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Discussion Starter · #1 ·
...or how some pieces become iconic regardless of their greatness?

So, what is the difference between greatness and iconicity of a piece of music? How they influence each other? Is iconicity just the same thing as popularity?

Here's my take:

I would define greatness as a sum of artistic merit, depth, complexity, or perhaps elegance in simplicity, lasting influence, etc... actually no need to define it, you all intuitively know what makes a piece of music great.

Iconicity, on the other hand is a quality of a piece of music that makes it striking, memorable, instantly recognizable and often unforgettable. If we use pop/rock music terminology it would be close to catchiness but it's more than just catchiness. In popular music any song that becomes a hit can be conisdered catchy, but iconic songs are those that are still huge hits and instantly recognizible even 30, 40 or 50 years later... Such as Sweet Child O' Mine, Smells Like Teen Spirit or You Really Got Me.

IMO, iconicity of a piece of music significantly contributes to its greatness.

Iconicity is also different from mere popularity. Popularity is often more constrained in time, and even if it's more lasting pieces of music that are just popular usually don't provoke the same intense reaction such as iconic pieces.

Usually there are no lists of pieces of music based on iconicity. There are just lists ranked by either greatness or popularity. Iconicity is what we insitnctively feel about the song, and iconic songs can be found on both types of lists, though perhaps a bit more often on lists based on popularity, because iconic quality usually makes a song popular.

Now the real question is how to precisely define "iconicity" especially when it comes to classical music? What makes a piece iconic? What contributes to it? And how much the fact that a piece is iconic contribute to its greatness?

Here are some examples:

On lists ranked by greatness Mozart's 41st Symphony is usually considered the greatest and better than 40th Symphony. I agree with that too, I prefer 41st symphony and I have listened to it many more times than 40th symphony.

However, I would dare say that 40th symphony is not just more popular, but also way more iconic than 41st symphony.

Even though I listened to the 41st symphony more times, it's still much easier for me to instantly recognize the opening theme of 40th symphony. There's no such part in 41st symphony that is equally striking and recognizable.

But I would like to know is it REALLY so, that is, is there really some mysterious quality in 40th symphony that makes it iconic, or it's just my subjective feeling due to extreme level of unconscious exposure to 40th symphony, because it has become a part of popular culture and because its main theme is so often used, in ads, and everywhere. The opening theme of 40th symphony is extremely popular, that's certain.

But... the main question... has it become iconic and instantly recognizable because it's popular... and it became popular accidentally, by chance... OR it has become extremely popular because it already had this mysterious quality that makes it iconic.

And if there is such quality, how to explain it?
 

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It's an interesting post. Look at film stars - some are great actors, and others are great icons, but more limited actors. Which is better? We've seen iconic actors get the message across quite sufficiently, but with a star quality that some sweating, nose-picking, armpit scratching, mumbling method actor lacks. I kinda prefer old stars like Humphrey Bogart, Bette Davis, Clark Gable, katherine Hepburn, to the more mannered types of actors, who are great but too distracting.

Okay, I went off topic and your comparison between the 40th and 41st is better. :lol:

Everybody knows the 40th, but the 41st is mainly known among afficionados. Why is this? Maybe really only the first movement of the 40th is that well-known - it's iconic status rests on that magnificent movement - but is this movement better than the opening movement of the 41st? It's difficult to say, but it's more iconic. Why? Well, that's your question, and I don't really know why, other than to say that somehow it strikes a more immediate chord with people,
but as you say, the quality that makes it so popular is mysterious. It seems that this star quality is on the tip of my tongue - and a million miles away at the same time.

Sorry I can't do better, because it's such an interesting topic...
 

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You know, still thinking about this, the answer might not be as deep as I was thinking: maybe something becomes iconic because it has both originality and catchiness. Something as basic as this. Beethoven's 5th - how many people recognise the opening few bars? And then, how many of the same people could pick the second movement out of a police line up?

The most famous music tends to have an immediacy and directness that appeals quicker than the more complex movements - even though the iconic music may also be complex. It just wears it lighter, maybe?

