What sort of music do you dislike? That may seem like an odd subject for a study, but it makes sense to sociologists, who view the rejection of certain genres as symbolic markers—declarations that I have nothing in common with "those people."
Thus, a new study that examines the musical genres Americans abhor offers an intriguing look into who we do, and do not, care to affiliate with. This has apparently shifted, as the types of tunes we find distasteful have changed significantly over the past two decades.
The paper, published in the journal Poetics, paints a decidedly mixed picture for classical music, which seems to be gaining acceptance overall, but is apparently losing favor with an important source of future audiences: young, college-educated adults.
The types of music that are more disliked today are those "that appeal to disproportionately white, rural, Southern audiences."
University of Notre Dame sociologists Omar Lizardo and Sara Skiles began their research by looking at the "cultural module" of the 1993 General Social Survey. The 1,606 participants were presented with a list of 18 styles of music, from big band to reggae, and asked whether they liked, disliked, or had "mixed feelings" about each.
In the summer of 2012, the researchers partly replicated that study. They commissioned a survey of 2,250 Americans (a representative sample of the total population) and asked the same question, this time limiting the results to 15 musical genres.
"The most obvious change (over the 20 years) consists of the steep declines in the probability of younger persons to reject rap and heavy metal," Lizardo and Skiles write. "Only about one-fifth of young Americans reject rap and hip-hop, a figure that is lower than that observed for country, bluegrass, gospel or opera for this age group."
The biggest shift in this regard came from young people with the highest education levels. This suggests they are using rap and hip-hop to differentiate themselves from the older generation of well-to-do Americans.
These same "high-status newcomers" were more likely than their counterparts of 20 years ago to declare their distaste for classical music and jazz, as well as rock 'n' roll. "While in 1993, a college-educated person between the ages of 25 and 29 had an 8 percent chance of disliking classical (music), in 2012, a respondent in that same age-education group had a 15 percent chance (of doing so)," the researchers write.
That has to be troubling news to orchestra managers fretting over how to appeal to future audiences. In general, however, the researchers report fewer people said they disliked classical music and opera. This was true for all age ranges, suggesting Americans are increasingly open-minded to sampling genres once considered exclusive to the elite.
Overall, "the probability of disliking decreased for seven musical styles (classical music, opera, jazz, Latin, rap, rock, and metal), and increased for four styles (country, bluegrass, folk, and religious/Gospel music)," the researchers write. (Ratings for show tunes, blues and R&B, and reggae remained roughly the same in the 1993 and 2012 surveys.)
Lizardo and Skiles note that the types of music that are more disliked today are those "that appeal to disproportionately white, rural, Southern audiences." Fairly or not, many Americans associate these genres with racism, religiosity, and a nationalistic mindset. It's likely that in expressing their distaste for those genres, people outside the South and rural West are symbolically rejecting the belief systems they represent.
Now, the sociological approach to musical taste can seem reductive; surely aesthetic pleasure can't be reduced entirely to issues of class and status. But the trends this study finds are certainly interesting, and potentially instructive.
Among other things, they suggest classical music organizations shouldn't assume their fans are limited to a few highly educated folks. Compared to 20 years ago, it appears many more Americans are willing to sample Sibelius and give Liszt a listen.
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.