The Science Behind Our Musical Tastes
November 16, 2023 1:38 PM   Subscribe

According to Nolan Gasser, a musician and musicologist, sociology plays a tremendous role behind our musical tastes. What we hear when we were babies and throughout our formative years become the home base of our musical sensibilities. But as we grow older, our taste in music evolves and expands as we become exposed to different music. For a deeper dive into musical taste, you may check out Nolan Gasser's Why You Like It: The Science & Culture of Musical Taste.
posted by Seekerofsplendor (24 comments total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
so this is why I dream of Earth, Wind, and Fire.
posted by clavdivs at 1:46 PM on November 16 [4 favorites]

I knew it all along, it was never my favorite band, it was me that sucked
posted by chavenet at 2:07 PM on November 16 [43 favorites]

My mom researches why people choose certain careers and jobs. In the 90s, she surveyed kids in Iceland, mostly 15 year olds. She had these questions on her survey about what kinds of music they listened to, and they were intended mostly as a way of getting an idea for which subcultures kids belonged to.

Unexpectedly she found that music taste was one of the most closely correlated factors to career desires. That is, if you knew what music they listened to, you could guess with reasonable certainty what types of job the kids aspired to. Birds of a feather listen to the same bands together.
posted by Kattullus at 2:07 PM on November 16 [21 favorites]

My musical tastes were formed by watching MTV and leaving the radio on Z100 overnight as I slept. My stepdad played a lot of country and western but it never took. My dad tried real hard to get me to like Amy Grant and Petra, too. Similarly, my mom loved the early Beatles but I never grew an affinity for them either. Her Jane Fonda Workout Album, on the other hand... I will say that hearing Rush's "Spirit of Radio" for the first time burned a permanent pathway in my brain at, like age 6, which would lead me to rediscover and love the band during high school.

Most of my musical tastes were formed by combing through my aunt's record collection in the basement, which was chock full of prog rock like Yes, Pink Floyd, early Genesis, ELO, the Moody Blues, etc. And then having an Amiga and being on the BBS scene exposed me to MODs, which got me hooked on electronic music.

I agree that sociology plays a role, but there can be negative pressures as well as positive when it comes to the context of exposure.
posted by grumpybear69 at 2:15 PM on November 16 [4 favorites]

Eh, IMO this is possibly true but also way overstated.

What's popular drives people's musical tastes, that's why the list of songs is like 100,000,000+ but the songs with over a billion plays is like 1000 and most have closer to zero.

It's like saying what percent of your clothes contain the color blue or black while there are 30k+ potential colors of clothing is from parental or sociological conditioning.

But since it's kinda fun to play along, I still mostly like the songs my mom listened to in the car when I was a kid, ('60-80s lite rock) even though I don't own hardly any of those tracks, and I recall things like Men at Work and The Police from daycare that I do like and own. My dad didn't listen to music, he worked out doors so he listened to the weather.

I also mostly hated the music my classmates listened to and the music my sisters listened to, until I was old enough to play sports. The older kids listened to better music. My kids hate the music I listen to - my older daughter only likes Taylor Swift, and my younger one likes Spongebob. Maybe they'll prefer my music when they get older. They also hate my wife's taste in music, which is solely what has been most popular throughout her life and nothing else.
posted by The_Vegetables at 2:24 PM on November 16 [2 favorites]

You May Also Like: Taste in an Age of Endless Choice by Tom Vanderbilt is pretty good.

Carl Wilson's book about Celine Dion: Let's Talk about Love: A Journey to the End of Taste is probably the best book about the history and nature of Aesthetics for a popular audience ever written. I highly recommend.
posted by ovvl at 2:29 PM on November 16 [12 favorites]

I just did a listen to what I could find of the two Jane Fonda workout albums, and now I'm thinking they influenced my taste in dance music more than I realized. So groovy!
posted by grumpybear69 at 2:58 PM on November 16 [2 favorites]

In this day and age of "alexa, play the doobie brothers station", I'm struggling with discovering new music. Always promised I wouldn't become that old fogey who endlessly listens to the same stuff, but here we are...
posted by drewbage1847 at 3:06 PM on November 16 [4 favorites]

