Musical Preferences
By Sarah Strickland and Gina Capodilupo

The other day, I overheard the woman working behind the counter in Weshop complaining about the music on the Top Forty station piped through the aisles. “I hate this new music,” she said to her college-aged coworker. “I like the music I listened to when I was your age – Motown!” Her coworker told her that Motown was “too old” and she likes the punk rock of the past few years.

According to current research, this culture clash of musical preferences is not accidental, but the manifestation of many social and individual factors which interact to form musical tastes. We all like to think that our musical preferences come from informed decisions made after sampling all available options and picking what is best. However, there are many factors beyond our personal control that help to mold our musical tastes. The fact that we may listen to WESU, Hot 93.7, or the dude drumming on Foss Hill every night has as much - if not more - to do with our socioeconomic status, upbringing, gender, and group of friends as it does with our individual discriminating ear for music. We hope this article helps us all as discerning Wesleyan students of rock to reach an awareness of how we developed our current musical preferences and what repercussions these preferences may have for our future musical tastes.

All of us who have groaned over our parent’s – or coworker’s – choice of radio stations will not be surprised that age is a significant factor related to musical preference. Musical taste can fluctuate and change throughout one’s lifetime, but the style of music people like in their young adulthood tends to stay their main preference for the rest of their lives. The Weshop woman continues to like Motown in her adulthood, and her young coworker will likely continue to prefer the punk rock she enjoys now. Because a person’s musical preference is often carried over from adolescence, formative influences on musical preferences in youth (which may have very little to do with the music itself) affect musical preferences for the rest of one’s life.

One reason why adolescence is a particularly important time for forming musical tastes is that adolescents listen to more music that any other age group. This stepping stone between childhood and adulthood involves struggles for power, as the adolescent is torn between a need for independence and an inability to be self-sufficient. A teenager’s main frame of focus switches from family to peers (Zillmann and Gan 1997); combined with the insecurity that may rise from bodily changes, this time period is ripe for an increase in the need to fit in and a vulnerability to social pressures.

The personal effects of this transitional time may explain why certain themes of music are most commonly preferred by adolescents. Such music tends to express defiance towards authority or feelings of romance, love, and sex. The drawing power of these themes is logical given the social and biological development that occurs during adolescence; the appeal of defiant music may reflect the rejection of parental control, and the focus on romantic music may reflect the desire to be loved, as well as the activity of raging hormones. Although these themes are consistent, throughout adolescent music, different means of instrumentation, rhythm, lyrics, vocal styles, etc, are used to express them. These themes are reflected in the music not only lyrically, but through its instrumental composition and the social settings with which it is associated.

For adolescents, music serves a cathartic function, aiding in expression and fulfillment of emotional needs. Even in adulthood, musical choices are made largely based on “mood- and emotion-optimization” (Konecni 1982). An appeal of music to adolescents may be “its ability to address salient developmental issues… [including] acquiring a set of values and beliefs, performing socially responsible behavior, developing emotional independence from parents and achieving mature relations with peers” (Tarrant, North, and Hargreaves 2002). This acknowledges the role of individual preferences in the development of a musical taste, which is often ignored in literature that characterizes adolescent consumption of music as driven by social stimuli and pressures. Such literature implies that youth are merely reacting through their musical preferences, instead of being active decision-making consumers. However, most music listening occurs in an adolescent’s own bedroom, free from direct social pressures (Zillman and Gan 1997). Although social factors are extremely important in the development of adolescent tastes, the picture would be incomplete without acknowledging that individual and situational factors also play significant roles. For example, despite the relationship between adolescence and a preference for defiant music that exists, this preference is not universal. Adolescents who do not have negative attitudes toward their parents and authority will not be increasingly drawn to defiant music; rebellious youths tend to enjoy defiant music more than the non-rebellious (Zillmann and Gan 1997). This is an example of how individual characteristics, as opposed to social influences, affect musical tastes.

We cannot, however, discount the effect of social influences on the development of musical preference, especially during adolescence. Adolescents have a strong desire to like the same type of music their friends like, and dislike the same type of music their friends dislike (Tarrant, North, and Hargreaves 2002). Adolescents have said that one of the main reasons people their age listen to music is “to fulfill impression management needs;” specifically “to please others” and “to create a particular self-image” (North 2000). Teenagers want to identify themselves with a group and identify that group as ‘cool’, while distancing themselves from another group identified as ‘uncool’; having musical taste similar to the in-group and dissimilar to the out-group aids in this association. This indicates that music preference may be determined by its “potential to serve a group differentiation function” (Tarrant, North, and Hargreaves 2002).

