Monday, 2 April 2012

My Music Dissertation

This is the music dissertation I wrote last year for my music course at university. Sensitive information will be omitted and I can't provide the data but here you go.

Dissertation – The Changing Perceptions of Popular Music

Name: <omitted>
Matriculation Number: <omitted>
Degree course: BSc Mathematics and Music


Listening to opinions on recent popular music over the last few years has given me the sense that people generally have a more negative perception of popular music of the last decade than of popular music of the 20th century. This dissertation endeavours to determine whether this is true, and why, by examining perceptions of popular music with a focus on prevailing attitudes towards popular music of the 21st century, and whether perceptions of 21st century popular music are indeed more negative than perceptions of 20th century music. To these ends, practical research was carried out amongst fifty members of the public, to assess their views with regard to six different popular music eras and factors, relating to the production of music and the listening experience, including, but not limited to, how they discover music they like, the recording medium on which they listen to music, where they get music from, including whether it is bought or pirated, what social pressures they feel with respect to their tastes, and whether they attend live performances. The findings of this research can be summarised as follows. While the era most people regarded as a favourite was the 21st century, on a rating scale it was rated joint lowest with the 1980s. This suggests that there is a strong difference between what people like and dislike, and what they view as good and bad. In addition, from the more objective standpoint of good and bad, the 21st century is perceived to lack good music more than the 20th century in general. The most cited reason for this is that, in general, the music was made for commercial purposes. However, there is strong disagreement with the idea that all popular music of the 21st century is bad, regardless of genre. Other points include that the most admired traits in an act are talent and originality. It can be concluded that, in order to change negative perceptions of 21st century popular music, acts must focus more on adopting the aforementioned admired traits to appeal to the disillusioned listeners, as well as retaining their mainstream appeal.


Over the past few years, I have listened to a lot of music on the internet. The internet has revolutionised the way that music is sold, how it is listened to, and even the circumstances under which it is produced, and one site, in particular, that I regularly use for this purpose is YouTube. The music is accompanied either by its official music video, containing the artist or band performing, a live performance by that artist or band, a music video made by the YouTube user on whose channel the video is hosted, photos of the artists or band set to the music, or simply the album cover of the album from which the song originates. Below the video is a comment section, where anyone can let the user, or people who have left other comments, know what they think of the song. On almost every song that I’ve heard on YouTube, at some point in the comment section, the same opinion is expressed. The wording of the comment varies, as does the detail that the person goes into, but the general idea remains the same: “music today sucks”. An overwhelming number of people appear to have a very negative view of how popular music, that is made today, compares to popular music that was made in previous decades. Furthermore, this view is not limited to older people. Some comments by older people, which have extended the criticism to the “kids today”, that choose to listen to such music, have engendered criticism from teenagers and even pre-teens, who state their age, and then talk about how much they dislike today’s music. I want to explore this opinion: why people think this, how many people think this, the extent to which they dislike music today, what exactly they mean by “music today”, whether there is variation in opinion with regard to gender, age, country, or the style of music that people listen to, what could be different about the environment in which music is produced today that could create music deemed to be so inferior, and whether this opinion is truly representative of attitudes towards current music. It will also be necessary to discover what perceptions people have about music made in previous decades.

The music industry has fundamentally changed in the last decade in many ways, due to advancements in technology, particularly computer technology, the internet, and the popularisation of mp3 players, such as Apple’s iPod. Sites and applications such as Napster, Limewire, and BitTorrents have made it easier for people to obtain music without paying, thus encouraging piracy, and promoting the view that it is acceptable. The Recording Industry Association of America, or RIAA, is trying to control this piracy. However, due to the fundamental structure of the internet, in that there are numerous sites to upload music to, ways to record music from such sites if it cannot be downloaded, and even functions built into social networking software such as MSN or Skype that allow you to send files to your friends, gaining total control of the problem would not be feasible. Musicians themselves need not book recording time in a studio to record an album, as various types of music making hardware and software can be connected to, or installed on, a computer, so that music can be composed and recorded in one’s home. These developments mean that more music is being produced now than in any other decade, with literally millions of musicians or bands uploading their music to the internet. In light of these changes, it will be necessary to find out how people find out about new music, how and where they buy it, whether they buy it at all, and how this compares to how music was bought in previous generations. In addition, it would be interesting to find out what form of recording media people listen to music on. I am aware that music stores have been selling recently released music on vinyl, so it would be interesting to investigate whether a significant number of people still buy vinyl records.

In schools, it is not unusual for students to form social groups on the basis of their musical tastes. These musical groups extend beyond school. Current examples include indie kids, scene kids, emos, and metalheads. Since I expect to get a significant number of respondents who are my age or younger, this dissertation presents an excellent opportunity to investigate the effect of social pressures within schools on one’s musical tastes.

Most importantly of all, the importance of certain features of the music should be investigated. An analysis of how important these musical features are to the respondents, and how they change over the demographics, will reveal whether there is a discrepancy in the demand for certain musical features, and the musical features of music being released today, which will be a particularly significant indicator that there is a legitimate concern amongst those who listen to popular music in the 21st century.

Finally, it will be necessary to examine people’s perceptions with regard to live music. If enough people are disenchanted with mainstream music, I would expect to see a significant amount of people going to performances by local acts as one method of discovering new music they like. Whether their perceptions of an act change would depend on the live performance of that act: whether they use Auto-Tune, or whether they play the instruments in the recording, or they just sing along to a backing track. Whether they prefer to listen to the act perform live, or to listen to a recording of them, can tell us a lot about acts which particular groups of people, in the context of their musical tastes, see, and the effect which the music has on them live compared to the effect of listening to them on a recording.

After completing the investigation, I can then build up a picture of people’s tastes, the social factors and musical environment which influence them, the specific traits which they value in a piece of music, and whether live performances influence their decisions. Once this has been achieved, this picture can be compared with current and former musical landscapes to identify the changes that need to be made, and to discuss whether they can be, so that the current musical landscape compliments the tastes of the public, rather than coming into conflict with them.

