Musical Taste and Taste-Related Behaviour

Taste as a basis and expression of individual likes and dislikes is a central research field in aesthetics. Since antiquity, thinkers have posed the question of why one and the same artwork, style, or genre is pleasing to one person, displeasing to another, together with the question of whether and how this variance might possibly be homogenized. The concept of taste—understood as either an acquired preferential pattern or trainable ability to judge—has located the reason for such differences of inclination in the individual: in age, sex, temperament, cultural or social affiliation.
With the musical differentiation unfolding over the past sixty years, tastes have also multiplied and stamped specific functions and subcultures. In their own way, sociology and psychology have taken up this development, constructed various theories, examined variables. Consequently, if we wish to understand the sources, characteristics, and function of individual musical taste, we need to consider music, the listener, and the context in their interaction.

In the Music Department of the Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics, musical taste is studied in an interdisciplinary research group. Analyses grounded in music theory and music analysis as well as analysis of psychoacoustic features explore music as an independent variable. Different fields of psychology – e.g., social, personality and cognitive psychology – are drawn on in order to understand inter-individual differences between listeners, as well as the influence of different situations and contexts in which music is heard. Approaches grounded in music therapy enrich this understanding from an applied perspective. In addition, texts treating musical aesthetics ranging from Aristoxenos to Niklas Luhmann, in which the three levels of music, listener and context are given varying weight, here serve as a basis for catalyzing innovative approaches. Our interdisciplinary orientation is aimed at doing justice to the complexity of our research field and at developing a model in which we can understand musical taste comprehensively and discover previously unnoticed influencing factors.

The central subject explored in this research area comprises both musical taste in the narrow sense and behavior tied to music. We thus define musical taste as a complex of attitudes towards music, in this way separating taste from preference, which always involves choosing one thing over another. Preferences related to music are based on musical attitudes. Frequently, preference is the object of taste-related behavior, since in listening to music or going to a concert we opt for one of a range of options. Musical taste and behavior are mutually dependent and are for their part influenced by additional factors. 

An individual’s musical taste can affect affiliation with and demarcation from certain social groups. In this way, musical taste communicates, among other things, social norms and values; it establishes belonging and identity. This is especially marked among young people, since in that life phase a path needs to be found starting from, precisely, the norms and values of the social environment. Opting for different musical styles as a fan is an opportunity to try out different identities.

But can we consistently draw clear boundaries between listeners attached to different musical styles? Is musical consumption always clearly defined according to such styles, or do for example preferences independent of them, such as for “quiet” over “exciting” music or for electric guitars over orchestral sounds, here play a greater role? We thus find a presumption in sociological studies examining the phenomenon of the “omnivore” that in general, the range of people’s tastes widens. A much-discussed explanation for the emergence of omnivores is a connected self-image within which values such as tolerance and open-mindedness play a role. But particularly in the case of music, other mediators for the expansion of taste are conceivable: for instance the digital availability of a nearly endless choice of music, including streaming services through which users receive listening suggestions they would possibly never think of on their own.

But we are interested in musical taste for another reason as well. Since a listening biography and musical taste are not only depend on each other but also influence how music is experienced in an essential way, our research is closely connected to the fields of “musical experience,” “forming musical judgments,” “concert research,” and “speaking about music.” 

Current projects

People’s individual musical tastes are constituted by both music they like or love and music they dislike. But what is the basis for disliking certain works, artists, or styles? And how is it explained? [more]

Do musicology students generally only listen to specific musical styles or do they tend to  have broad musical taste? A comparison of musicology students with a control group has offered new answers to this question. [more]

This project focuses on the relationship between verbally expressed musical taste and the actual listening behavior of people. Beyond this, we examine factors influencing this relationship such as, for example, musical functions. [more]

This project’s basic focus is on the question of who listens to what kind of music in which situation and why. We will here pursue a macroscopic, integrative approach that places more emphasis than usual on the situational use of music. [more]

Musical taste is subject to constant historical change. What are the major current developments in musical taste? How diverse are they? What do lovers of different sorts of music understand by aesthetic experience? [more]

For the most part the development of personal musical taste has been described as a long-term process of learning and socialization. By contrast, in this project we focus on “key experiences”-- particular, extraordinary experiences changing musical taste in a fundamental way. [more]