Musical Tastes Mirror Class Divides

New Canadian research finds the rumored rise of the omnivore may be overstated.
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(Photo: Gisella Klein/Shutterstock)

(Photo: Gisella Klein/Shutterstock)

Much has been written lately about how streaming music services are opening up our ears. In the New York Times, Farhad Manjoo asserted that, thanks to Spotify, "We are all increasingly escaping rigid genres."

It turns out that's only true up to a point. Even as our listening options multiply, there's still a huge disconnect between the types of music enjoyed by members of different social classes.

That's the conclusion of sociologist Gerry Veenstra of the University of British Columbia. Analyzing a survey of 1,595 music lovers in Toronto and Vancouver, he finds a divide between the sounds enjoyed by the educated elite and the common folk.

"There is a remarkable symmetry between the likes of one group and the dislikes of another," he writes in the Canadian Review of Sociology.

"The odds of postgraduates claiming to like classical music in my sample was more than three times as high as the odds of people with less than a high school diploma claiming the same."

Veenstra used data collected in 2009 by the University of Victoria's Survey Research Center. A total of 732 adults from Toronto and 863 living in the greater Vancouver area were interviewed about their musical tastes.

On first glance, the notion that people are open to more genres is supported by the survey, which found "a cluster of musical likes and dislikes, wherein people who liked one form of music tended to like many others as well."

But further investigation found that was misleading. "When pushed to choose a favorite musical genre, the musical omnivores were relatively likely to favor some musical styles over all others," Veenstra writes, "indicating that not all musical tastes were equal in their eyes."

What's more, even among people who expressed liking for several different types of music, Veenstra found a clear delineation between "highbrow" genres enjoyed by educated, upper-class people, and "lowbrow" ones favored by others. Being a researcher rather than a critic, he notes that those are traditional descriptors, and adds that "highbrow tastes are not necessarily intrinsically sophisticated." Beethoven would surely bristle.

"Blues, choral, classical, jazz, musical theater, opera, pop, reggae, rock, and world/international (are perceived as) relatively highbrow, and country, disco, easy listening, golden oldies, heavy metal and rap as relatively lowbrow," Veenstra writes.

"Of all the highbrow tastes, all but jazz are disliked by lower class people, and of the lowbrow tastes, country, easy listening, and golden oldies are concurrently disliked by higher class people."

To a large extent, this divide falls along educational lines.

"In regard to highbrow tastes, appreciation for classical, choral, jazz, opera, and world/international music was especially common among people possessing higher educational credentials," Veenstra notes. "For example, the odds of postgraduates claiming to like classical music in my sample was more than three times as high as the odds of people with less than a high school diploma claiming the same."

In a mirror image of those results, "the odds of disliking classical music was more than eight times as high for the least educated respondents as for the best-educated ones," he adds.

Whether this reflects differences in upbringing, culture, a preference for simplicity vs. complexity in entertainment, or an instinctive identification with what "people like us" listen to remains an open question. Perhaps it's a mix of all of the above.

In any event, it seems clear that if Spotify wants to help us investigate new genres, it has its work cut out for it.

Findings is a daily column by Pacific Standard staff writer Tom Jacobs, who scours the psychological-research journals to discover new insights into human behavior, ranging from the origins of our political beliefs to the cultivation of creativity.

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