What determines people's taste in music?
Hopes&Fears answers questions with the help of people who know that they’re talking about. Today we tackle the role that music plays in identity with industry professionals and a neuroscientist.
Taste in music is perhaps one of the most salient ways that people define themselves; whether it be a dating profile question, vintage tour t-shirt or lengthy opinion about a particular hip hop rivalry, musical choice is strongly tied to personality and expression. From a flock of Beliebers to a mixtape for a crush, music holds the power to bring people together by giving them something to connect over. Even when just listening alone, people pick specific songs and artists that they relate to when going through certain periods of their lives.
So what exactly determines peoples' taste in music? What are the underlying causes that sway a person toward metal over R&B, for instance, and why is music so important to how people define themselves? We asked music theorists, a radio show host and a neuroscientist for their thoughts about why certain types of music appeal to some, but not to others.
Dr. Magdalena Stern-Baczewska
Director, Music Performance Program at Columbia University
Music plays a more important role in our lives than we are willing to admit. It often defines us in the eyes of others. In our youth it is often peer pressure that dictates our music preferences. The music we love is often the music with which we grew up. Our parents and older siblings introduce us to our first favorites. Today it is arguably easier than ever to discover music on one's own. I recently listened to a BBC podcast where Malcolm Gladwell talked about his favorite music; he referred to it as being "wonderfully depressing." This brings us to the listening that invokes a particular feeling. The Ancients had it already figured out. The doctrine of the affections shows us that music has the power of putting us in any particular mood. That said, some people plunge into Schubert songs when their romantic relationship breaks up, others put on Adele. We tend to listen to music that enhances our emotions in a given moment, whether at a party, or while spilling tears onto a pillow.
Exposure to various kinds of music is extremely important; every semester I work with undergraduate Columbia University students and all are required to
take a music class. Most of them have never been exposed to Classical music, and by the end of the semester Bach, Debussy and Chopin are voluntarily added on to their playlist. Whether or not they choose to connect with other human beings over this music is their decision.
As a professional performer, I give classical music recitals internationally. My playlist contains complete Michael Jackson, lots of old school rap, jazz, funk, and metal. The enjoyment of a broad spectrum of music perhaps defines me as open and curious. I must admit however, that having listened to Metallica and Pantera since my teenage years, I have not friended nearly enough metalheads or goths.
Dr. Robert Zatorre
Director of The Auditory Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory at McGill University
What's notable is that it doesn't matter whether someone loves Beethoven, Death Metal, or Scottish bagpipe music; the brain's response is the same: dopamine activity in the brain nuclei associated with the reward system. That said, there are a number of factors that determine overall preference for a given genre of music. The most obvious is where and when you grew up. It is unlikely you are going to be a fan of Balinese gamelan music if you did not grow up in that part of Indonesia and have no experience with it. Ethnic and linguistic factors play a huge role: we basically tend to listen to what our peer group likes, and there are studies showing that what you listen to in your adolescence tends to be the genre that you stick with for the rest of your life.
An additional variable is whether you have had formal musical training. People with musical knowledge tend to prefer the music that they trained to play, and in turn this allows them to listen to more complex musical styles. We have found that people with more musical training tend to prefer music which is harder to understand upon first hearing, but is much more interesting and complex, such as Classical or Avant-Garde Jazz, as compared say to pop music, which is highly accessible, but does not usually last very long. Finally, personality also plays a role; people who score high on a trait that psychologists call "openness to experience" are more likely to try new styles of music that are not the most commonly heard, or that are not what their friends are listening to, as compared to people with more conservative personalities.
Bottom line: nobody has a good way to predict who will like what, even though Google and Spotify are hard at work on algorithms to do just that. Whoever figures it out will get really rich, but I don't expect it to happen anytime soon as it's too complicated to know everything about the factors I've just mentioned, and how they interact.
Music journalist and DJ/radio show host on WFMU
For the majority, musical taste is part culture, part fashion — and just like other cultural/fashion touchstones such as clothing or hairstyles, you can probably glean what sort of music someone enjoys by how she or he is garbed or coiffed. Please accept this idea without falling into the lazy trap of thinking that there isn't discernment within any popular musical genre, and please disabuse yourself of the false notion that just because someone listens to only contemporary country music, for example, it necessarily denotes holding a narrow musical viewpoint. After all, it takes a truly discriminating ear to determine that one country song wherein the singer is drinking homebrew out of a Mason jar while making love with his best girl in the back of his pickup truck is pure musical bliss, but that other song with the singer drinking homebrew out of a Mason jar while making love with his best girl in the back of his pickup truck is not worthy of any attention whatsoever.
