A week ago Friday we conducted a little survey about musical preferences. Readers were asked to listen to three different clips, then say which music they preferred. We promised you we’d be back to let you know what the preferences were, and whether they said anything about how preferences are formed.
Our survey was inspired by much more exhaustive work conducted by Mark G. Orr and Sellan Ohlsson. They are interested in the question of how expertise informs preferences. Do experienced jazz musicians like the same music as untrained listeners? One dimension you might want to consider is complexity. Who prefers more complex music–trained or untrained listeners? Research in the 1970s suggested that both groups prefer to avoid extremes. Music that is too simple or too complex is preferred less than music somewhere inbetween: the typical graph would look like this:
The horizontal axis charts complexity, while the vertical axis charts “liking.” As music moves away from the sweet spot of moderate complexity, liking goes down. The graph looks like an inverted U.
A couple of the 1970s studies found a somewhat different pattern for experts. Their inverted U was shifted to the right compared to novices:
Experts appeared to prefer more complex music compared to the novices. It made some sense: perhaps experts are able to appreciate more complex musical structures compareed to beginners.
But there were problems. Only two of four studies conducted on musical complexity found this effect. Further, the simplest “music” often consisted merely of repeating the same note over and over, while “complex” music was just a rapid set of random notes. Returning to the issue in 2001, and using real improvs by professional musicians, Orr and Ohlsson found the effect for bluegrass music, but not for jazz. What to do, what to do? Orr and Ohlsson’s solution was to find better experts. We’ll discuss their findings in a future post…
Orr, M.G., & Ohlsson, S. (2001). The relationship between musical complexity and liking in jazz and bluegrass. Psychology of Music, 29, 108-127.