Social roots of music preferences

by Rob Horning

17 February 2006


Here’s some support for my contention that taste in music has less to do with what the music itself sounds like than what sort of social capital you are trying to accumulate. This Boing Boing post reports on a research project that sought to investigate social influence on music choices and found that a group whose choices were isolated from other members made a completely different set of songs popular than the group who was able to see what everyone else was listening to. The point is, we listen to pop music for a sense of belonging—to our time and to a specific culture—as much as for sensual enjoyment. Taste is so nebulous and amorphous that we immediately look to others to tell us what sort of attitude to take toward something. So what it means to like a song may be that we can imagine others liking it, and us liking them. This is why we can rely on musical taste to suggest what a person is like—pop music’s primary function is to signal precisely that. If we don’t have people to guide us in our judgment of music, we can turn to the music press for some corroboration. Absent that, we fall back on comparisons with music we already know or on our inherent tendencies to be positive or negative—progressive or conservative—about change and novelty. Hence “personal taste,” independent of social factors, relies on having had exposure to lots of music; its depth corresponds to the information base it can draw on to make comparisons. Taste is a kind of personal history that is dynamic, evolving over time. I know, no duh, but many people tend to assert or a tleast imply that their tastes are static and absolute and in-born. Perhaps people who feel that way, who are aboslutists about what they like, are actually just being especially protective of the social group that they think such tastes give them entry to, a social group whose parameters are so precious, or so dubious, that they can’t bear direct examination.

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