Literature Review

This research is motivated less by existing academic research on the subject, and more on my observations of people’s opinions, and conversations with people who feel this way. As such, the preliminary stages of the research were to continue making these observations, and to take case studies of certain artists and songs, which best represent, or represented, mainstream music. This section of the dissertation, therefore, will be reserved for these case studies. They will look at specific features of the music and image of the artists or bands described.

Lady Gaga is an American pop star, arguably the most popular, in the world right now. She achieved international fame with the release of her 2008 album, The Fame, which contained the very popular singles, “Just Dance” and “Poker Face”. Her songs are primarily synthesiser driven and accompanied by a 4/4 dance music style drum rhythm. Her lyrics tend to focus on love, enjoying oneself and partying. Where Lady Gaga really stands out though is in her fashion sense. In live performances she wears elaborate costumes, which are designed by her fashion collective, the Haus of Gaga, with prominent examples being a suit made entirely out of meat, and a bubble dress. In addition to her extraverted fashion sense and synthpop, she is a vocal advocate of LGBT rights, being bisexual herself, speaking out on her official YouTube channel against “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”, a policy of the American government which allows homosexuals to serve in the US military only if they keep it a secret, and in return they will not be asked about it. She also gave a speech against it at the National Equality March in Washington D.C. on October 11, 2009. Gaga has stated that her gay fans were instrumental in her obtaining early exposure to radio stations, thus setting the groundwork for her later success.

Justin Bieber is a Canadian pop star who received international exposure after being discovered on YouTube by Scooter Braun, an American talent manager. He polarises public opinion due to possessing a voice, which has not yet matured, and the characteristics, both musical and lyrical, of his music. His music and lyrics are written in collaboration with numerous other song writers and producers. His single, “Baby”, in particular, has been extremely popular, being viewed over 500 million times on YouTube, making it the most viewed video on the site. The child-like qualities of his voice, his catchy mainstream sound, and even the debate and hatred resulting from and aroused towards him have helped him become and, so far, remain successful.

Madonna, dubbed the “Queen of Pop”, is one of the most successful pop stars in history, as she has been consistently successful as a pop star, since the beginning of her career as a pop star in 1982. As with Lady Gaga, Madonna’s pop sounds have relied on synthesisers and consistent drum rhythms, as befits the style at the time, her lyrics have primarily revolved around love, enjoying oneself, and partying, and she is celebrated as a gay icon. Her influence on current popular music is enormous, with pop stars such as Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, and Lady Gaga all citing her as such. It is not so much vocal talent, as her ability to reinvent her persona to keep up with the trends of the time, and the catchiness of her songs, that make Madonna such a success and enormous influence, with songs such as “Papa Don’t Preach”, “Like A Prayer”, “Ray of Light”, and “Music” achieving significant commercial success, while varying in their musical attributes. Therefore, Madonna’s traits as a popular music act are originality, versatility, and catchy songs.

Nirvana were an alternative rock band from Aberdeen, Washington, who popularised the grunge movement when they released their second album, Nevermind, in 1991. The album, taking everyone by surprise, went to #1 on the American Billboard charts, and has sold 26 million copies as of today. Their lead singer, Kurt Cobain, wanted Nevermind to combine the sound of the alternative rock scene in Seattle with catchy pop melodies. The lyrical themes of Nirvana’s songs are varied, and Cobain has been critical of people attempting a “second-rate Freudian analysis” of his lyrics, but they include teenage rebellion (Smells Like Teen Spirit), a real-life rape incident (Polly), acceptance and tolerance (Come As You Are), and a distaste for judgemental people, whom he doesn’t like, going to his concerts (In Bloom). Nirvana split up in 1994 following Cobain’s suicide via heroin and shooting himself with a shotgun, and drummer, Dave Grohl, who commands enormous respect for his abilities on his instrument, has gone on to form the Foo Fighters, and drum in collaboration with other bands. Nirvana, then, had very catchy songs, significant expressive ability, and a wide variety of complex and interesting lyrical themes.

Queen were a British rock band responsible for some of the most memorable songs ever written, who were consistently successful up until the death of their lead singer and frontman, Freddie Mercury. Queen have employed a diverse range of styles including rock, vaudeville, 80s pop, heavy metal, progressive rock, ballads and opera. Songs were written entirely by each of the four members of the band on their own, until their 1989 album, The Miracle, when they started collaborating. As such, the musical and lyrical themes of the songs vary considerably, but all four members have contributed songs which have been extremely popular. For example, Mercury wrote “Bohemian Rhapsody”, drummer, Roger Taylor, wrote “Radio Ga Ga”, bassist, John Deacon, wrote “Another One Bites the Dust”, and guitarist, Brian May, wrote “We Will Rock You”. All four members are highly praised for their skills on their respective instruments, particularly Mercury’s vocal abilities and stage presence, both of which are widely perceived as the most impressive by any popular music act ever. Queen’s songs are frequently used at various events, particularly the use of “We Are the Champions” at football matches, in adverts, films, and TV shows. There has even been a documentary, “The Story of Bohemian Rhapsody”, made about “Bohemian Rhapsody”, one of the most successful and respected songs ever written, about its recording environment, and lyrical meaning, which remains the subject of debate. Queen possess extraordinary instrumental and vocal talent, the ability to write catchy, original songs in a wide variety of styles, and significant expressive abilities.

Bearing these case studies in mind, the pop music charts today suggest that the vast majority of music produced fits most of the characteristics of Lady Gaga and Justin Bieber. They tend to be love songs, or they tend to be songs designed for use in a nightclub. It is rare for a chart-topping single to deviate from this formula today. Continuous saturation of the pop charts with music that fits this description will discourage many from wanting to listen to that entire style of music. The pertinent question to ask is this: why is there such a dominance of these types of music today? In order for these songs to continue to become number ones, there would need to be continuous significant demand for them, yet, if there is such a backlash, why isn’t this reflected in the demand? Where is the challenge to this mainstream, and why is it so impotent in comparison to music that draws such criticism and shame?


