ISET Economist Blog

Economics Everywhere. What Does a Cheap Violin Have to Do With Romanticism?
Friday, 12 October, 2012

The term “economics imperialism” has been coined in recent decades to describe a tendency of economists to meddle with such seemingly non-economic aspects of life as crime, the family, irrational behavior, politics, culture, religion, and war. Mine is an attempt to invade the world of music.

Let’s visit Versaille first:

This is baroque music, middle baroque, to be more precise. It is written by a guy, whose name was Jean Baptiste Lully for another guy, who went by the nickname a Sun King. The latter was a sucker for good operas, ballets, and comedies, with lots of beautiful arias, ensembles, and dances, and required Lully to write lots of those (incidentally, Lully is possibly the earliest example of a monopolist in music – only HE could write operas for the king).

Does sound complicated, doesn’t it? This is typical for baroque music, be it early, middle, or late, is complexity, elaborate musical ornamentation, and wide room for improvisation (hello, jazz). And, believe it or not, there is an economic explanation for that! And of course, the explanation is based on demand, supply, and prices – demand and supply of the music itself and on prices of musical instruments.

Musical instruments were quite expensive at that time – there was no mass production, all of the instruments were handmade and required lots of work, and most instruments were made by famous and very expensive artisans – just think of Stradivari. Therefore only rich people could buy, say, good violins, and only the richest could have orchestras. Hence it was the taste of the richest that determined the music being written at the time – which, like Louis XIV’s example shows – was skewed towards complex and elaborate.

Time went on and by the mid-18th century, instruments became more affordable. Playing music at home became a must for the gentry and richer middle classes – however, the level of home performers was not up to that of professional musicians at courts and churches and they couldn’t master the complexity of baroque music. So the demand for less complicated music started to rise and composers responded with something like this:

Still, not too easy but easy enough to be performed by a family of four, rich enough to spend time practicing music instead of working for life. That’s how baroque music was replaced by classicism – no ornate music, difficult to perform, less room for improvisation, which required highly skilled musicians – just following the relatively simple score with some cadenzas here or there.

Yet the progress is inevitable and by 1800 the mass production of pianos had started due to the invention of some Henry Maudsley. Mass production of violins came slightly later, by the mid-19thcentury. This meant that almost everyone could afford a relatively cheap musical instrument and so composers had to start supplying even simpler music, one that person could perform even when practicing less than an hour per day. Welcome to romanticism:

Beautiful as this music is, it is much simpler than anything written two centuries earlier – all due to productivity growth in the music industry and consequent changes in the general music-playing population’s tastes.

The views and analysis in this article belong solely to the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the international School of Economics at TSU (ISET) or ISET Policty Institute.