Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The Bell-Shaped Curve

I was sitting in my research perspectives class maybe a month ago and my professor was talking about the bell-shaped curve in statistics. He said something profound about it that I have been thinking about lately and may answer some questions that I have always wondered. "The bell-shaped curve is a pretty good way of looking at life." -Dr. Allen Jackson. If you look at a bell-shaped curve with normal distribution, you'll notice that most of the space occupied in the bell-shaped curve resides in the middle. When applied to humanity, what the bell-shaped curve says is that on any given topic, most people will fall somewhere in the middle. Let's take intelligence, for example. What the bell-shaped curve says is that if you take any ten people that provide a decent representation of the population two will be highly intelligent, six will have average intelligence, and two will have low intelligence. You can apply this to just about anything - athleticism, musical ability, height, etc. What this means is that on any given subject most people are average. This is not meant to be insulting because most people will be on the high end of some subject, albeit quite obscure in many cases.

I have often wondered why in the field of entertainment there are some things that appeal to me so much, that are of such high quality and depth and complexity, yet they never reach the masses. I read recently that arguably the most influential and popular jazz record of all time, Kind of Blue by Miles Davis, has sold more than two million copies worldwide. I think that Kind of Blue is masterpiece, and yet it has sold a mere two million copies compared to Bat out of Hell by Meatloaf which has sold over 43 million and Millennium by Backstreet Boys which has sold over 40 million. How this applies the bell-shaped curve philosophy is that if most people are average then for something to appeal to most people it must be average. It is the same thing with classical music like the Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 2 which I was in utter awe of after I heard it. There are very few people in the world, however, that would name that piece of music as one of the best they've ever heard. I can see this being applicable in the movie industry as well. Movies like Transformers, which to me was absolute garbage, continue to be smash hits at the box office. My favorite movie might be What's Eating Gilbert Grape?, no mass appeal there. Shows like Friends, whose series finale had 52.5 million viewers, have massive audience appeal yet are pretty average to me. There are exceptions of course, but the fact that there are exceptions concurs with the philosophy of the bell-shaped curve. Exceptions prove the rule, as they say.

I enjoy Michael Jackson's music, the TV show Seinfeld, and watching the Super Bowl just like multitudes of other people, but the bell-shaped curve makes me feel better about some of the things I like that others don't as well as the things that many others like that I don't. Does that make me elite? Of course not. Does that make me condescending? Absolutely not. Does that make me average? I hope not.

1 comment:

  1. I'd say Kind of Blue has a strong argument for greatest jazz album of ALL TIME!

    To address the curve issue, specifically about Transformers, I think you can apply the curve in different ways. You simply detest Transformers. While it doesn't have the best acting (certainly not the worst), on a bell curve of its value as an exercise in the limits of visual effects or cgi (for the time) it was new territory. Having looked at it from that perspective there is no denying it was a visual masterpiece. However most people don't have a vested interest in the technology of cgi and just want to see a "good" film. So I disagree that Transformers was absolute garbage! BUT I'll agree that aside from the VFX it was nothing special. Sorry man, I had to defend my transformers.