I set up a questionnaire, which I sent out to fifty people, asking them thirty-two questions to try to gauge general attitudes towards popular music made today, and during previous decades. The timeline of popular music has been split into six eras: music made before 1960, the 60s, the 70s, the 80s, the 90s, and I combined the 2000s and 2010s into one era, given that only one year of the 2010s has elapsed. The respondents were then asked which of the six aforementioned eras they grew up in. I had three groups of nationalities: British, American, and Other. I had six age groups: 11-25, 26-35, 36-45, 46-55, 56-65, and 66 or over. If respondents were 25 years old or under, they were also asked if they were still in school or at university.

Question 1 asked the respondents which genres of music they listened to. There were fifteen options which they could have chosen: pop, rock, country, R&B, hip-hop and rap, jazz, soul, metal, easy listening, world, classical, dance, blues, alternative, and religious. An “Other” option was given for respondents to write-in genres of music which were not covered by the fifteen pre-codes. The purpose of this question was to associate attitudes towards the six aforementioned eras of music with the genre of music that the respondents listen to, to see if there are variations. Such variations are predicted because there is conflict between fans of different genres of music. For example, fans of alternative music, and particularly punk rock, frequently express criticisms towards more mainstream popular music, due to its focus on image, or strongly held principles that music should not be written to make money.

Question 2 consisted of four parts. The first asked respondents how often they listened to music made during each of the six eras: regularly, occasionally, rarely, or never, and an extra option, “Don’t Know”, was added for respondents who were unsure. This was to gauge whether or not they should be asked later questions, which ask their general opinions of those eras, the music of which they listen to occasionally or regularly. The second part of the question asked how frequently they listened to music of the time in each era. The same options were given, with the addition of “N/A” for people who had not been born at the time. For example, a 20 year old would circle “N/A” for the Pre-60s, 60s, 70s, and 80s eras, as they had not been born until at least 1990. These two parts were assigned a score of 3 for “Regularly”, 2 for “Occasionally”, 1 for “Rarely”, and 0 for “Never”. The third part of the question asked the respondents to pick a favourite era, and the fourth asked them why they picked it. Available options were nostalgia, variety of music, atmosphere, a lot of musical talent, musical features, and lyrics, again with the addition of “Other”, where respondents could give another reason.

The next twelve questions came in pairs. Each pair was associated with one of the six eras; for example, questions 3 and 4 would be associated with the Pre-60s era. Each first question was split up into four parts and each second question was split up into three.

Regarding the first question in each pair, the first part asked respondents about the genres of music they listened to from each era. They had five genres of music to choose from, and an “Other” option where they could write in the name of a genre that was not covered. Then, they were asked to write down their favourite artist or band from that era, what they liked about them, and to circle the styles of music that they played, with the available options being the same as in the first part of the question. The aim of this question is to gather specific details about respondents’ preferences, particularly finding out what traits of an act are most desired, so as to reveal the qualities that the ideal act might possess.

The second question in each pair asked respondents to rate each era on a scale of 1 to 10, so that an average rating could be determined, what they liked about that era in general, with the same options as the third part of question 2, and what they disliked about it, choosing from simplistic, cheesy, lack of talent, image, commercial, and “Other”, again writing in their other criticism. This allows for the six eras to be compared to each other as objectively as possible, while revealing the qualities of each musical era that respondents like and dislike.

Question 15 asked the respondents about their family’s attitudes towards popular music, and was split into six parts. With the exception of the fourth part, which asked respondents if they had children over 11, each gave the respondents the option to answer “Very Unfavourably”, “Favourably”, “Neither good nor bad”, “Unfavourably”, “Very Unfavourably”, “Disinterested”, and “Don’t Know”. The first part asked respondents how the music of their childhood was viewed by their parents. The second asked them what they thought of the music that their parents liked. The third asked what they thought of the music being made during their own childhood. The respondents who said that they had children over 11 years old were then asked to answer the fifth part of the question: what they thought of the music being made during their children’s childhood; and the sixth, what their children thought of it. A mean score was calculated from the results with “Very Favourably” representing 2, “Favourably” representing 1, “Neither good nor bad” representing 0, “Unfavourably” representing -1, and “Very Unfavourably” representing -2. This question has two purposes: the first to implicitly multiply the number of respondents with regard to the general view of the six eras, and to find out whether, as is commonly believed, parents tend to disapprove of their children’s music.

Question 16 probes the respondents to describe, in more detail, what they think of contemporary popular music. The first of three parts of the question presents the respondents with six criticisms, and are asked whether they agree strongly, slightly, neither agree nor disagree, disagree slightly, or disagree strongly, and, again, they are given the option of saying “Don’t Know”. These six statements were as follows:

  • Mainstream music in general is of bad quality. People must look underground or to the past to find music they like.
  • All current music is of bad quality, regardless of genre.
  • Music today generally lacks soul (emotional appeal).
  • Mediocrity in music is celebrated now.
  • The majority of current music is made for the sole purpose of making money.
  • Lyrical meaning is limited to sex, partying, money and fame.

The second part of the question asked respondents whether contemporary popular music is better, worse, or as good as 20th century popular music, with the option of saying “Don’t Know”. If they answered with worse, they were asked to write in why. This question concentrates on the focus of the survey, probing respondents to the maximum extent possible about their opinions of popular music today.

Questions 17 and 18 were three-part questions asking respondents how they find and obtain music. Question 17 asked them how they obtain it today, and question 18 asked them how they obtained it when they were at school or university, although only respondents who have finished both were asked this question. In both cases, part one asked them if and where they find out about music, choosing from “Radio”, “Internet”, “School”, “Friends”, “Magazines”, “Family”, and “TV”, and writing in any others. The option “None” was also available if they didn’t look for music. Part two asked them to pick the music source that they went to the most. Part three asked them where they went to get new music; “Music stores”, “Sent by friends”, “Gigs”, “Bootlegging”, “iTunes (or other legitimate internet stores)”, “P2P networks (e.g. Limewire)”, “Torrents (or other illegitimate internet download sites)”, “Streaming sites/applications (e.g. Spotify)”, “Social networking site downloads (e.g. Facebook)”, “Sent by family”, “Other”, followed by a space to write in what other source they use, or “None”. These are two of many questions designed to assess the environment in which the respondents’ opinions of popular music are formed.

