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The Music I Would Play for Extraterrestrials If I Was Abducted by a UFO
And other observations from my recent podcast with Coleman Hughes
I was recently invited by Coleman Hughes to talk about music, movies, and entertainment in the digital age (among other topics). Our podcast conversation is now available on the leading streaming platforms.
It’s a wide-ranging discussion, and over the course of 75 minutes we covered everything from stagnancy in pop culture to whether musicians have an easier time getting a date on the weekend.
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Here’s an extract:
Coleman Hughes: Nearly every huge movie, especially large epic movies like The Avengers or anything like that, will as a matter of formula use European classical music, whether it’s creating a new score or using ‘Flight of the Valkyries’ or something of that sort. . . . Why is it that audiences clearly demand and enjoy Western classical music the most within the context of movies, but not outside of that setting.
Ted Gioia: It’s interesting to probe into this. I once looked at movies that relied heavily on European and especially German Romanticist classical music—we’re talking Beethoven, Wagner, that whole shtick. I found that the more they relied on those sounds, the higher the kill count in the movie. More people got killed in the movie the more you had this sweeping Romanticist music.
If you’re going to do a movie with more than a thousand people killed on screen, you need something that sounds like Wagner. The same thing is true of video games. If you look at video games, what happens in the video game determines the sound they want.
I don’t want to dig into this too deeply because it would take forever—and, in fact, I’m a huge fan of classical music. I listen to a lot of Bach, Haydn, Mozart. I would say, though, that in the last one hundred years, music has been embedded in lifestyles, and we assume that this was always the case. But that wasn’t always the case. The word lifestyle didn’t even exist in English until around 1950, and the idea that music represented your lifestyle was unknown until recently.
Let’s say you were living in a village in Eastern Europe in 1850, and you’re going to a wedding where there’s a dance. The musicians start playing and you’re dancing. Now the question is: Does that music represent your lifestyle? No, what you would say is this is my life.
This is not my lifestyle, it’s my life—the music was embedded in your life.
Nowadays music is a lifestyle choice. The music is supposed to represent who you are as an individual. So if I say I like country—or classical, jazz, hip-hop, reggae, opera, or whatever—I’m sending out messages to people. For someone like me who cares about how music sounds, and not trying to send coded messages to other people, this muddies the water.
But I will say that people’s perception of classical music—when it will fit and when it won’t, for example in the background of a movie with a large war scene but not in the background while they’re eating dinner—this is more a question of lifestyle than about the music itself. And this classical music that most people won’t listen to, like Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier, includes some of the greatest masterpieces ever made by human culture. If some extraterrestrial came here from another galaxy, one of the first things you might play for them would be Bach. That would be one of the first things I would do….
You can listen to the entire conversation below.