In contrast, it does seem, for a second and smaller subset of humanity, that musical taste is a means to set oneself apart from the crowd, however you define that thing one feels compelled to break away from. Some generation's idea of cool — Gene Vincent/Jimi Hendrix/The Clash/Beastie Boys — will instead be reduced to "Mom & Dad's music" by successive iterations of fledglings clamoring to separate and eager to expand their taste to drown out the aftertaste of parentally endorsed sounds. Again, this is not to imply that musical taste emanating from rebellion is not sincerely held, especially as the rebel kind, their rebel tunes, and particularly their rebel lyrics, were born to reinforce that stance. Let's shine a spotlight on The Kinks' Dave Davies as the singer-guitarist leads a crowd of hundreds of worshipful fans in a rousing and 100% heartfelt call-and-response singalong of the title line of the group's song "I'm Not Like Everybody Else."
Then there are those precious few for whom musical taste isn't some sort of acquired signifier of anything external, but instead is a sort of vampire's curse: 'Why do I have such a strong affinity for gamelan music when all I know about Java is that it's the name of a computer programming language?" Following the faraway or muffled siren's call that no one else hears as any sort of sound whatsoever may lead to hypothetical yet realistic situations such as a young woman named, say, La'niqua Terrell in Chicago who lives and breathes — and paints and sculpts to — Ennio Morricone's giallo soundtrack work, and a young man I'll call Massimo Sclafani in Rome busking away while blowing a blues harp like the second coming of Little Walter.
Director of Undergraduate Music Theory, Columbia University
Our preference for this or that kind of music is obviously a deeply subjective matter. It can also be highly unstable, changing not only during a lifetime, but even on a scale of months, or even days. Yet despite such variety, there are three factors that I think are the main contributors.
The first is our upbringing, or the musical background which surrounded us in our formative years. The kinds of music that we were exposed to as infants and toddlers helped to create very specific mental patterns—schemata—of the most typical melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic progressions. These schemata serve to create expectations when we listen to music, and, as it turns out, we tend to experience greatest pleasure when those expectations are met.
However, even the most stable musical schemata can be overridden by socio-cultural concerns, and these constitute the second contribution to our musical preferences. Music, likely from the very beginning of the existence of modern humans, has been used to bring people together in various kinds of activities, because it is really efficient at regulating bodily and emotional responses of large groups of participants. Thus, it has served to create a sense of belonging, of group cohesion, of inclusion (and, of course, exclusion of those who were unfamiliar with particular musical practices). The same mechanism applies today, where music brings listeners together in different activities. Whether you’re into heavy metal, or hip hop, or jazz, your preferences are guided in part by your desire to be a member of some social circle, something that you might display with your clothes, your actions, even your speech patterns.
These two factors seem to paint a rather mechanical picture of musical preferences, but this is obviously not the case. Nothing is likely to be more important that our own subjective feeling at the time of listening, and this is something that draws on a very complex and irreducible network of biological and cultural influences. Especially today, with nearly unlimited access to all genres and styles of music combined with the ability to listen in private, we use music as a tool for regulating or maintaining our emotions, and our moods. This is why when you want to study you might reach for something unobtrusive, without words. Or when you’re trying to relax before bed you’ll probably listen to something calm, whereas if you’re ready for a night "out on the town" you’ll put on something full of energy, with a strong beat. Or if you’re suffering from heartache you might keep looping the same sad breakup song over and over. All of these point to the fantastic flexibility of music in our lives and perhaps why it permeates so many levels of our being. You might like an entire genre, or just one artist—a whole album, or only a couple of songs. But deep down it’s all about what the music does to you, how it affects you emotionally, bodily and cognitively.
According to a 2014 study by the Auditory Neuroscience Lab, children who learn to play music increase their ability to process speech patterns as well as develop higher reading scores.
Dr. Michael Beckerman
Professor of Music, NYU
The answer is: nobody knows! Some people try to frame taste in terms of personality type. For others, it's all about social constructions. There are Marxist interpretations that tie it to class, and others that think of it in terms of peer pressure. Others like to talk about emotions, but no it is quite clear what, exactly, emotions are. And of course, there is something like "individual" taste, and we're also not sure about that. In other words, even within a certain genre people have preferences, and whether that goes back to your mother's taste in lullabies, or the first song (or person?) you fell in love with, we're also not certain. Of course, there is a possibility that something things actually are more beautiful than other things, and just like more people fall in love with beautiful people than with ugly ones, people tend to like either beautiful music, or "beautiful" examples of a particular genre, even if that is meant to be authentically harsh (say punk or grunge).
So in sum: no, we really don't know why people like what they like any more than obvious explanations (e.g. including the fact that you can't like Brahms if you've never heard Brahms).
Director of Editorial Operations, Pitchfork
whoa! This is a deep question.
Like life in general, it's all, more or less, tied into whether they're goth or normcore. I don't trust people who buy and need a lot of "stuff." Full-time consumers have bad taste in music. I trust people who'd do okay if we were confronted with the apocalypse—like society falls and we're left to our own devices and we need to get by with scrap wood, dirt, a cup of pine needles, and a few bugs. I'd read that survivor's year-end Top 10 list! But people who take 10 minutes to prepare their coffee "just so" and then complain that their scone is dry? No thanks. These people listen to shit.
Without music, life would be a mistake.”
― Friedrich Nietzsche