Question 19, a two-part question, asked respondents how their school classmates’ music taste compared with their own. First they were asked whether they shared the vast majority of their taste with their classmates, whether they differed slightly, differed significantly, or whether there was next to no overlap in their tastes. Secondly, they were asked whether they were made fun of for their tastes. This question examines the role of peer pressure in the process of respondents forming their tastes.

Question 20 asked respondents to assess how important the following musical features were to them: lyrics, musical complexity, originality, whether the music is catchy, the length of the song, musical talent, the emotional impact of the song, and whether it is good for dancing to. In examining the exact features of the music, one can determine what respondents expect from a song.

Respondents, who said that lyrics were quite or very important to them, answered question 21, which asked them what types of lyrics, or lyrical themes, interested them. Their choices were “Personal (specific)”, “Narratives”, “Political”, “Love”, “Partying/dancing”, “Confrontational”, “Money”, “Fantasy”, “Religious”, “Other” with a writing space, and “Don’t Know”.

Respondents, who said that musical complexity was quite or very important to them, answered question 22, which asked them whether they preferred simple or complex music, or whether it depends on the song. Again, a “Don’t Know” option was given.

Respondents, who said that the length of the song was quite or very important to them, answered question 23, which asked them whether they preferred songs under 4 minutes long, songs from 4 to 7 minutes long, or songs longer than 7 minutes. A “Don’t Know” option was given.

Respondents, who said that musical talent was important to them, answered the two-part question 24, asking them which instrumental talents, and which vocal talents they admire most. The options for instrumental talents were expressive ability, performance speed, performance dexterity, innovative use of the instrument, use of instrumental effects, and performance charisma. “Other”, with a writing space, and “Don’t Know” options were given. The options for vocal talents were expressive ability, distinctive voice, pitch range, vocal techniques (e.g. vibrato), versatility, pitch accuracy, and vocal strength. Again, “Other”, with a writing space, and “Don’t Know” options were given.

Respondents over the age of 25 then answered question 25, which asked them whether they listened to music on vinyl, cassette, CD, or in the mp3 or other digital format, when they were growing up. “Other”, with a writing space, and “Don’t Know” were also options. Question 26 asked all respondents the same question with regard to the present day. Information about listening formats is important to the survey, because it can tell us where they listen to music, giving us more information about the environment in which they form their opinions.

Question 27 asked respondents how often they attended live concerts. The options were weekly or more frequently, 2-3 times a month, monthly, every 2-3 months, every 4-6 months, annually, less frequently, or never, with the additional option of saying “Don’t Know”. Live concerts could be a primary method for discovering new music, and they have the ability to change perceptions of acts, depending on how well they perform.

Questions 28 to 31 were asked of all respondents who attended concerts at least annually. Question 28 asked respondents what types of live events they went to, choosing from gigs by local acts, gigs by nationally recognised acts, gigs by internationally recognised acts, multi-act tours, and music festivals. The options “Other”, with a writing space, “None, and “Don’t Know” were also available. The type of acts the respondents see can tell us more about their opinions towards current music.

Question 29 asked respondents how often they were introduced to music they liked, going to live events. Options were “Never”, “Rarely”, “Sometimes”, “Often”, “Every gig”, and “Don’t Know”.

Question 30 asked respondents how often watching particular acts live changed their opinion of them. Options were “Yes, always”, “Yes, sometimes”, “Yes, depending on who is performing”, “No”, and “Don’t Know”.

Question 31 asked respondents whether they preferred seeing the same act live, or listening to them on a recording or music video. Additional options were given for people who had no preference or didn’t know. If respondents prefer live acts, then live concerts will likely be where a significant part of their views towards current popular music are formed.

Finally, for the respondents who chose live, question 32 asked them why they had this preference. The options were “Experience of seeing them live”, “More social atmosphere”, and “Music affects me more/more effective”. “Other”, with a writing space, and “Don’t Know” options were available as well. This question can be used to determine the factors which lead to an ideal live performance and the extent to which a live act can control these factors.

Findings and Discussion

The data from the 50 questionnaires provides some interesting insight into the minds of people who listen to popular music today. Some of the findings are fairly intuitive, and others are very surprising, but all of them need to be taken in combination with each other to produce as complete a picture as possible of what people think of contemporary popular music.

Of the 50 respondents, only three were aged 56 or over, and so the 56-65, and 66 and over categories were combined with the 46-55 category to make a 46 and over category. There may therefore be a lack of detail in the answers to some questions, particularly ones dealing with the Pre-60s and 60s music periods. The gender, age, and nationality demographics were used as cross breaks for the data.

Of the 50 respondents, 31 were male and 19 were female. There were 20 respondents aged 11-25, 12 aged 26-35, 7 aged 36-45, and 11 aged 46 or over. 39 were British, 5 were American, and 6 were of another nationality.

