New book finds Desert Island Discs dominated by classical music

30 Nov 2017

A new book published today by the British Academy explores the relationship between Desert Island Discs and changing music taste in Britain over the past 75 years.

On air almost continuously since 1942, Desert Island Discs is a unique record of the changing musical and celebrity tastes of British society. Defining the Discographic Self: Desert Island Discs in Context brings together musicologists, sociologists and media scholars in one volume for the first time.

In his chapter, musicologist Professor Simon Frith FBA analyses the most popular artists and composers featured from 1956-2016.  He found that the ‘canon’ is dominated by classical music, with the pop/rock choices dominated by The Beatles.

Of the top 15 tracks chosen by over 100 castaways, 13 were classical, with just two from the pop/rock genre.

There have also been very few picks for girl and boy bands - one pick each for Bay City Rollers, Westlife and Take That, two for the Spice Girls.

Desert Island Discs’ Top 10, 1956–2016 (figures in brackets indicate the positions these names would occupy in table of castaways’ musical choices since 1990)

1. Mozart (1)

2. Beethoven (3)

3. J.S. Bach (2)

4. Schubert (5)

5. The Beatles (4)

6. Verdi (6)

7. Elgar (9)

8. Handel (8)

9. Puccini (7)

10. Sinatra (10)

Explaining this phenomenon, Frith argues Desert Island Discs has not reflected the changing British music scene since the 1960s. Instead, the programme has taught us to map our lives “in record choices which are, by their nature, both random and meaningful”. 

“Desert Island Discs should be a programme about records when it is, in fact, a programme about people” he writes.

Read Professor Frith’s chapter in full on

Based on research in the programme’s archive, other chapters in the volume investigate how castaways use their musical choices to say something about themselves, and the position of these programmes as a source of oral history.

The book also includes behind the scenes accounts of castaways, including Fellows of the British Academy Mary Beard and Uta Frith, as well as poet Lemn Sissay and novelist Nick Hornby.

The volume follows a British Academy conference on the subject in 2013.

Defining the Discographic Self: Desert Island Discs in Context is edited by Julie Brown, Nicholas Cook and Stephen Cottrell and is available via Oxford University Press.


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