19. June 2023

Beyond Genres

Four pictures with different music scenes: Sheet of music, nightclub, drums, record player

Fans of the same music genre may well have different tastes at subgenre level. (Picture: MPI for Empirical Aesthetics)

Tell me what you listen to, and I'll tell you who you are! Musical taste is an important aspect of people’s identities. In order to describe it in more detail, genre terms are often used. However, researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics (MPIEA) in Frankfurt am Main, Germany, have empirically demonstrated for the first time that personal musical taste is not adequately described by genres. Rather, the additional use of sub-genres allows for a more nuanced understanding of individual differences, as the team explains in the open-access journal Frontiers in Psychology.

The researchers surveyed a representative sample of more than 2,000 people in Germany on their musical tastes. In their analysis, they focused on fans of five genres of Western music—European classical, electronic dance music (EDM), metal, pop and rock—and systematically included subgenres for the first time in a study.

“Our analyses showed that people who like the same genre of music may well have different tastes,” says the first author of the study, Anne Siebrasse of the MPIEA. “Accordingly, fans of certain genres should not be perceived as homogeneous groups. Rather, when we look at the sub-genre level, there are differences in taste within these groups, which are also related to people's age, gender, education level, lifestyle or personality traits.”

For example, fans of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones would actually all be rock fans at the genre level. However, they themselves would probably see a clear distinction between them. To do justice to such nuances, senior author Melanie Wald-Fuhrmann, director at the MPIEA, developed a special questionnaire in which participants were also asked to indicate how much they liked the sub-styles associated with the examined genres. By systematically recording likes and dislikes at the genre and sub-genre level, the team ultimately obtained a more differentiated picture of individual musical tastes.

The evaluations revealed that very different sub-groups can be found within fan groups, distinguished by their preferences for certain sub-genres. A total of five sub-groups emerged:

“Across all fan groups, there were three sub-groups that liked all sub-genres to about the same extent—either very much, moderately, or rather less. Two other sub-groups, however, differed and either liked those sub-styles more that could be described as ‘harder’ or more challenging to process, or rather ‘softer’ sub-styles that could be assigned to the mainstream music,” Wald-Fuhrmann explains.

Across all genres, sub-genres that can be classified as mainstream were generally preferred over more challenging alternatives. In the pop genre, on the other hand, a different picture emerged showing a clear age effect: The pop music respondents liked best was from the decade during which they were around 20 years old, an effect known as "song-specific age." Accordingly, certain sociodemographic and personal variables may also indicate membership in a fan group.

The results of this study offer more detailed insights into the music tastes of the German resident population than previous studies on this topic. Some findings, such as the identification of subgroups within fan groups, are likely transferable to other countries and cultures. However, other, genre-specific findings may depend on the history and role of a genre within that particular music world.

“We have taken an important step forward in the development of questionnaires to explore musical tastes,” Siebrasse says. “Our approach should now be extended to other genres and regions. Another step could also be to combine this type of survey with specific sound samples.”



Siebrasse, A., & Wald-Fuhrmann, M. (2023). You Don’t Know a Person(’s Taste) When You Only Know Which Genre They Like: Taste Differences Within Five Popular Music Genres Based on Sub-Genres and Sub-Styles. Frontiers in Psychology, 14, 1062146. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2023.1062146



Anne Siebrasse
Melanie Wald-Fuhrmann