It is important that we get some insight into the listening habits of the respondents. Style was used as another cross break so all of the group sizes will be given. The most popular genre of music was rock with 42 of the respondents (84%) listening to it. As some context, the second most popular style of music was pop with 34 of the respondents (68%) listening to it. The others were country with 16 (32%), R&B with 21 (42%), hip-hop & rap with 20 (40%), jazz with 20 (40%), soul with 16 (32%), metal with 23 (46%), easy listening with 14 (28%), world with 12 (24%), classical with 30 (60%), dance with 16 (32%), blues with 20 (40%), alternative with 23 (46%), and other with 6 (12%). Respondents consistently listened to more recent music than older music, with the average rate of listening increasing in an unbroken trend across the decades to the present day. On a scale of 0 to 3, the pre-60s era scored 1.6, the 60s scored 1.76, the 70s scored 1.98, the 80s scored 2.18, the 90s scored 2.44, and the 2000s/2010s scored 2.54. With respect to gender, there is little variation apart from in the pre-60s period, where males scored 1.36 and females scored 1.89. With respect to age, those aged 46 and over listened most often to pre-60s music, with a score of 2.11, with an unbroken decrease in listening frequency correlating with age, so that the 11-25 year olds had a score of 1.23. The 36-45 year olds listened most often to 60s (2.5), 70s (2.67), and 80s music (2.83), and tied with the 26-35 year olds on 90s music (2.83 each), with the trend in each case being that the further from the 36-45 year old age group another age group was, the less often they listened to music from that time period. The 11-25 year olds listened most often to 2000s/2010s music, with 2.67, with the frequency dropping as age rises to the 46 and over group (2.3). Americans listened more often to music of every era than any other nationality. The scores for listening habits during each era were consistent from the 70s to the 2000s/2010s (2.52-2.63), but the scores were lower for the pre-60s (2.2) and 60s (2.09). The 2000s/2010s era was chosen as a favourite by the largest number of respondents, with 28% of the votes. Regardless of which of the six eras was chosen as a favourite, the dominant reasons for choosing that era were talent and variety.

Questions 3a, 5a, 7a, 9a, 11a, and 13a, which asked the respondents which styles of music they listened to in each era, produced the following results. In the pre-60s period, the most popular style of music was Jazz with 43% listening to it. In the 60s, two styles were close: rock with 45%, and pop with 42%. In the 70s, it was rock with 61%. In the 80s, two styles had 50% or more of the respondents as listeners: rock with 74%, and pop with 63%. In the 90s, three styles had 50% or over: alternative rock with 60%, pop with 57%, and heavy metal with 52%. In the 2000s/2010s, two styles had 50% or over: rock with 74%, and pop with 61%. Questions 3c, 5c, 7c, 9c, 11c, and 13c, which are in chronological order with respect to the questions, and which asked the respondents to rate each era on a scale of 1 to 10, show a different result to those derived from question 2c about the respondents’ favourite era. While the 2000s/2010s were chosen as the favourite, the same era was rated joint lowest with the 80s, with an average score of 7.58. This is not a contradiction though, as it could simply be that respondents who did not pick the 2000s/2010s as their favourite era rated that era lower than respondents who did had rated other eras. It could also be down to the wording of the question: “favourite” is a subjective term whereas asking the respondents to rate the era requires a less personal and more objective assessment. The dominant reasons for this era being disliked are that respondents considered it, in descending order of importance, too commercially orientated, lacking talent, focusing too much on image and being cheesy. The highest rated era, with an average score of 9.06, was the 60s, and the dominant reason for liking it was that it had a lot of musical talent.

I asked respondents to name a favourite band, so that the most prominent could be examined in more detail. There were omissions, and some respondents either stated that they didn’t have a favourite, or picked more than one, and in both cases, this was accepted. There were four acts cited as a favourite five times or more: Muse, Oasis, Metallica, and The Beatles. Muse are a very popular British alternative rock group, Oasis were a very popular Brit-pop band, Metallica are a very popular American thrash metal/alternative rock group, and The Beatles were a British rock group from the 1960s, that commands enormous respect, was extremely commercially successful, and project enormous influence over contemporary popular music. In addition, the Canadian progressive rock band, Rush, were cited as a favourite across three different decades: the 80s, the 90s, and the 2000s/2010s; the only act to achieve this result.

The mean scores for question 15, which dealt with perceptions of music by parents and children, were as follows. 20% of parents of the respondents were not interested in the music being produced during the childhood of the respondents. Of those who were, the average score was -0.05, indicating that they neither approved nor disapproved. The respondents themselves viewed the music of their parents’ generation in a slightly more favourable light, as evidenced by their mean score of 0.26. Respondents viewed their own childhood music in a slightly more favourable light still, with a mean score of 0.79. 24% of respondents had children over the age of 11. These respondents had a favourable view, although slightly less so than towards their own childhood music, of the music of their children’s childhood, with a score of 0.5, and the children had the highest mean score, and thus most positive view of all, for their view of the respondents’ childhood music, with 1.1.

