The music we like: Does expertise make a difference? (Part 1)

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.

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But how do you define complexity in music? In the examples in your test, the complexity was a level of ornamentation, not anything particularly structural. The most complex example was structuraly a simple tonal phrase, but with extensive chromatic embellishments. This is one axis of complexity, and one that can be easily done in a test like you posted. Had you provided, say a similar length phrase from a composer like Elliott Carter of Brian Ferneyhough then you would have complexity on several other planes as well - melodic lines that do not follow traditional tonal formulas, a wider than typical pitch range and some potentially extreme rhythmic complexity.

Another order of complexity regards form. Maybe the listener likes the complex embellishments on your short excerpt but would be lost in the formal complexity of a late Beethoven string quartet, even though any individual phrase of the piece, if extracted into a test like you gave would be one of the more relatively "simple" examples

"But how do you define complexity in music"

Good question, Steve. Orr and Ohlsson actually had participants rate complexity subjectively. There are several problems with our samples, and you're right in suggesting that defining complexity is one of them. That's one reason why our study is a "casual friday" and theirs is published in a peer-reviewed journal. Undaunted, we'll post our results sometime during the next couple days.

With so many variables it is inevitable that you will be comparing apples and oranges. Try this: Choose a sample of people who like classical music for example, ranging from naive to sophisticated. Test their enjoyment of contrapuntal complexity by choosing two works by the same composer. For example, Bach's two part invention no. 1 in C and Contrapunctus no. 1 from the Art of Fugue. Similarly test popular music lovers' enjoyment of harmonic complexity and rhythmic complexity with different covers of the same song. There are still too many variables, but you get the idea.

By Ed Emerson (not verified) on 20 Sep 2006 #permalink

Interesting. I'm struck that the property of "complexity" seems (from the hearsay descriptions of the pieces used in the studies) to have been gauged primarily along melodic lines. Whereas musical complexity in general encompasses several other dimensions as well--rhythm, harmony, dynamics, counterpoint, timbre, and so forth.

It seems to me that one problem with intergenre comparisons is that a given genre might tend to be more "complex" along one or more of these dimensions but less complex along the others. (So, e.g., Bach is melodically and contrapuntally more complex than, say, Avril Lavigne, but Avril Lavigne might be timbrally more complex than Bach.) Any idea whether the bluegrass-jazz studies take this into account?

Hi "Q" - i just stumbled across this post,and your reply, after approx 3 mos. and appreciate your comment. Thanks for understanding my point. And I like your remark about timbral complexity, which is another dimension (more relevant to Ravel than bluegrass - and i love them both - don't get me wrong). I just get pissed off when "scholars" collect data and get jobs (perhaps only for one year - exploitation of postdocs is another topic - hey, there's got to be a way for folkers who are good at school to get paid) but i digress ... oh, yes ... how to test whether people "get" certain kind of music. And whether the music is "complex" somehow or other. If only i had thought of that when i was in academia! Luckily, i decided to "play" instead of "work".

Hey! How about Comparative Ethnomusicology? See if hiphoppers like !kung. there's a thesis for somebody!

By ed emerson (not verified) on 18 Nov 2006 #permalink

I'd like samples of the actual music used in complexity studies. Anyone has material available for me, or linnks where I can find some? I'll use it solely to illustrate the concept of 'complexity' to my colleagues.



By Garmt Dijksterhuis (not verified) on 31 Jul 2008 #permalink

I have a question that I've wondered about for a long time, but no one I've asked has had any kind of an answer.

Question: Why did I like Lawrence Welk music when I was a teenager, but find it more and more irritating the older I get? It now sounds very irritating. I'm just a beginner in music, but for one thing, it sounds like it's played & sung by computers & robots than aren't programmed well. They seem to get the notes right, but the arrangement has no life. It never has any unexpected or thrilling parts. I can't explain it any better than that.

I'm 67 and can't remember when I started disliking it, but would guess in my thirties. I think it was after I started playing a little music.

I greatly enjoy a lot of music, but I'm just a beginner at understanding it. I learned to play a few cords on a guitar and I sing well by hearing things sung, but I can't sing or play notes from sheet music. I don't understand a lot of terminology used in these posts. I would like to learn a lot more about it, but I'm lazy, I guess. Being such a beginner, I don't know if you can answer my question in a manner I can understand, but maybe partially.