Is a preference for classical music a sign of superior intelligence? Newly published research suggests the answer is yes, but — cue an ominous minor chord — not for the reason you might think.
Like Mozart or Mahler, researcher Satoshi Kanazawa of the London School of Economics and Political Science takes a few imaginative leaps to arrive at his conclusion. His latest paper, just published in the Journal of Behavioral Decision Making, may prove as controversial as his last one, which suggested highly intelligent people are more likely to be atheists and political liberals.
Using theories of evolutionary psychology, he argues smart people populate concert halls and jazz clubs because they’re more likely to respond to purely instrumental works. In contrast, pretty much everyone enjoys vocal music.
His reasoning is based on what he calls the Savanna-IQ Interaction Hypothesis, which suggests intelligent people are more apt than their less-brainy peers to adopt evolutionary novel preferences and values. Pretty much everyone is driven to some degree by the basic behavior patterns that developed early in our evolutionary history. But more intelligent people are better able to comprehend, and thus more likely to enjoy, novel stimuli.
Novel, in this context, is a relative term. From an evolutionary viewpoint, novel behavior includes everything from being a night owl (since our prehistoric ancestors, lacking light sources, tended to operate exclusively in the daylight) to using recreational drugs.
Songs predated sonatas by many millennia. So in evolutionary terms, purely instrumental music is a novelty — which, by Kanazawa’s reckoning, means intelligent people are more likely to appreciate and enjoy it.
Such a thesis is virtually impossible to prove, but he does offer two pieces of evidence to back up his assertion. The first uses data from the 1993 General Sociology Survey, conducted by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago. The 1,500 respondents were asked to rate 18 genres of music on a scale of 1 (strongly dislike) to 5 (strongly like).
Their verbal intelligence was measured by a test in which they selected a synonym for a word out of five candidates. “Verbal intelligence is known to be highly correlated with general intelligence,” Kanazawa writes.
He found that “net of age, race, sex, education, family income, religion, current and past marital status and number of children, more intelligent Americans are more likely to prefer instrumental music such as big band, classical and easy listening than less-intelligent Americans.” In contrast, they were no more likely to enjoy the other, vocal-heavy genres than those with lower intelligence scores.
A similar survey was given as part of the British Cohort Study, which includes all babies born in the U.K. the week of April 5, 1970. In 1986, when the participants were 16 years old, they were asked to rate their preference for 12 musical genres. They also took the same verbal intelligence test.
Like the Americans, the British teens who scored high marks for intelligence were more likely than their peers to prefer instrumental music, but no more likely to enjoy vocal selections.
Now, Beethoven symphonies are far more complex than pop songs, so an obvious explanation for these findings is that smarter people crave more complicated music. But Kanazawa doesn’t think that’s right. His crunching of the data suggests that preference for big-band music “is even more positively correlated” with high intelligence than classical compositions.
“It would be difficult to make the case that big-band music is more cognitively complex than classical music,” he writes. “On the other extreme, as suspected, preference for rap music is significantly negatively correlated with intelligence. However, preference for gospel music is even more strongly negatively correlated with it. It would be difficult to make the case that gospel is less cognitively complex than rap.”
His final piece of evidence involves Wagner and Verdi. “Preference for opera, another highly cognitively complex form of music, is not significantly correlated with intelligence,” he writes. This finding suggests the human voice has wide appeal, even when the music is intellectually challenging.
Kanazawa’s thesis is certainly debatable. For one thing, it implies highly intelligent people are more likely to appreciate such banal instrumental genres as smooth jazz and musak. Kenny G does not, as a rule, perform at Mensa meetings.
But the findings could serve as a marketing tool for an art form that is struggling in an era of pop dominance. If you want to entice people to sample the symphony, there are worse slogans than Brainiacs Prefer Brahms.