Piano lessons as a child exposed me to classical music. I have been listening ever since: KMFA
posted by jim in austin at 4:13 PM on November 16

The most interesting thing I've read about this is a blockbuster article about what people get out of music:

Mas-Herrero, Ernest, Josep Marco-Pallarés, Urbano Lorenzo-Seva, Robert J. Zatorre, and Antoni Rodriguez-Fornells. “Individual Differences in Music Reward Experiences.” Music Perception 31, no. 2 (2013): 118–38.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, people listen to music for lots of different reasons. (I think this accounts for the interest in widely varying genres, as different kinds of music often do very different things.) The study also identified a group of respondents who gave no indication of enjoying music at all, the musical anhedonics, and that became a hot topic for a while. ;)
posted by anhedonic at 4:28 PM on November 16 [7 favorites]

I've been trading music recommendations with my nephew over the past couple of months. My half-baked theory so far is that my childhood ears were shaped by church hymns, and his were shaped by the Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers.

So I'll be sending him some Dusty Springfield and Gnarls Barkley, and he'll reply with Starship Velociraptor.
posted by clawsoon at 4:47 PM on November 16 [2 favorites]

As a Gen Xer who came of age in a pre-Internet era, I'm very familiar with the phenomenon of learning about new music or new bands for months if not actual years before actually getting a chance to hear what you've read about. I personally remember reading about Captain Beefheart or the Velvet Underground in old issues of Rolling Stone magazine, long before I ever actually knew what they sounded like. Sometimes, you finally heard what you read about & it was underwhelming. Other times, like when I first heard the Velvet Underground at 16, it blew my mind.

If you look at the history of how grunge developed, a lot of it was a guy like Kurt Cobain reading about punk in Creem magazine, which you could get at the grocery store, but there was no way to get actual punk records from your local record store in Bumfuck, Washington. If you wanted a Sex Pistols record or a lot of UK punk, you had to go out of your way to order it as an import from overseas & not all record stores in small towns would do that for you. That is, if you could afford it anyway...

So, a lot of what the people who invented grunge did was to seek out music that would give them same rush as what they thought punk sounded like. In practice, this meant you bought Black Sabbath records instead or, if you were lucky enough to have a good used record store nearby, you might luck out & get a copy of Blue Cheer, Vincebus Eruptum. But that's basically how grunge evolved to have a different sound from the more "classic" O.G. UK version of punk from the Sex Pistols and the Clash.
posted by jonp72 at 8:29 PM on November 16 [12 favorites]

At first I was going to say this is wrong, because when I was a kid, my folks listened to Perry Como and Red Foley records.

Then I realized, while that is true, my brothers were listening to The Rolling Stones and The Jefferson Airplane. It's not what mom and dad listened to, it's what you were exposed to.
posted by Relay at 9:26 PM on November 16 [4 favorites]

If this theory was strictly true, I would be a life-long fan of Nana Mouskouri (the only music my mom listened to), and I am not.
posted by maxwelton at 1:13 AM on November 17 [5 favorites]

Piano lessons as a child exposed me to classical music. I have been listening ever since: KMFA
That's funny, my folks apparently put me to sleep as a toddler with a lot of classical music until I threw a tantrum one day and demanded they stop. To this date, I still don't seek it out, even as my musical tastes have changed and expanded.

Is it just me or is the NBC article remarkably free of any scientific claims? I mean, yes, obviously there's a sociological aspect to music... but it's not clear what that is.
posted by ndr at 1:44 AM on November 17 [3 favorites]

I've been a bit puzzled at how I've gravitated to mid-70s music as a comfort listen, even though my teenage self was all about the late 70s and early 80s "hard rock" ... most of which I have no interest in hearing 'these' days (that is, since 1985). But I guess it's about that sweet period from the age of 7 to 12 when music (radio, albums) was a family experience, and before I went my own way. Well, actually my comfort listens shade into that following era, except I'm not listening to the stuff I bought and made part of my teenage identity, but rather the stuff that was on the radio that was ubiquitous in that later era.

