “the proportion of minor songs doubled over five decades.” In the second half of the 1960s, 85 percent of songs that made it to the top of the pop charts were written in a major mode. By the second half of the 2000s, that figure was down to 43.5 percent…

“The present findings have striking parallels to the evolution of classical music from 1600 to 1900,” Schellenberg and von Scheve write. “Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries …. Pieces tended to sound unambiguously happy or sad. By the 1800s, and the middle of the Romantic era, tempo and mode cues were more likely to conflict,” which allowed composers to express a wide range of emotions within a single piece.

I would be interested to hear how they relate these changes to larger social forces: does this line up with a greater sadness in society or perhaps the ability or proclivity to express negative emotions? I also wonder if the data is skewed at all by only looking at Top 40 songs – does all music reflect this or only the most popular songs (which then reflect the influence of musical gatekeepers such as radio stations, journalists, critics, and music labels)?

Also: could we have a period where we return to more major mode music? Can a musical genre, whether classical or pop music, recover from an extended period of “sadness”?