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Posts tagged ‘John Cage’

Novelty in Music and Markets: The Evolutionary Forces Behind our Appreciation of the Unfamiliar

All great musicians share one thing in common: the ability to combine the familiar with the unfamiliar to create something novel and intriguing but, at the same time, not alienating and absurd. It’s Dylan going electricit’s the Beastie Boys combining punk and hip-hop; and it’s Zappa incorporating jazz and rock. Going too far in either direction is risky. As any one hit wonder will tell you, too much familiarity is a career killer. And the work of musicians like John Cage illustrates that music which is completely unconventional is usually rejected. Daniel Levitin, author of This is Your Brain on Music, explains this perfectly: “As music unfolds, the brain constantly updates its estimates of when new beats will occur, and takes satisfaction in matching a mental beat with a real-in-the-world one… [but it also] takes delight when a skillful musician violates [an] expectation in an interesting way – a sort of musical joke that we’re all in on. Music breathes, speeds up, and slows down just as the real world does, and our cerebellum finds pleasure in adjusting itself to stay synchronized”.

I think the same can be said for brands, which, like a musician or musical group, cannot exist by just being the same thing over and over again. They must innovate and change to maintain their novelty. But they cannot be too groundbreaking also – just ask the folks who invented New Coke or the engineers who created the Poniac Aztek about what happens when you do that. Our desire to want the novel and the familiar helps explain why half the products we see have those “new look, same great taste” gimmicks.

So what are the Beatles, Dylans or Zappas of marketing campaigns? What were the advertisements that changed paradigms and challenged the way we viewed things? What were the brands that successfully introduced a new look and a new taste?

One example that comes to mind is Debeers’ “a diamond is forever” campaign. This was groundbreaking because it not only sold diamonds, it convinced an entire society that an engagement required a really expensive diamond. They took a completely unfamiliar concept and made it into a cultural norm. Bottled water is another. Recall (if you can) that until the 1970s, gas stations and grocery stores did not have shelves full of bottled water. Somehow, though, marketers persuaded consumers to start buying something that they could get free. Again, they took an unconventional idea and made it conventional (Dasani and Aquafina, by the way, come from the same source as your tap water).

The acute reader will realize that what I am describing here – our tendency to look for new things on the horizon while remaining at bay – does not just help us understand good music or marketing, but many other things in life. From girlfriends and boyfriends, to books and movies, to architecture and visual art, to iphones and ipads, we are “informavores”. We love new things as long as they aren’t too new. The question is: where does this trait come from? One place to start looking is evolutionary psychology literature.

Here’s one argument: natural selection favored intelligence, which was a capacity used to understand novelty. The line of reasoning goes something like this:

What is now known as general intelligence may have originally evolved as a domain-specific adaptation to deal with evolutionarily novel, nonrecurrent problems… there were likely occasional problems that were evolutionarily novel and nonrecurrent, which required our ancestors to think and reason in order to solve.  Such evolutionarily novel problems may have included, for example:

1.  Lightning has struck a tree near the camp and set it on fire.  The fire is now spreading to the dry underbrush.  What should I do?  How could I stop the spread of the fire?  How could I and my family escape it?  (Since lightning never strikes the same place twice, this is guaranteed to be a nonrecurrent problem.)…

…Because such problems were not recurrent features of the ancestral environment, there are no innate solutions provided by existing psychological adaptations…. from this perspective, general intelligence may not have been very important – no more important than any other domain-specific psychological adaptation – in its evolutionary origin but it became universally important in modern life, only because our current environment is almost entirely evolutionarily novel.

From this we can reasonably speculate that our propensity to look for and appreciate novelty comes from our intelligent novel-seeking and novel-solving ancestors who natural selection favored. But this line of reasoning has serious holes. For one, if it’s true, then intelligent people should listen to the best, most innovative music. They don’t. By the same logic, they should gravitate towards the most novel products. But this, of course, is backwards; intelligence people shouldn’t be persuaded by shallow gimmicks.

At this point I don’t have an answer. Evolutionary psychology is still quiet young, so its speculations are probably lacking as well. But I will say that those who point to cultural norms or societal trends as reasons for why we buy what we buy or why we latch onto the brands we latch onto are only telling half of the story. The other, far more important half is the one our ancestors and evolutionary psychologists tell us. It regards our older and much more ingrained and primitive motivations. In trying to answer the question of why we seek novelty in music, brands or anything else, the first places we should look are the biological systems which were responsible for moving us out of the trees and onto the savannah.

Why You’ll Pay for Silence: John Cage’s 4:33

I was on iTunes yesterday checking out Kanye and Jay-Z’s latest when I came across something that caught my eye. It was the famous – or perhaps infamous – John Cage piece Four Minutes and Thirty Three Seconds, one of the must unique and provocative pieces in the history of contemporary music.

