February 06, 2004
Why pieces of music are more popular if they have a number – an economic speculation about art consumption

Classical music fans like me have a mysterious fondness for pieces of music called, thrillingly, something like: "No. 14, opus 27 no. 2", rather than "Moonlight". I'm being ironic you understand. Also, Beethoven's Piano Sonata No. 14, opus 27 no. 2 and Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata are the same piece.

But whence the preference for numbers? Is it pure snobbery, nothing but a perverse pleasure in the esoteric which scares off the vulgar hoards, and nothing else? Maybe that's part of it. There is a shallow thrill to knowing "about" classical music, as well as knowing it, and feeling cleverer than the rest because you do.

But there is a more mundane and respectable consideration at work here, it has just this moment occurred to me.

The reason why numbers are good is that works of art with a number are ... more numerous! There are likely to be a lot of them!

It's a simple matter of economics. In rather the same way that you are more likely to start a business if, other things being equal, you stand to make a lot of money if things go well rather than merely a little, music fans (I'll stick with music, because this is what I really know about) are more likely to investigate a piece of music if, in the event that they like it, they know that there is going to be more of the same to enjoy.

Suppose you adore the Symphony Fantastique, by Hector Berlioz. Many do, for it is a fine piece. But me, I'm irritated by it. Why the hell, if Berlioz was good enough to write such a fine Symphony No 1, did Berlioz not rattle off another five, for all those who take a liking to the Berlioz way with a symphony?

Suppose that Beethoven had only written one piano sonata, the Moonlight, instead of the thirty two that he did write. I surmise that the Moonlight itself would be less popular than it is now. After all, if you gave the Moonlight a try, and liked it, there's nowhere else to go. As it is, if you like the first Beethoven piano sonata you listen to, there are thirty one others to enjoy, and isn't that great? So, all the more reason to give the first one you consider a go.

When you first learn about Brucker's symphonies, say, you pretty soon learn that there are nine of them, and you learn this long before you have heard all of them. Generally you hear all the chatter about the three final and particularly great ones – 7, 8 and 9 – and you hear them first. (That's a guess. I'm really talking about me.) But the mere fact of knowing that they are called 7, 8 and 9 tells you that in the event of you falling hopelessly in love with these mighty pieces, there will be a further six Brucker symphonies to wallow in. (Actually there are eight more Bruckner symphonies, because Bruckner wrote a Symphony No. "0", and even, if you please, an even earlier one now called Symphony No "00"! This was because he wrote them, then "withdrew" them, refusing the dignity of the titles No 1 and No 2 until he had works he considered worthy of such nomenclature, and then these early and at first unnumbered works were disinterred by scholars. You probably didn't know that, did you, you pathetic prole.)

Thus it is that obscure composers who, whatever their shortcomings, did at least write a lot of, e.g., symphonies, such as Arnold Bax (7), Havergal Brian (31 I think, or maybe 32), tend to do better than they would have done otherwise. I'm not saying that Bax is all that bad, or for that matter than (Havergal) Brian is all that good. I'm just saying that, other things being equal, numbers are enticing.

Although music is the taste I know most about for these purposes, I think it was painting that first got me to notice this tendency. The world of painting, it seems to me, is a world which rewards painters who stick with the same themes for longish periods. Think of Mondrian. Think of Bridget Riley. Think of Monet, solemnly doing the same haystack in a dozen different versions. Incomprehensibly creating a vast, matching set of works, rather than hopping about from one genre to another is, for a painter, a smart move. Concentrate, lad.

The usual explanation for this tendency to concentrate is, I guess, that this is how to create really good stuff. You stick with the same formula and perfect it, and you can't perfect it unless you stick with it.

But I think if you look at the situation from the point of view of the consumer of these vast aggregations of similar but not identical works of art, the reason for the success of artists who plough their one idiosyncratic furrow with bizarre determination and single-mindedness makes a little more sense.

I'll stop now, because this is an idea I have only just had, and it may be rubbish. I haven't lived with it, or kept an eye out for anyone else saying it. There are no links in this posting, because I am aware of no one else having said this, and before investing too much effort in this notion I need to know that I'm really on to something original here, and probably I am not.

My guess is that many a music critic has said something a lot like this, in passing, but hasn't quite realised that there is here a defence against that "number snobbery" charge, rather than a mere description of the nature of this alleged snobbery. That, I now surmise, is the original bit of this hypothesis. But even there I could be quite wrong.

Has anybody else said this?

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:40 AM
Category: Classical musicPainting