Cognitive Daily

In 2001, Mark Orr and Stellan Ohlsson found that experts preferred more complex bluegrass music compared to non-experts, but there was no difference in preferences with jazz music. The model they were using to describe music preferences did not appear to describe all types of music. But what if the problem wasn’t the model, but the “experts”?

All the participants in the 2001 study were college students. “Experts” had an average of 9.7 years of music training. This seems like a lot, but compared to professional musicians, it’s still not much. In their new study, Orr and Ohlsson recruited 22 experts with an average of 28.4 (jazz) to 32.8 (bluegrass) years of training, who had either taught or performed professionally for at least 5 years. If an expert effect was to be found, it should be found with this group.

These experts listened to the same professional improvisations that the college students had heard in 2001. They were asked to rate each improv for both perceived complexity and “liking,” on a scale of 1 to 7. The experts, like the college students, rated the complexity as the musicians had intended. So it’s clear that “complexity” was a similar concept for each group. But what about preference?

For the jazz improvs, neither the jazz experts nor the bluegrass experts showed any relationship between complexity and liking: they were equally likely to prefer complex and simple music. For the bluegrass improvs, the results were somewhat different:

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As you can see, both college students with no training and moderate training (the “experts” from the 2001 study) show an inverted U pattern, preferring moderately complex music to both simple and very complex music. For professional jazz musicians, the relationship between complexity and liking was not significant. Bluegrass musicians, on the other hand, were significantly more likely to prefer simple bluegrass improvs to complex ones. Neither bluegrass nor jazz musicians ever followed the inverted U pattern.

Orr and Ohlsson conclude that for true experts, the relationship between complexity and musical preference depends on the style of music and musical expertise. If a particular style of music values complexity or simplicity, then experts will reflect those values with their personal preferences; otherwise, there will be no relationship between complexity and preference. Expertise, it appears, isn’t simply the ability to appreciate more complex forms — it involves a whole set of aesthetic judgments, for which complexity may or may not be relevant.

So how do Orr and Ohlsson’s results match up with our Casual Friday study? We’ll let you know in a future post.

Orr, M.G., & Ohlsson, S. (2005). Relationship between complexity and liking as a function of expertise. Music Perception, 22(4), 583-611.