4:33 was debuted on August 29th, 1952, by David Tudor at Maverick Concert Hall in Woodstock, New York. Tudor was an established pianist well versed in the experimental music scene. That night however, he was faced with one of the most unmatched pieces of his career. He slowly walked on stage, took his place at the piano, and opened the score. But then he did something he had never done before – nothing.

For the next four minutes and thirty-three seconds Tudor sat there, in silence, and nearly motionless. Then, without striking a single piano key, he got up and walked off stage.

No, he didn’t freeze or choke. He actually performed the piece flawlessly. You see, Cage’s 4:33, a three-piece movement, is a composition completely void of notes. It is nothing. It sounds like a half-baked idea, and maybe it is, but Cage believed that 4:33 was music just as any traditional composition was. For him, 4:33 qualified as music because it wasn’t actually silent; its music was in the environment – it was the traffic noise in the background, the sneezes, the coughs, the shuffling of papers, and the thoughts that went through people’s heads as they sat there watching Tudor do nothing.

Cage replaced the expected with the unexpected; instead of piano sounds, he gave the audience different sounds – but he still gave them music.

I first heard about 4:33 from my college music professor, who actually paid money for the sheet music and had us perform it in his intro to music theory class. I remember it well, the entire class sat there in silence for 4:33 and “played” Cage’s piece. I was dumbfounded. What the fuck, I thought; why the hell did my professor pay money for the sheet music that didn’t have any notes.

I had forgotten about 4:33 until I saw it on iTunes yesterday. What caught my eye was that it was being sold. That’s right, for 99 cents, you can have four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence. Sounds ridiculous, but people are actually buying it!

Obviously, this makes absolutely no sense from an economic stand point. First off all, these people are paying for nothing. Literally. Second of all, they already own it, that is, they can perform the piece by just shutting up for 4:33. They can even go be silent in front of a piano if it makes them feel better. In fact, if they are paying for 4:33 they might as well go outside, take out a one dollar bill, light it on fire, and stand in silence and watch it quietly burn.

Why would they pay for this? What is it that they are getting?

After thinking about it for a while, it dawned on me that they aren’t buying silence, they are buying an idea. They are buying the point that Cage has made about silence and music; they are buying a chance to ponder what it means for something to be considered music; they are buying a few moments to think about what makes good art; they are buying the ability to tell people that they bought it; and they are buying the pleasure they get from 4:33 – whatever that pleasure may be.

Maybe. But you can’t just redirect the value of something to some intangible to maintain that the buyer was rational, it’s like assigning a value to snobbery or laziness to explain why a season pass holder skipped the opera. I wasn’t satisfied and found myself still trying to find an answer.

Luckily, I got an idea after watching a TedTalk by Paul Bloom. Bloom is a Yale psychology professor who specializes in the “science of why we like what we like,” as the subtitle to his latest book so eloquently says. Specifically, he is interested in pleasure; the pleasure we get from sports, other people, and art. He tells an intriguing and humorous story at the beginning of his talk (also in the first chapter of his book) about a Nazi named Hermann Goering who was an obsessive art collector. One of Hermann’s prized possessions was Johannes Vermeer’s Christ with the Woman Taken in Adultery, which he traded for with 137 paintings worth about $10 million in today’s money. Unknown to Hermann was the fact that his Vermeer was actually a forgery done by Dutch painter Han van Meegeren.

Hermann heard the news at the Nuremberg trails while he was waiting to be executed for the crimes he committed throughout World War Two. According to his biographer, upon hearing that his Vermeer was a fake, Hermann looked “as if for the first time he had discovered there was evil in the world.” No, it wasn’t the six-some million deaths that he was partially responsible for, it was that his Vermeer, which turned out to be a van Meegeren, was a fake.

Bloom’s point, which is obvious only upon retrospect, is that we place a high value on essences. In other words, it wasn’t just the painting Hermann liked, it was its history. Consider the examples that Bloom provides to illustrate this:

The point is, we don’t value things in a vacuum; their histories, their essences, are just as important.

With this in mind, let’s return to 4:33. Why do people pay for it on iTunes? Why did my professor buy the sheet music? They were buying the history, the essence, and the authenticity. Sitting in a corner for four minutes and thirty-three seconds, without having bought the mp3 or sheet music, would be a fake in the same way that van Meegeren’s painting was a fake. Sure, replicas look and feel identical, but they aren’t, they don’t have the same history as the originals.

When I think about all of the memorabilia that I have saved over the years I begin to understand why people spend money on 4:33. It seems to me that just like I wouldn’t trade my first pair of shoes, my favorite stuffed animal that I slept with as a kid, and my 3rd grade art project for replicas, Cage followers wouldn’t go stand in a corner for four minutes and thirty-three seconds. I suppose that I can’t criticize them too much given that we both value the histories more than the things themselves.

But part of me still wonders… would you really pay 99 cents for “nothing?”

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