I still dunno! :lol:
 

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Everybody knows the 40th, but the 41st is mainly known among afficionados. Why is this? Maybe really only the first movement of the 40th is that well-known - it's iconic status rests on that magnificent movement - but is this movement better than the opening movement of the 41st? It's difficult to say, but it's more iconic. Why?
One reason the first movement of 40 stands out is because it is in the minor mode - one of only two Mozart symphonies of which this is true. This makes it a special flavor of Mozart. Also, one must consider that stormy movements in the minor mode, whether by Mozart or Beethoven, seem to have been especially important in the formulation of textbook sonata form, in the 1820s and 30s. And because that pattern became iconic in later music, the first movement of 40 looks, retrospectively, like a quintessential thing of what was later to become a very popular kind.
 

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I think greatness is a subjective evaluation for each listener to decide upon for themselves.

I think Iconicity is how well known and integrated into the culture a given work is. Above some great examples have already been given, Mozart's 40th, Beethoven's 5th, and I'll add Beethoven's 9th and Moonlight Sonata.
 

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Popularity seems pretty easy. It's just a matter of how much music gets performed or listened to. "Happy Birthday to You" may be the world's most popular song. In classical music any number of things - Vivaldi's Four Seasons, Strauss's waltzes, Beethoven's 5th, Bizet's Carmen, Tchaikovsky's 1st piano concerto, etc. - have been virtually unavoidable for generations. Popularity may be general or specific to a limited audience (e.g., Puccini's La Boheme among operagoers).

Iconicity implies representativeness in some remarkable way of something bigger than the thing itself. Almost any of the popular works listed above might be called iconic, since they're all considered among the best works of their kind which stand out from the pack by virtue of certain remarkable qualities. But I'd say only Beethoven 5th and certain waltzes of Strauss really qualify as icons, since they exemplified and brought to the world's attention, in the Beethoven, a revolutionary, Romantic conception of the symphony and of absolute musical forms as implicitly programmatic, and, in the Strauss, a style and sensibility which virtually defines an aspect of 19th-century culture (popular culture, originally, despite the sophisticated music's easy assumption of "classical" status).

"Iconic" is a word that gets used for almost anything or anyone famous or celebrated, but I think that's just carelessness or hype.

Greatness is different from either popularity or iconicity in that it can be taken to exist as an intrinsic property of a musical work irrespective of how the work is received culturally. I would say that Beethoven's 5th would be neither so popular nor so iconic if it weren't such a brilliant and striking artistic achievement. Obviously, greatness, popularity and iconicity often go together, and there's usually a certain level of quality helping to account for the latter two.

The foregoing fits Beethoven's 5th into all three categories: popular, iconic, and great. But works may fit into just one or two of them. For example (sticking with Beethoven), Fur Elise is popular but neither great nor iconic (unless it's an icon among people learning to play the piano); the 4th piano concerto is great and popular, but not iconic.
 

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Tchaikovsky's "1812" is iconic. Great, it is not. A superb bit of craftmanship, to be sure, but no one, including the composer, would consider it great music. And it is quite popular. Same thing goes for the Grand Canyon Suite - is there anything more iconic than On the Trail? Great music...not so much. And it's quite popular.

There are some people who recognize a work as an icon of music, yet can't quite consider it "great" or some supreme masterwork. The Beethoven 9th is one of these, I think.

I do have to take issue with relative quality of Mozart 40 and 41. In all of art, there are very precious few works that are considered perfect - and the Mozart 40th is one of them. In the music literature, one only has to read the phrase "the G minor symphony" and instantly you know whose G minor. The 41st is a great work, no doubt, but the 40th also has that iconic quality. As to why it's considered the superior work to the 41st is quite a topic in itself, and whole books and dissertations have been written about it. Great. Iconic. And popular.

Deep subject, here. It's not uncommon to find people who believe that popularity = greatness. Hip Hop is more popular than Beethoven, hence Hip Hop is greater. At least that's what the grand kids think. It's nearly impossible to argue with people who don't really grasp what's behind classical music.
 

