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Cultural Divide Persists as Musical Tastes Shift

New research from Britain finds music lovers are increasingly crossing genres, but they remain divided in their tastes.
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In cultural circles, the highbrow/lowbrow distinction has gone out of fashion in recent years, as attention has turned to omnivores. These concert- and gallery-goers enjoy a wide range of cultural offerings, and make up a large percentage of ticket-buyers.

When the National Endowment for the Arts issued a report earlier this year suggesting the omnivore is in decline, many in the arts community found the news deeply unsettling. But newly published research from Britain, which focuses on taste in music, analyzes audiences from a different perspective — one that could be useful to both performers and presenters.

“In contemporary Britain, at least, the debate on the omnivore has distracted us from examining the profoundly divided nature of musical taste, one that predominantly pitches younger respondents — passionately committed to new and emerging musical forms — against older ones, whose musical tastes are much less inventive,” write sociologist Mike Savage of the University of York and Modesto Gayo of Chile’s Universidad Diego Portales. “This division cross cuts those of class and educational inequality.”

Savage and Gayo argue that cultural omnivores (a category first identified in the 1990s) aren’t as open and inclusive as their name implies. While they share a willingness to jump from one genre to another — which is increasingly easy in an iPod world — they vary enormously in terms of enthusiasm and expertise, and are indifferent or hostile to many forms of music.

Far from homogeneous, omnivores differ about what they want out of the listening experience. Some long for innovation and adventure, while others prefer sedate, soothing sounds. While that’s a familiar divide, the researchers argue it now cuts across genres. A Duke Ellington fan is more likely to appreciate J.S. Bach than Kenny G.

A half-century ago, someone looking for challenging music would gravitate toward the classical repertory, while those looking for simpler, more visceral thrills would go for pop. But today, some rock music is quite complex, while certain classical pieces have become so familiar, they can be classified as easy-listening music.

“Rather than people [becoming open to] more musical genres, we are seeing the reworking of the boundaries of musical genres themselves,” Savage and Gayo write. “What we are seeing today could be a fundamental remaking of the musical canon.”

The researchers reached this conclusion by doing a cluster analysis of data from the U.K.’s Cultural Capital and Social Exclusion Project. It asked participants their opinions of a range of musical genres and eight specific works, including "Stan" by Eminem, "Kind of Blue" by Miles Davis and Philip Glass’ contemporary opera Einstein on the Beach. Responses to those pieces make it “possible to tease out the complex patterning of likes and dislikes in more detail than in many studies,” they write.

They found respondents could be categorized into six clusters, two of which reflect a fundamental disinterest in music — the “aversive” and the “uninformed.” Other clusters include “pop-oriented,” the more enthusiastic “pop-voracious,” and classical-music lovers.

The final cluster “consists of those who might be deemed, on superficial reading, to be omnivores,” they write. They expressed favorable opinions of six of the eight specific pieces — all but those by Eminem and Britney Spears. Enthusiastic about classical music and jazz, they appreciate some forms of rock, but have no interest in most pop music.

While Savage and Gayo avoid the term, these listeners could be considered eclectic highbrows — open to many types of music but usually searching for something new and interesting. They have little in common with fellow concertgoers thrilled by the prospect of hearing yet another rendition of Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus.

This suggests forward-thinking arts organizations need to think beyond such traditional offerings as a classical series and a pop series. To better reflect the tastes of a divided public, they might want to present an “innovation” series, featuring music of, say, John Coltrane and Bela Bartok (plus a healthy dose of world premieres), and a “comfort sounds” series, with familiar tunes of Tchaikovsky along with standards from the great American songbook.

No doubt the latter series would sell better, in part because older audiences prefer familiar sounds, according to Savage and Gayo’s analysis. But if concert halls don’t offer anything of interest to younger audiences with edgier tastes, those people may never develop the habit of visiting these venues. (Beethoven, Wagner and Mahler were, of course, radical innovators. Perhaps pairing their now-familiar works with new pieces reflecting a 21st-century sensibility — as the Los Angeles Philharmonic does regularly — can restore their cutting-edge cred.)

It will be fascinating to see if these findings can be duplicated in an American sample and whether the study’s conclusions also apply to other art forms. In the aforementioned NEA report, Mark Stern speculates that the omnivore may represent “a transitional stage in our cultural development.” Savage and Gayo may be giving us an idea of what that next stage looks and sounds like.

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