Pascal Boyer recently had a post, Cognition under the high brow, in which he posed the issue:
True, high culture does not occur in all human societies, it is a minority pursuit wherever it does, and there may be more important problems for cognitive anthropology to solve. But it is interesting nonetheless. Wherein lies the difference between the high and low registers? Is there any cultural variation in that difference? How does it translate in terms of cognitive processes?
He goes on to mention Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code, which he was unable to read, but nonetheless proceeds with caution, suggesting there might be more to the high/low distinction that the need of one group to hold themselves above another.
More interesting, and more germane to our interests, is the notion that appreciation of high culture artifacts somehow requires more “mental work” than that of lesser genres. For instance, a lot of popular music (in which we may include a lot of Vivaldi but not all Mozart, all Glenn Miller but certainly not Duke Ellington) strives for harmonic simplicity, for the repetition of identical harmonic progressions, for fewer modulations or departures from the tonal centre. By contrast high-culture Western music, e.g. Beethoven’ quartets or Chopin’s Etudes or all of Ravel, strives for more complex, unpredictable resolutions, fewer cadences, surprising harmonic progressions, variation rather than repetition, etc. I only mention Western works because they are more familiar to most of our readers. But the difference may well be more general.
A long and lively discussion ensued, with particular attention to flamenco: high or low?