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When talking about classical music, I think that a "great" piece of music is not necessarily a "popular" piece" or an "iconic" piece". Each of these terms has a different meaning, although they're all vaguely related to each other, but not in a way that is capable of a simple description.

This is because in some cases all three terms may be widely considered to overlap quite neatly in respect of a particular work, i.e. great + iconic + popular. In other cases, only two of the terms may be applicable to a work (e.g. iconic + popular but not great). In some cases there may be no overlap at all (e.g. popular but not great or iconic). Of course, there is also the "null set" comprising works that are neither great, popular nor iconic.

Each work therefore needs to be considered on its merits to decide which descriptors apply. Even then, it's likely that many different opinions would arise in respect of any given work.

I can see the benefit in trying to identify "great" works. However, I accept that this can't be done using objective criteria that are likely to command widespread support. As a rough proxy for greatness, popularity is often used instead.

I suggest that, to a large extent, the idea of a work's iconicity is factored into many people's conception of its popularity. I may be wrong on this, but if I'm right then there doesn't seem to be a lot of point in identifying, and producing separate lists of, iconic works, as these works would be expected to subsumed within the list of popular works.
 

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When talking about classical music, I think that a "great" piece of music is not necessarily a "popular" piece" or an "iconic" piece". Each of these terms has a different meaning, although they're all vaguely related to each other, but not in a way that is capable of a simple description.

This is because in some cases all three terms may be widely considered to overlap quite neatly in respect of a particular work, i.e. great + iconic + popular. In other cases, only two of the terms may be applicable to a work (e.g. iconic + popular but not great). In some cases there may be no overlap at all (e.g. popular but not great or iconic). Of course, there is also the "null set" comprising works that are neither great, popular nor iconic.

Each work therefore needs to be considered on its merits to decide which descriptors apply. Even then, it's likely that many different opinions would arise in respect of any given work.

I can see the benefit in trying to identify "great" works. However, I accept that this can't be done using objective criteria that are likely to command widespread support. As a rough proxy for greatness, popularity is often used instead.

I suggest that, to a large extent, the idea of a work's iconicity is factored into many people's conception of its popularity. I may be wrong on this, but if I'm right then there doesn't seem to be a lot of point in identifying, and producing separate lists of, iconic works, as these works would be expected to subsumed within the list of popular works.
I think you can have contests of Composition with objective criteria and a winner can be found, though.
 

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Discussion Starter · #10 ·
Very interesting answers here!
Another question would be, how important iconicity is?
Does a great work fail in some way if it can't achieve iconicity in spite of its greatness?
Is iconicity accidental, while greatness is more predictable? For example, you can expect greatness from Beethoven, and he has his share of iconic works as well, but still there might be some composer who is generally speaking not great at all, but he has some crazy burst of genious that allows him to create that one iconic work?
Is iconicity in some way similar to one hit wonders?
I think that iconicity does matter quite a bit, and for someone to be considered knowledgeable about classical or any other type of music he has to be familiar with both great works, and iconic works.
Some would say, you don't need to make any effort to get familiar with iconic works... you've heard them anyway, probably without knowing countless times.
But I think it's not enough. You need to consciously appreciate them, put them in context, and try to understand why they became iconic.

Also, it's interesting that we can, indeed, have three separate lists... great works, popular works and iconic works.
The interesting situation is when there's a total overlap, like in case of Beehtoven's 9th symphony, which is both great, popular and iconic.
But it's also interesting when some work features on just one of these lists.
For example Bach's Mass in B Minor is just great, and in fact, some call it the greatest work in all music, but it's not especially popular, nor does it have any truly iconic part.
On the other hand "Flight of the Bumblebee" by Rimsky Korsakov is never featured on list of greatest ever works (maybe because it's just a part of an opera), but it's just perfect in its short duration and genius depiction of the insect's flight.
 