The mean scores for question 16, asking respondents whether they agreed with six criticisms of contemporary popular music, were as follows. Respondents were neutral on their view of mainstream music with a mean score of -0.02. Those demographics most agreed that it was of bad quality were males (0.1), 36-45 year olds (0.14), and Americans (0.2). Among style groups, metal and alternative listeners expressed agreement, with scores of 0.22 and 0.3 respectively, but the “Other” category expressed particularly strong agreement, with a score of 0.67. Hip-Hop & Rap, pop, and jazz listeners expressed relatively strong disagreement, with scores of -0.53, -0.33, and -0.3 respectively. Respondents most strongly disagreed with the idea that all contemporary popular music was bad, with a score of -1.45. All demographics were representative of this, with the 46 and over category being least so with -1.27, as is the case with the style groups, with the strongest disagreement expressed by the “Other” category again (-1.83). Respondents expressed a small amount of disagreement with the criticism that music today lacks soul, with a mean score of -0.38. This is represented well over the demographics, with the exception of those, whose nationalities were classified as “Other”. This group was the only one to score positively: 0.2, and the alternative style group scored exactly 0. Respondents expressed moderate levels of agreement with the criticism that mediocrity in music is celebrated now, with a score of 0.53. A particularly interesting observation from the data is that there is more than one point of difference between the 11-25 year olds, with 0.06, and the 26-35 year olds, with 1.17, the lowest and highest scores from the individual demographics respectively. In other words, the 11-25 year olds had an almost neutral view of the criticism, whereas the 26-35 year olds expressed significant levels of agreement. The American and “Other” demographics also differed from the mean with scores of 1.00 and 0.33 respectively. The other demographics were representative of the total mean. One particular style group, “Other”, scored 1.5, expressing extremely strong agreement with this criticism, whereas the “Hip-hop & Rap” group scored 0.15. Respondents expressed significant agreement with the criticism that the majority of current music is made for the sole purpose of making money, with a mean score of 0.96. The demographics are fairly representative of this mean with slightly over half a point of difference between the lowest scoring group, the 26-35 year olds with 0.71, and the highest, the 36-45 year olds with 1.25. Once again the “Other” style group expressed the strongest agreement with 1.67. What is particularly interesting is that this criticism is made particularly strongly against hip-hop & rap, and yet this group expressed the weakest agreement, tied with the jazz group. Finally, respondents had a neutral view on the criticism that lyrical meaning is limited to sex, partying, money and fame, with a mean of -0.02. However, there is little consistency among the demographics. While the most disagreement came from the 11-25 year olds, with -0.28, the Americans agreed significantly, with a score of 1.00. However, they also had a standard deviation, of 0.69, so there was widespread disagreement within this demographic as well. There is greater consistency among the style groups, however. When asked the question of whether they thought current music was better or worse than previous eras, only 8% said that they thought it was better, all of whom were British and in the 11-25 year old age group. 34% thought it was worse. This is represented well over the demographics, with the exception of the 36-45 year old group, only one of whom had this view. 50% thought that current music was as good as previous eras, representing well over the demographics, with the same exception: all other members of the 36-45 year old age group, 86% of them, had this view. The remaining 8%, all males and all 11-25, were unsure. The style groups represented by 2 or more respondents, who thought music today was better, were rock (2), pop (3), country (2) and R&B (3). A very interesting observation is made when examining the additional criticisms made by the respondents. Of the respondents who thought that music today is worse than music from previous eras, 35% of them had nothing further to add; however, every respondent who did had something different to say. The criticisms were as follows. There is musical talent, but it is not receiving widespread exposure. The image of the artist or band is perceived as more important than the musical and lyrical content of the song. The radio doesn’t explore beyond the mainstream, it simply plays mainstream music. The music doesn’t have staying power, and will be forgotten quickly. There are too many similar acts. The enormous variety of music around today is not displayed, or easily accessible to the public. The lyrics are crude. Talent shows are responsible for producing particularly poor quality music. Singers shout rather than sing. The musical styles of today are recycled from previous decades. Music has become a commodity. There are too many one-hit wonders. There is generally very little integrity in the music. Finally, there is very little time taken in writing the music.

There were four sources for finding out about music that 50% or more of the respondents used. These will be presented in descending order. The most popular, with 78% of respondents using it, was the internet. Secondly, 70% of respondents found out about new music from the radio. Thirdly, 56% found out about music from there friends, and, with exactly 50%, was family as the fourth most popular source for finding out about music. When asked which source was most significantly used to find out about music, again, the internet was the most popular choice with 38%, and radio was second with 32%. There were three sources for obtaining new music that were frequented by 50% or more of the respondents. Again, in descending order these were music stores with 74%, and then friends and iTunes, or other legitimate internet stores, were tied with 50% each. 36% of respondents pirated music either from P2P networks or Torrents. All of those who did it in their childhood continue to do it. Piracy was most committed by 11-25 year olds, with 60% of them engaging in it. It was also more popular with males than females, with 48% of males engaging in it, as opposed to 16% of females. Rates of piracy ranged between 25%, with world music listeners, and 50%, with hip-hop and rap listeners, and listeners of other music.

62% of respondents were not either in school or university, and so answered the same three questions with regard to their childhoods. The four most prominent sources, used by 50% or more of the respondents, are, in descending order, friends with 74%, radio with 68%, TV with 55%, and magazines with 52%. With nearly three times as many votes as its nearest contender, radio was chosen as the most significant source of finding new music during the respondents’ childhoods, with 45%. Finally, by far the most frequented source for new music, and the only one used by more than 50% of respondents, was music stores with 81% of respondents using them.

The extent to which the tastes of classmates of the respondents compared with the respondents was as follows. 30% said that classmates shared the vast majority of their tastes, 36% said that their classmates’ tastes differed slightly, 30% said that their classmates’ tastes differed significantly, and only 4% said that they had next to nothing in common musically with their classmates. 34% of respondents said that they were made fun of for their tastes. If respondents tastes were more different to their classmates, being made fun of was more likely, and this trend was perfectly consistent: 7% of respondents, the vast majority of whose tastes were shared with their classmates, were made fun of, this rose to 28% when the differences were slight, 60% when the differences were significant, and 100% when there was next to nothing in common.

The mean scores for question 20, in which respondents were asked how important certain musical features were, the results were as follows. Lyrics had a mean score of 2.98, meaning that it was viewed as significantly important by the respondents. The highest scoring group, with 3.43, were the 36-45 year olds, and the lowest, with 2.5, were the 26-35 year olds. The aforementioned importance of lyrics, then, is representative across all demographics and style groups, although to a lesser extent by listeners of dance (2.53) and world music (2.67). Musical complexity was also considered important, although slightly less so, with a mean score of 2.51. While this is well represented, amongst the demographics, there are two significant outliers: those aged 46 or over, with 2.11, or neither important nor unimportant, and Americans with 3.4, or very important. There is good consistency across the style groups, with “Other” achieving the lowest score of 2.33, and jazz achieving the highest with 2.79. Originality was considered very important by respondents, with a mean score of 3.31. No demographic gave it a score less than 3, with the group of other nationalities giving it exactly that, but it achieved an average score of 3.8 amongst Americans. Consistency is very strong across the style groups too with R&B scoring lowest (3.19), and alternative scoring highest (3.52). Whether or not a song is catchy was of significant importance to the respondents as well, scoring exactly 3. The only outlier in the demographics was the group consisting of respondents with nationalities other than British or American, scoring 2.17. The style groups produce extremely intuitive results, with metal scoring lowest (2.52), and pop scoring highest (3.29). The length of a piece was regarded by the respondents as being of relatively little importance, achieving a mean score of just 1.4. 26-35 year olds, in particular, found it to have very little importance, giving it only 0.58. No group gave it 2 or more, with the highest being 1.9, by the 11-25 year olds. Although the scores do differ, this only translates as disagreement over how unimportant length is. The style groups reflect this apathy as well, particularly by the “Other” group (0.33), and with pop giving it the highest score (1.56). Musical talent was considered exactly as important as originality, also achieving a mean score of 3.31. The 26-35 year olds group was the only one to score less than 3, and the highest scoring group were the Americans again with 3.6. The mean score, then, is represented well across the demographics. Again, the style groups have produced a very intuitive result: classical listeners value talent highest (3.62), whereas dance music listeners scored lowest (exactly 3). Emotional impact was another aspect of the music viewed with significant importance by the respondents, with a mean score of 3.13. The 36-45 year olds viewed it as being extremely important, giving it a score of 3.71, otherwise the consistency amongst the demographics is good. The soul, jazz, and “Other” style groups all scored 3.6 or more. Finally, respondents thought that whether the music was good for dancing was neither important nor unimportant, achieving a mean score of 2.04. Demographics were more or less equally distributed over each side of 2, with the only outlier being those of nationality other than British or American, scoring 1.2. The “Other” group produced the lowest score among the style groups, with 1.5, whereas dance music listeners gave it 2.73.