Anyway, I would never have predicted at 15 that listening to Chicago, of all bands, would be weirdly comforting to me at 60.

Similarly unexpected, I'm also getting those nostalgia feelings from listening to 80s "new wave" which, at the time, I supposedly didn't like.

I had the really weird experience last month of asking Tidal for "I Know What Boys Like" by The Waitresses (I did actually really like that song and bought the album and my friends were confused), and after it finished it played a selection of related songs ... and a few were completely new to me and were great! They shouldn't have been unfamiliar to me. How did I miss those songs? It was weird. But actually really cool.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 2:32 AM on November 17 [8 favorites]

except I'm not listening to the stuff I bought and made part of my teenage identity, but rather the stuff that was on the radio that was ubiquitous in that later era.

The soundtrack to a time and place
posted by howbigisthistextfield at 3:10 AM on November 17 [2 favorites]

I'm always fascinated with songs I like lots that are way way outside my zone. I've always disliked slick pop forever, so I cam't explain why Natasha Bedingfield's "These Words" knocks me out. I even have a soft spot for "All I Want for Christmas is you."
I shall now return to my Blue Cheer, Bob Wills, Richard Shindell, and George Van Epps.
posted by cccorlew at 3:40 AM on November 17 [1 favorite]

It's always funny when sociology pretends to be a science.
posted by aspersioncast at 6:07 AM on November 17 [4 favorites]

and even funnier when science pretends it can even begin to explain art

If this theory was strictly true, I would be a life-long fan of Nana Mouskouri (the only music my mom listened to),

I grew up in a household that didn't hate music -- it just didn't seem to care. My parents had almost no records and the only one I remember them ever playing was a particular Herb Alpert album. But the radio was on a lot, usually tuned to their favourite news station which also tended to play a lot of easy-listening music, nice melodies, blander than bland arrangements (ie: muzak). So that was my early childhood sonic environment: 1001 strings.

How does all that measure up against the tastes I eventually developed, which I guess I'd describe as "catholic with a vengeance -- Abba to Zappa to Merzbow to Mitchell (Joni), anything and everything as long as it's good"? Well, I've always appreciated a nice melody.
posted by philip-random at 9:04 AM on November 17 [3 favorites]

Let’s not forget the cool album cover effect. I distinctly remember buying the cassette of Ghost in the Machine by the Police, the first popular album I ever owned, because of the cover during my formative junior high years. (My parents listened to classical, if anything.) Same thing with Stop Making Sense, Dark Side of the Moon, Are You Experienced?, and many others. Luckily almost all of it was quality music.
posted by gottabefunky at 9:24 AM on November 17

If this theory was strictly true, I would be a life-long fan of Nana Mouskouri (the only music my mom listened to), and I am not.

Yeah, in my case it would be Johnny Mathis and Handel, which...Handel's okay, but easy-listening crooners not so much.

I was a teenager in the 70's when top-40 radio reigned supreme; I vaguely enjoyed it in an "in the background" sort of way but it never really grabbed my attention. In 8th grade (I would have been around 14 years old) I started in Beginning Band because one of my friends was in band and it sounded more fun than, say, wood shop or Spanish as an elective. Before and after school the band teacher would play post-40's big band and mainstream jazz in the band room. I was immediately fascinated by it and that set me on my life's musical path.

Jazz isn't the only music I listen to (after years of listening to only jazz, suddenly I started really appreciating the "classic rock" FM station during my long commutes ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ ), but it remains my favorite genre. Why did it catch my ear when pop/rock music didn't? Who knows...
posted by Greg_Ace at 10:59 AM on November 17 [4 favorites]

I would say Sesame Street's Jazzy Spies definitely had an influence on my tastes as a high school punk. I don't care much for jazz after the 1930s, but I do like fast, short songs.
posted by oneirodynia at 1:23 PM on November 17 [1 favorite]

You may also like the book This is What It Sounds Like by Susan Rogers, especially if you like neurosciencey stuff.
posted by matildaben at 11:27 AM on November 19 [1 favorite]

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