Do Expert Listeners have Special Musical Preferences? A Study of the Musical Taste of Musicology Students

One facet of the study of musicology involves  examining the theoretical and historical foundations of music and to gain thorough knowledge of the wide range of past and present musical styles together with the connected rules and systems. But at the same time, one of the main occupations of musicology students is listening to music and developing a fine ear—one not only following and reconstructing sequences of musical structure but systematizing works and recordings according to individual composers, styles, period, and interpreters. Musicologists can thus be described as expert listeners.

But do such experts also have special musical preferences? Do musicology students, for example, only listen to certain musical styles—say only classical music—or is their musical taste broadly oriented and diverse? And is the musical taste of expert listeners different from that of other listeners?

To answer these questions, in a study based on an online questionnaire, we surveyed the musical taste of 1003 persons. Around 25 percent of the participants were studying musicology. The study’s goal was to compare the musical taste of musicology students with that of other listeners.

The musical taste of participants was evaluated on the basis of the reported frequency of listening to 22 musical styles, then reduced to 6 dimensions of musical taste, designated as “hard rock,” “jazz,” “house,” “pop,” “folk,” and “classical.” Subsequently, all participants—the musicology students and others—were divided into three homogenous groups on the basis of their musical taste, in a hierarchical cluster analysis. Each of the groups revealed a particular profile in respect to the musical-taste dimensions and was interpreted as a particular listener type. “Engaged listeners” revealed a generally higher listening frequency and a special preference for classical music and jazz. “Ordinary listeners,” by contrast, generally revealed moderate listening frequency in respect to all six dimensions, with a light preference for pop, house and classical music. “Rock listeners” were characterized by special listening frequency in respect to both rock and folk.

After these listener types were identified, we examined the relative presence of musicology students and other listeners within each of the three groups. As expected, the largest portion (51%) of expert listeners was in the group designated as “engaged listeners.” This was followed by the group of “ordinary listeners” (36%). The musicologists were represented to the smallest extent (13%) in the group of “rock listeners.”

Our results indicate that the musical taste of expert listeners tends towards the “engaged listener” type, characterized by a broad preference for various musical styles, with a particular inclination toward classical music and jazz. In addition, it became clear that one-sided rock fans, themselves tending to prefer hard rock and folk, are rather the exception among musicologists.

The project was based on data acquired in the framework of a research seminar led by Wolfgang Fuhrmann (University of Vienna) and Timo Fischinger at the Humboldt University in Berlin, with the students’ participation. The data was evaluated and the results formulated by Diana Omigie and Paul Elvers at the Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics.

External research partner: Diana Omigie (MSc in Music, Mind & Brain, Goldsmiths, University of London)


Elvers, P., Omigie, D., Fischinger, T., & Fuhrmann, W. (submitted). Do Expert Listeners Prefer Specific Musical Styles? Exploring the Musical Taste of Musicology Students. Frontiers in Psychology.