72% of respondents viewed the lyrics of a song as being quite or very important. Three categories of lyrics interested more than 50% of the respondents. These, in descending order, were lyrics which were personal to the writer, with 78%, narratives or storylines, with 58%, and love, with 53%. “Personal” was the most popular lyrical theme amongst every style group without exception.

46% of respondents viewed the complexity of the music as being quite or very important. However, the vast majority, 70%, of those thought that it depended on the song. 9% definitively preferred simple music, and 17% definitively preferred complex music. The 9% who preferred simple music all belonged to the pop, rock, and easy listening style groups. The 17% who preferred complex music all belonged to the rock, classical and alternative style groups.

Only 16% of respondents viewed the length of the song as being quite or very important, meaning that the data that follows isn’t very substantive. However, of those who did view it as important, 50% preferred that the song be four minutes long or shorter. The 50% that preferred songs of length four minutes or shorter all belonged to the rock style group.

84% of respondents viewed musical talent as being quite or very important. Four types of instrumental talent were particularly valued by 50% or more of the respondents. In descending order, these were expressive ability, with 81%, performance dexterity, with 62%, performance charisma, with 57%, and innovative use of instrument, with 55%. All 57% of the respondents who value performance charisma belonged to the rock style group. Five types of vocal talent were particularly valued by 50% or more of the respondents. In descending order, these were having a distinctive voice, with 71%, expressive ability, with 67%, vocal strength, with 62%, and pitch range and versatility, both with 57%.

All respondents over 25 years old, 60% of all respondents, were asked which recording media they listened to music on in their childhood. Vinyl and Cassette were the most popular listening media with 83% of those respondents choosing each, while 53% of them listened to music on CDs.

All respondents then answered the same question with regard to the present day. 88% of respondents listened to CDs and mp3s. An interesting observation about the data on this question reveals that the 11-25, and 26-35 year olds listen to music on vinyl, suggesting a resurgence of interest.

The frequency, with which respondents attended live concerts, was as follows. 2% of respondents attended them weekly or more frequently, 4% attended 2-3 times a month, 4% attended monthly, 16% went every 2-3 months, 12% went every 4-6 months, and 12% went annually, meaning that 50% of all respondents attended live concerts at least annually, and so answered the remaining questions. 32% went less frequently, and 18% never attend. An interesting observation is that all respondents belonging to the “Other” style group attended live concerts at least annually.

There were three types of live events attended by 50% or more of the respondents who attended live concerts at least annually. These were, in descending order, gigs by internationally recognised acts, with 64%, gigs by nationally recognised acts, with 56%, and gigs by local acts, with 52%.

These respondents were then asked how often they discover new music they like at gigs, and the results were as follows. 8% never discovered it, 24% discovered it rarely, 48% sometimes discovered it, and 20% discovered it often. The most popular response, then, was “Sometimes”.

They were then asked whether their perceptions of the act, which they are watching live, changed due to the live performance. 8% of respondents said that this always happened, 64% said that it sometimes happened, and 28% said that it depends on who is performing. No-one said that it never happened. Most respondents feel, then, that their perceptions of an act, after seeing them live, sometimes change, but the discrepancy between whether they change or not is not down to who is performing.

These respondents were then asked whether they preferred seeing acts live, or listening to them on a recording. 48%, thus making this the most popular option, chose live, 12% said recording, 24% didn’t have a preference, and 16% were unsure.

The 48%, that preferred seeing acts live, answered the final question, asking them why. Two reasons were chosen by 50% or more of these respondents, and these were, in descending order, the experience of seeing the act live, with 67%, and that live events had a more social atmosphere, with 50%.


Now that a picture of the respondents’ perceptions has been formed, there are many useful conclusions that can be drawn, and suggestions that further study in this area can confirm. To begin with, an investigation of the four most popular acts cited in the survey can shed some light on the attributes which make these particular acts stand out.

Muse are a British rock band from Teignmouth, Devon in England. They are one of the few mainstream rock bands around today that are respected as creative musicians as well as being popular. Initially, with their 1999 release, Showbiz, Muse received criticism, as they were perceived to be derivative of Radiohead. However, with their 2001 release, Origin of Symmetry, in which they incorporated classical and progressive rock influences and pushed the boundaries of their musical talent, they began to develop a strong identity of their own. Their music incorporates a wide variety of styles, and their lyrical themes tend to focus on love, conspiracy theories, politics, and end-of-the-world scenarios. The primary songwriter and lyricist is their lead singer, guitarist, and keyboard player, Matthew Bellamy. Bellamy is extremely respected as a performer, even going so far as to be called the greatest guitarist of the previous decade by Total Guitar for his knowledge and use of multiple guitar techniques, innovative add-ons, and the Plug In Baby riff, derived from baroque music. In addition, he has a three octave vocal range, two of which are in full voice. Muse, then, clearly possess the two most valued features in a successful music act, as suggested by the survey: talent and variety.

