Using music

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Friday, May 4, 2007

In recent posts I’ve been complaining about the difficulties of using pop-music for any purpose other than identity construction and signaling. I realize that I’m being somewhat hyperbolic about it—obviously the uses we make of music are much more diverse and complicated than that. My main concern is that the identity use overwhelms the others, that self-consciousness about cultural consumption obviates the specificity of the culture consumed.


So perhaps I should be encouraged by this study, summarized by BPS Digest here, which identifies three main uses for music: as background to other activity, as a mood regulator (here are seven ways that happens, at least for Finnish teens), and to provide intellectual stimulation in the contemplation of the performance or the substance of what’s heard (this is strongly correlated with high IQ). So that’s good; no mention of identity at all. But that may be a consequence of the study’s method, which seems to be simply asking people how they use music. It’s likely that few people would confess to using music to make people think they are cool, because most people refuse in general to cop to the synthetic nature of their identity, to the various ruses we use to build up the pretense of ourselves.


This study, about using music to meet people, is more in line with my fears. The researchers correlated adolescents’ song preferences with their judgments about personality types.


What some music preferences mean for personality:
  * Likes vocals: extraverted
  * Likes country: emotionally stable. On the face of it, this is bizarre really because country music is all about heartache. Either the emotionally stable are attracted to country music or it has a calming effect on the unstable!
  * Likes jazz: intellectual


But I have to say, I’m rather skeptical about these inferences. I strongly doubt it’s sufficient to match genres to types; more likely it’s entirely driven by context, by where a genre is perceived to fall on a continuum of respectability within a certain community. In fact, the whole gist of my suspicion is that genre has no meaning independent of such interpersonal contexts.

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