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Saturday, May 4, 2019

Salt, Sugar, Fat: Food, Music and Things We Like

There's an artist whose music I believe to be hugely overrated - definitely a case of recognition deserving of wider talent - but who is very popular with a certain section of the listening population. Although a newcomer to his music would probably hear nothing remarkable in the heard-a-thousand-times chord progressions, simple melodies and stock song forms that make up his oeuvre, he has nevertheless built a mythology around himself, a mythology that suggests his music represents some kind of deep genius, despite this same music providing no evidence to back this up. But because he has been deified by lazy critics, by people who believe lazy critics, and by nostalgia buffs, it's a given that if you express an opinion suggesting that said artist is not at all the genius he is made out to be, you will receive blowback. And I have, many times. Most recently it was pointed out to me by a defender of this god-like artist, that if I was right, and he wasn't very good, then how come so many people liked him?

I have a one-word riposte whenever I'm presented with that line of argument - McDonalds

The idea that the popularity of something must have a direct correlation with the quality of that something, is an idea that not only doesn't hold water, but leaks like a sieve. McDonalds - the fast food chain that the word ubiquitous could have been created to describe - is the biggest individual retail seller of cooked food in the world. It trounces everyone else in terms of the sheer volume of food it sells, and the popularity of its brand. But even the people who eat McDonalds would be unlikely to argue that it is the greatest food in the world. It is mass produced, has no variation, is made to a formula, and requires no culinary input from the individual sellers working in the McDonald's restaurants that sell the food. So why is this mass produced, bland food so popular all over the world?

Salt, Sugar, Fat.

Human beings are hardwired to like salt, sugar and fat, and Mc Donalds' food is loaded with all three. We have a fairly primal positive response to all three of those food elements, and food that is high in salt, sugar or fat content is an easy sell for the purveyor. One or more of these constituents is an integral part of all processed food in general and that, along with the ease of mass production, (and the concomitant cheapness that goes with that mass production), explains the popularity of such food, despite it having no nuance, subtlety or variety. Eating such food provides an instant hit to receptors that are primed to welcome them.

There is a correlation to this in the music world, certain musical constituents that evoke an almost immediate response in most people. These responses and why they have this effect on people is extensively detailed in 'The Music Instinct (how music works and why we can't live without it)' by Phillip Ball, a wonderful book that goes into evolutionary history, psychology and many other aspects of how we're wired towards certain musical responses and resist others.

In the book Ball shows how there are musical elements that could be described as being the equivalents to salt, sugar and fat - consonance, repetition, simplicity and predictability. He shows how popular melodies are nearly always contained within the intervallic scope of a fifth, contain ascending and descending scale steps, have very little dissonance and are structurally simple. Now even a limited observation of very popular music can see that simplicity and predictability are the stock in trade of this genre, but what Ball shows is how these elements are not just the product of taste, but have evolutionary origins - in other words we are hot-wired to respond to these things, in the same way that we are to the food elements mentioned earlier. You'd really have to read the book in order to get a fuller explanation of these musical responses, but it's fascinating to read for example how wide interval leaps are generally not positively responded to by most people, and Ball shows how very few hit songs have had any wider intervallic leap than a major sixth, and how intervals such as the tritone or minor sixth, (which flirt with dissonance), are rare in popular music.

So the obvious lesson from this is that the more you load your music with the elements that fire the receptors in the average listener, and keep away from the elements that are not universally appreciated, the more likely it is that your music will be popular with large numbers of people. In fact, the analogy that can be made between global commercial fast food and global commercial pop music are very striking.

As an example, I'm going to take the third paragraph of this post and repeat it, but replace salt, sugar and fat, with consonance, simplicity and predictability, and replace the word food with music, and McDonald's with commercial pop music -

Human beings are hardwired to like consonance, simplicity and predictability, and commercial pop music is loaded with all three. We have a fairly primal positive response to all three of those music elements, and music that is high in consonance, simplicity and predictability is an easy sell for the purveyor. One or more of these constituents is an integral part of all commercial pop music in general and that, along with the ease of mass production, (and the concomitant cheapness that goes with that mass production), explains the popularity of such music, despite it having no nuance, subtlety or variety. Hearing such music provides an instant hit to receptors that are primed to welcome them. 

The music of Justin Bieber, Britney Spears, Spice Girls, Ed Sheeran etc. are all loaded to the gunwales with enough musically consonant saccharine to give you diabetes, are as predictable as night following day, and are devoid of all but the most simple structures. In fact their music meets all the criteria for attaining the kind of mass following that they have. Of course there can be other factors in play in deciding why a listener might choose one over the other, but the bottom line with all their music is that they follow the simple recipe of consonance, simplicity and predictability, that guarantees they will alienate as few listeners as possible.

Thankfully there are people who don't want to eat a diet completely comprised of sugar, salt and fat, and there are people who want more from music than constant consonance and bland predictability. I was lucky enough to be brought up on a nuanced musical diet, and in the same way that someone is brought up eating a wide range of foods, it has remained with me for the rest of my life. I do enjoy sugar, salt and fat in food, and I do enjoy consonance in music and simplicity, but in both food and music, those naturally endearing elements have to be balanced, contrasted, and even contradicted by different elements at various times. Sometimes those elements have to be absent for a considerable time in order for them to be all the more welcome when they do return.

And to be fair to the artist I mentioned at the beginning, he's not the musical equivalent of McDonald's. More like a Domino's Pizza perhaps.....


  1. I agree Ronan. What you also have to take into account is the importance of branding. People who go to McDonald’s would buy anything because of their brand. And it’s the same with the major label artists you mention. So it’s not just giving people what they want, it’s also about not making changes from the formula which people have bought into. McDonald’s are in charge of this, major-label artists aren’t because they are bankrolled by a record company. What Is interesting to me is that most of the true global superstars who have achieved enough money and recognition to launch their own labels don’t bother and keep churning ing out the same, if not worse, shite.

    That’s what I love about the Spotify generation. Yes it’s difficult to make money out of your music but at least you get a shot at it. 20 or 30 years ago only people who could get signed to a label got a shot. I wrote a blog about this recently

    The previous model is broken but the new paradigm is only partially constructed and is still being shaped by corporations not the individuals who need it.

    To continue your analogy, its like at each McDonald’s there are other shops which people can use for free to sell their gourmet vegan burgers, organic produce or whatever the food equivalent of a minor sixth is. The drawback is that they can only charge a fraction of a cent for things rather than the €2 which McDonald’s get.

  2. You have obviously no qualms calling out artists like Justin Bieber, Britney Spears, Spice Girls, Ed Sheeran but only with this particular musician you are mentioning in your post you are staying remarkably reluctant to name him. Why are you being so guarded? Does this musician need to be protected? Is it a Jazz artist? Is it someone you know personally?

    1. I don't 'call out' Bieber etc. I make the point that their music is a perfect example of the kind of music that presses all the popular buttons, and contains all the elements required to press those buttons, and this explains their popularity. The article is about our predisposition towards certain basic elements in music, not about whether I like or dislike particular artists.