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Here is my brief, very incomplete list of iconic works:

Vivaldi: Four Seasons
Handel: Messiah
Haydn: "Surprise" Symphony
Beethoven: 5th Symphony
Dvořák: 9th Symphony
Tchaikovsky: 1812 Overture/Nutcracker
Rimsky-Korsakov: Scheherazade
Rachmaninoff: Prelude in C-Sharp Minor/PC 2
Stravinsky: Rite of Spring
Ravel: Boléro

I agree with many others' suggestions: Carmen, On The Trail. How about Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, O Fortuna, etc.? I think the most useful usage of "iconic" here is to so label those CM works most likely to be identified by the widest general audience beyond the CM audience. "Greatest Hits", indeed; "Who can forget this beautiful melody.......!". Essentially a synonym for familiarity, though not necessarily for popularity.

Genoveva: "I can see the benefit in trying to identify "great" works. However, I accept that this can't be done using objective criteria that are likely to command widespread support. As a rough proxy for greatness, popularity is often used instead."
"Great" works of music and art are those that other members one acknowledges as one's peers agree (with you) are great works of music or art. The composition of one's recognized peer group, paradoxically (?, not really!) hinges upon whether others agree with with one's own choices of what is "great". Often one's Guilty Musical Pleasures are a person's most dear possession.
 

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"Iconic" is one of those words that critics and writers throw around that doesn't really have any accepted meaning, so I wouldn't waste my time trying to define it in terms of works.
 
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I tend to think iconic means something which is considered fairly definitive or representative of (say) a style. Popularity and greatness are different but could be related. I'm thinking Venn diagram with three circles. A good example mentioned earlier is Smells like Teen Spirit; irrespective of "popularity" or "greatness" I would say it is certainly a defining song of what got called grunge.
 

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...

But... the main question... has it become iconic and instantly recognizable because it's popular... and it became popular accidentally, by chance... OR it has become extremely popular because it already had this mysterious quality that makes it iconic.

And if there is such quality, how to explain it?
record companies asked a similar question in the 1970s and their answer was disco music. They tried to put their finger on exactly what made a tune popular, and it only stands to reason that if you can find that "thing" then you can reproduce hit after smash hit, bellbottom jeans and everything.

today advertisers try and put their slogans into our pop-culture. It is essentially the same marketing exercise that you are describing. Things like "Where's the Beef?" and "Can you hear me now?" do get picked up and adopted and then all the cool kids are saying it, and it becomes iconic

in the history of mankind's artistic endeavor, nobody has been able to guarantee a smash hit, (well, maybe Brittany Spears :lol: ) so there probably is not a single quality that you can isolate that is going to make certain that something will hit the spot in our collective subconscious and become "iconic"

but it is a good question to contemplate. Any artist should think about things like this from time to time
 

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in the history of mankind's artistic endeavor, nobody has been able to guarantee a smash hit,
"Congratulations boys, you've just recorded your first hit record." ~ George Martin at the end of the Please Please Me recording session.

Back to the threadstart. Iconic is great and groundbreaking. Beethoven's 3 is iconic, his 5th is merely great. Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune is iconic, The SQ in G minor merely great.
 

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I tend to think iconic means something which is considered fairly definitive or representative of (say) a style. Popularity and greatness are different but could be related. I'm thinking Venn diagram with three circles. A good example mentioned earlier is Smells like Teen Spirit; irrespective of "popularity" or "greatness" I would say it is certainly a defining song of what got called grunge.
Or Stravinsky's Rite of Spring? Iconic, for sure, but we could have a long debate as to its popularity or greatness.
 

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"Congratulations boys, you've just recorded your first hit record." ~ George Martin at the end of the Please Please Me recording session.

Back to the threadstart. Iconic is great and groundbreaking. Beethoven's 3 is iconic, his 5th is merely great. Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune is iconic, The SQ in G minor merely great.
The 5th was at least as groundbreaking as the Eroica for its cyclic thematic and dramatic unity.
 

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When I hear some composition or composer is iconic, I give it a bit more benefit of the doubt is trying to perceive what is great/interesting/paradigm changing about it.

I think there is a kind of wisdom in the aggregate acts of the tastes of people over many generations. It is not infallible of course, but just the same it should be at least taken into account. It should not be too casually discounted, anyway.
 
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