Oasis were a Britpop band from Manchester, England. They were the most enduring Britpop act, and released several highly commercially successful songs, including “Roll With It”, “Wonderwall”, and “Don’t Look Back In Anger”. The attention is normally focused on brothers, Liam and Noel Gallagher, both multi-instrumentalists, as they were frequently the subject of controversy for remarks and rows towards other musicians, audiences, and each other. Their biggest influence is The Beatles, and these influences are evident in their songs, which set catchy pop melodies to a guitar-based background.

Metallica are a heavy metal band from Los Angeles, California. In the 1980s, they pioneered thrash metal, releasing four of the most respected albums of the genre: Kill ‘Em All (1983), Ride the Lightning (1984), Master of Puppets (1986), and, following the death of their bass player, Cliff Burton in 1986,  …And Justice for All (1988), before achieving significant commercial success with 1991’s Metallica, or the Black Album, and a more mainstream hard rock sound. While every album since then has reached #1 on the Billboard charts, fans have always cited the 1980s as being the period where Metallica were in their prime, so this is the period I will focus on. Metallica’s respect come from their decision to speed up metal, make it more aggressive, and bring a greater standard of complexity to it. The complexity is attributed to Burton’s classical influences, and his skills as a bass player have seen him praised as one of the greatest bassists ever. Metallica’s 80s music consisted of heavy, fast, chromatic guitar work with memorable riffs and, lyrics consisting of personal and social themes. Talent, originality and personal lyrics were both highly valued musical elements from the survey.

The Beatles are one of the most respected popular music acts ever. During their career in the 1960s, they wrote some of the most memorable, popular and respected songs and albums in popular music history, and have had an enormous influence on later popular music. All of the band members were capable of playing many different instruments, and, as with Queen, they all individually contributed songs to their albums, although John Lennon and Paul McCartney were the principal song writing force behind the band. Lennon was shot and killed in 1980 outside his apartment in New York, and bassist, George Harrison, died from lung cancer in 2001. Their songs draw from an enormous range of influences including rock & roll, American black music of the time, and world music, and many of them are instantly memorable. The Beatles exhibited originality, talent and they wrote catchy songs, all of which were highly valued by the respondents from the survey.

The focus of the survey was to identify the reasons for what seemed to be an unusually strong backlash against current popular music. The results would seem to suggest that there is indeed a disproportionately strong backlash, and there have been a multitude of criticisms cited in the survey for why this is the case. Due to the respondents’ feedback on the sample criticisms presented in the survey, it is also very clear which traits they find objectionable.

The criticism is that mainstream music focuses too much on the image of the artist or band, and on making money. The talented acts, of which there are many, receive relatively little exposure, while acts who rely on technology to sound acceptable achieve international success, thus giving off the impression that there is a shortage of musical talent at the moment. This makes mediocrity the norm and discourages originality and talent.

The most important thing to do now is to assess whether this can be changed, and what can be done to change it. The respondents have expressed clearly the traits which they find admirable in music. In the literature review section of this dissertation, I inquired as to why there is such a dominance of synthpop and ballads if there is also such distaste for them. The data suggests a possible reason. Respondents cited an enormous range of artists and styles that they listened to in the 2000s/2010s as opposed to previous decades. The most respected feature of this period of music was its variety, and yet, all demographics of respondents predominantly bought music from music stores. Perhaps the reason why there is such a dominance of synthpop and ballads today is that everyone who is not interested in such music has looked elsewhere, but, since there is such an eclectic range of tastes, the result is that everyone buys music of different styles. In order for there to be an effective challenge to the mainstream, there must be cohesion. A theoretical solution, then, would be for an act of an alternate style to appeal to as wide a range of these differing tastes as possible. If such an act were also to appeal to people who have mainstream tastes, their challenge would be a considerable one. From looking at the data, Muse appear to be the most successful challenge to synthpop that has alternative and mainstream appeal, but they also seem to be largely alone, and their current level of appeal is not sufficient enough as a challenge.

There is another hurdle. Alternative acts have traditionally had trouble adjusting to mainstream exposure. Two such prominent examples are Pearl Jam and Radiohead. After Cobain’s death, Pearl Jam stopped making music videos to minimise their mainstream exposure, fearing a similar fate, and, after the success of OK Computer, Radiohead’s lead singer, Thom Yorke, suffered severe writer’s block and a nervous breakdown. They focused on experimental electronic music after this, retreating from the mainstream. The fans, too, expect an act to succeed on their own terms, and not off of the success of another. Some have hostile reactions to mainstream success either way. What can be done to counteract this? Perhaps Muse, being in their key position, could focus on making their next album fit the criteria given to us by the survey more precisely than they currently do. Or perhaps a new or currently unknown act, possessing the required qualities, must offer a challenge of their own, on their own terms, in a single song or album that goes viral on the internet. Rebecca Black’s “Friday” recently achieved this, but for the opposite reasons.

Finally, the survey brought up concerns about the role of technology in music production and the propagation of music via TV talent shows. It seems clear from these observations that if an act were to surface and challenge the current mainstream, it must avoid using Auto-Tune, or other form of technology that is perceived to serve as a substitute for talent, and they must avoid any association with names such as American Idol, X Factor, or Simon Cowell. They must rise to fame through their song writing, instrumental talent, and vocal talent, or they will fail to achieve the result desired by the respondents. The importance of being able to perform well live is a significant finding of the survey.

In conclusion, there is clearly a large demand for music that is original, created by an artist or band that writes their own songs and lyrics, and that has expressive power and lyrical meaning beyond the themes of love and dancing. This demand needs to be focused into a single style or act if the content of the mainstream is to change. It is easier than ever for an artist or band to write music, record that music, and to advertise it. In such an environment, I am very optimistic that the focus of that demand is on the horizon, and will rise to fame within this decade. I hope that the results of this dissertation, or a similar survey conducted on a larger scale, can encourage such an act to surface so that I, many others like me, and especially those from future generations, do not look back on these decades feeling disappointed and ashamed of the music of their childhood.

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Table of Contents

Appendix A: Sample Questionnaire

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Appendix B: Data Tabulations

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