The world’s greatest music?

I sometimes listen to the UK radio station Classic FM.  Its strapline is “The world’s greatest music”. Leaving aside the difficulty of defining what great music is, let alone the greatest, I was curious as to the “world” bit.  I scraped the playlist for one day, did some gentle analysis on it and the charts that came out of this are below. 

The data 

I picked a day at random – 23/10/2022 – and looked at all music played between midnight and midnight the next day.  I could have written some code to get this data, but I thought that it would be quicker to do this by hand. (Surprise! The data was messy – sometimes it included the composer’s country and sometimes not, sometimes the composer’s name was part of a link to a page about that composer and sometimes it was just text.) So, I just put on some music and ground through it.

For each piece of music, I took the composer’s name and their country if it was present. I then filled in the gaps in the countries and checked some genders via Googling. This was normally straightforward, but occasionally I had to make some arbitrary choices (which one country should I use for Handel, for instance). 

I just counted the number of times each composer appeared in the playlist. This will favour composers of short pieces of music, rather than e.g. using the number of minutes of air time each composer had. I also didn’t take into consideration when the piece of music was played, which is probably related to how many people were listening to it.

There are other things I could have analysed, such as when it was written, what language its lyrics are in (if it has any), the composer’s ethnicity or social class etc, but this article was just me following my curiosity rather than a proper study. 

Processing 

I put the data into a CSV file, loaded it into Excel, then summarised it by country and by gender, and saved these summaries into their own CSV files. I then created a Jupyter notebook and used Plotly Express to create the choropleth maps and pie charts. There isn’t anything particularly clever going on, and Plotly Express makes the chart drawing nice and simple too. 

Where does the world’s greatest music come from? 

This is not as daft a question as it might appear. According to Classic FM, the world’s greatest music doesn’t come from all over the world, but is instead concentrated in some countries: 

Choropleth world map of number of pieces of music played on Classic FM by composer's country.

There is nothing from Africa, the Middle East, India, China or South East Asia. If you zoom in on just Europe you see that most (23.56%) of the world’s greatest music comes from the UK: 

Choropleth Europe map showing number of pieces of music played by Classic FM by composer's country

It’s worth bearing in mind that these maps don’t show at least two important things: 

  1. How many people live in one bit of the world versus another bit; 
  1. How much the culture in one bit of the world differs from the culture in another bit. 

While there are cultural differences between the countries of Europe, there’s less difference between two European countries and any European country and most bits of Africa, India and China. India and China have a large slice of the world’s population, and both have long and rich cultural traditions. 

Who writes the world’s greatest music? 

Women are about 50% of the world’s population, but according to Classic FM write only 2.4% of the world’s greatest music: 

Pie chart showing number of pieces of music played by Classic FM by gender of composer

Comparing it with 6 Music 

Another radio station I listen to is BBC 6 Music. Cerys Matthews has a three-hour programme on Sunday morning, so I decided to also analyse her playlist for the same day as the Classic FM analysis. 6 Music doesn’t claim to play the world’s greatest music, and if anything is likely to skew to music from the UK and USA as its music is adjacent to the UK popular music charts. (Crudely speaking, it’s what people could listen to once they feel they’re too old to listen to chart music, but don’t feel that Radio 2, 3 or 4 are where they feel at home.)

Cerys Matthews’ programme has probably one of the most diverse playlists in 6 Music, but not so much more diverse than the rest that it feels like it comes from a different radio station. I realise that I’m comparing 24 hours’ playlist on one radio station with 3 hours’ playlist on another, but I think that, if anything, extending the 6 Music data set to 24 hours’ worth would increase the number of countries represented.

The world map looks different: 

Choropleth world map of number of pieces of music played by Cerys Matthews by composer's country

There’s nothing from Russia, South America or Australia, more from the USA, and also music from the Caribbean, northern and sub-Saharan Africa and India. The music from India might have been because it was Diwali, but then it was also Diwali when Classic FM played the music that it did. 

The European map also looks different: 

Choropleth Europe map of number of pieces of music played by Cerys Matthews by composer's country

There’s music from fewer European countries than with Classic FM, and also less music from the UK (18.92% compared to 23.56%). 

The gender pie chart is also different: 

Pie chart showing number of pieces of music played by Cerys Matthews by gender of composer

Women write at least 27% of the music (over 9 times that of Classic FM). For some music it was hard to tell who the composer was; in these cases I picked “not applicable”. 

So what? 

In many ways, it doesn’t matter. I like much of the music played on Classic FM, and also many of their presenters. They’re also free to pick whatever strapline they choose. But as Carl Sagan said: “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”. The world’s greatest music is quite a claim, and I haven’t found the evidence to back that up. 

I’ve tried to avoid the issue of how to define “greatest” where it comes to music, as it’s so subjective. There are some pieces of music I’ve heard on Classic FM that I think are sublime, and so I could easily accept are among the world’s greatest. This is things like O Magnum Mysterium by Lauridsen or Allegri’s Miserere. However, I don’t think all the music they play is up to this standard. 

As I hope I’ve pointed out, I think that there is a lot of the world’s greatest music that they’re missing out. As a Venn diagram it would look like this: 

Venn diagram showing what Classic FM plays vs. the world's greatest music. The two circles overlap, but each circle has a bit that's outside the other circle.

To my mind, a more accurate strapline would be “Some of what we play is some of the world’s greatest music”. I realise that this is pedantry getting in the way of clarity and poetry, as for instance happened between Babbage and Tennyson

It’s like the oath that witnesses make in courts in the UK and other places, that everything that they say will be truthful, and they won’t leave out any truth that matters. Some of what Classic FM plays is the world’s greatest music (in my opinion) but not everything they play is the world’s greatest music, and they leave a lot of the world’s greatest music unplayed. I would love to hear Classic FM play some of the greatest music from the rest of the world too.

One thought on “The world’s greatest music?

  1. It might have made more sense to compare Classic FM’s output with BBC Radio 3. They have ostensibly a similar remit – classical music – but I suggest that R3 has been trying in recent years to change the diversity balance of its output, with jazz, ‘world music’ and music from under-represented nationalities.

    Your analysis also reveals interesting things about Class FM’s output even accepting that classical music tends to be highly Eurocentric. The bulk of classical music comes from the Austro-German tradition, followed by Italy and Russia. That Classic FM’s output leans towards Britain begins to look like a policy decision rather than any true reflection of “great music” (for any definition of ‘great’).

    It’s interesting to see what countries are unrepresented in Classic FM’s output; in no particular order, Iceland, Ireland, Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark, the Baltic states, Switzerland, Portugal, Slovakia, Greece, the Balkans, Belarus and the Ukraine. All these countries have composers who are better or lesser known, but my immediate thoughts are that this means Classic FM played no works by Rautavaara (Iceland); O’Carolan, Stanford or Harty (Ireland), Franck (Belgium) or Nielsen (Denmark). And I’d have to check, but there are a number of composers who we think of as Russian who are actually from Belarus or the Ukraine, but whose composing careers were during periods when these countries did not have an independent existence.

    One of the reasons I don’t listen to Classic FM unless I really have to is that their policy also relies on playlists; and those playlists end up meaning that some works get repeated multiple times in a week (at least that was my perception when, for some reason, my car radio refused to pick up anything but Classic FM for about three months – for instance, Ron Goodwin’s theme for the film ‘633 Squadron’ played at least three times in one week during the morning drivetime show). This may well have skewed some of your results; it would be interesting to see your results sub-divided by individual works with each work only being counted once for any appearance.

    Like

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