Straddling the line between individual and social characteristics, life events, such as maturity and leaving home, also have a large effect on sustained musical preference.

People “tend to fixate on whatever popular music they happen to enjoy during the period in which they first reach maturity.” The type of music liked at this time is dictated by what is popular among a person’s group of friends, but it is life events of late adolescence and early adulthood that cement that music as a person’s favorite over time. People are most influenced by peer-group norms at the time when they first leave home, so they like whatever music everyone else likes. These songs then become associated with “emotionally powerful ‘rites of passage’ (e.g., fraternity parties, school dances, and other social gatherings) that guide their ‘coming of age’ during the years of college and graduate school.” For people who do not go on to higher education, the songs may correspond to “the relatively care-free period of socializing that occurs prior to settling down to a marriage, a career, and a family” (Holbrook and Schindler 1989).

Certain dispositional and personal traits have been correlated with certain types of music preferred by adolescents. Socioeconomic status is an important variable which may help shape musical tastes. For example, research indicates that in the late 1960s, a middle class college student was more likely to prefer Buffalo Springfield’s For What It’s Worth than his working class counterpart. Amongst teenagers and young adults, the middle-class tends to prefer “progressive” and less mainstream music more than the working class (Russell 1997). Although classical music is a minority preference across all social classes, the upper class teenager is much more likely to express an appreciation for it than his lower-class counterpart (Russell 1997). Socioeconomic differences in musical taste may come from the different psychological needs created by different life experiences; however they may merely reflect that the middle or upper class kid has the opportunity to sample many types of music and choose from the options, a luxury less readily available to the working class due to the time and money it requires.

The socialization of gender differences is deeply embedded in our society; despite recent progress made through the feminist movement, traditional gender stereotypes run deep and have influenced musical tastes. According to statistical averages, males prefer hard and tough music, while females are partial to softer and more romantic music. Looking across genres, males prefer hard rock, progressive rock, heavy rock, rock n roll, and heavy metal; females prefer mainstream pop, folk, classical and dance-oriented music (Zillman and Gan 1997). Given that the female role is traditionally one of domesticity, focusing on the creation of a stable family, it is logical that females would be more likely to embrace music that focuses on romantic themes, as finding a loving mate is central to this domestic success. Historically, females are socialized to be more fragile, males to be tough, which can explain their respective preferences for soft and hard music.

Although musical tastes are defined as being stable and long term (Russell 1997), there are certain situational factors which influence listening habits across mood or situation. According to survey research, adolescents want to listen to music with different defining characteristics in certain situations (Zillmann and Gan 1997). For example, when asked what they’d want to hear after learning of a reciprocated love, most adolescents chose music that celebrated love; when asked to imagine being abandoned by a partner, most chose to listen to love-lamenting music because negatively thematic love songs may create a sense of solidarity within the lonely teenager who can relate to the artist’s pain and frustration (Zillmann and Gan 1997). These results seem almost obvious, but they are important in acknowledging that musical tastes do not exist in a vacuum. They are the end-results of many interacting factors that are often over-simplified.

Virtually all research on this topic tends to treat adolescents as a monolithic community, failing to acknowledge the diversity of their musical tastes. This diversity does exist and can be seen by observing the Wesleyan campus. Though we are all the same age, our tastes span genres. On any given Friday night, Wesleyan students can be found listening to African music in Crowell, Indian sitar in the World Music Hall, a hip-hop DJ in the West-Co Café, an indie-rock band at Eclectic, or a mainstream pop band at an arena in Hartford. Some students can even be found traveling from one event to the next. Research suggests that whichever musical scene we choose to embrace now will most likely correspond with our musical preferences thirty years from now. We could make suggestions today for music to be played at our twenty-fifth reunion and most likely those songs will still be in our CD players when we attend that reunion. In part because of socioeconomic, age and gender variables, in part due to our groups of friends, and in part because of significant life events (such as freshman orientation week and Spring Fling) which we associate with certain music, each individual develops a uniquely personalized musical style which is cemented around this time in our lives. Just like the woman in Weshop, in thirty years, we’ll be arguing with younger coworkers that the music of our adolescence is the best ever produced.