By Ricky O’Bannon
robannon@bsomusic.org

Ask an acquaintance or co-worker what kind of music they like, and the answer is fairly predictable.

It’ll start with a “Well, I listen to everything really,” followed by a brief, pregnant pause that leads to an inevitable “except country, dubstep, metal, Balinese Gamelan, bands named after forest animals, music by singers who only use one name, etc.” For whatever reason when we talk about music, it’s often easier to define our personal tastes by painting in the negative space than taking a firm stand for the things we value.

Part of it can be chalked up to a certain cultural hipsterism, where we carry certain perceptions of what a punk rock or classical fan looks and acts like, so we fear being lumped into that subculture and prefer to remain open-ended but undefined. There is a certain fashion to declaring your musical tastes that doesn’t really exist when people talk about the food they like, and in that sort of cultural jousting, it’s safer to be on the attack than defensive.

Another part of this is that we like to see ourselves as broad, open-minded people — what sociologists call “conspicuous openness” — who wouldn’t cut ourselves off from a potentially great musical experience we haven’t yet encountered. That’s not to say that we have in any way have listened to a diverse enough sampling of the musical styles that fall into our personal “I like everything expect that” list. Chances are there are artists or subgenres within those styles that we might enjoy if given the chance. Too often that list includes styles for which we have created mental blocks based on cultural baggage that prevent us from exploring further. If you happen to have a personal interest in the well being of one of those styles — let’s just at random say classical music for example — then understanding those mental blocks becomes rather important.

All of this makes a recent study published in the October 2015 issue of the research journal Poetics quite fascinating and even encouraging. Sociologists Omar Lizardo and Sara Skiles at the University of Notre Dame looked to replicate a study from 1993 that asked Americans whether they liked, disliked or had mixed feelings on 15 musical styles, and then the researchers compared survey results they collected in 2012 to 1993.

Lizardo and Skiles were interested in tracking what they call “changes in symbolic exclusion” or essentially how likely someone is to say they dislike a style of music. “Symbolic exclusion” is a meaningful term in sociology because past researchers have found evidence supporting the idea that we will dislike a kind of art or culture in large part due to its presumed audience. In some cases, this means groups with different education levels might be more likely to draw musical boundaries and say they dislike music that they presume is targeted at someone with more or less education than themselves. It’s not that education allows more exposure to certain kinds of music that might alter tastes so much as we might say we dislike a kind of music based on a cultural perception that it fits or doesn’t fit in with their peer group.

So what did Lizardo and Skiles find for classical music? The results in many ways were very positive. Classical was one of seven musical genres that respondents in 2012 were less likely to say they “disliked” than in 1993. The big losers in the results — styles that 2012 audiences were more likely to say they disliked than in 1993 — were all genres that fall in the folk/Americana umbrella: country, folk, bluegrass and religious/gospel. Interestingly for classical, the decrease in “dislikes” was not uniform.

“The decline in dislikes for Classical music can be observed across all age groups but not at the same magnitude,” researchers wrote. “In this case, the pattern of survey year effects has a 'U-shaped' pattern: It is steeper both among the very young and the very old, and smaller for middle-age persons.”

It’s hard to say definitively what that pattern means. The glass-half-full reading would suggest that while we’ve long heard younger audiences don’t like classical music, maybe that’s changing. Maybe that generation we talked about for years who rejected classical music in their youth is reaching middle age, and the generation coming up behind them is more likely to be open to the symphony hall. The glass-half-empty approach would be that today’s younger audiences want to be seen as “conspicuously open” and don’t want to be seen as culturally intolerant of music that has long been thought of as highbrow. In that case, they might be less likely to publicly reject it, but that doesn’t mean they necessarily enjoy it anymore than their parents.

Perhaps though the most notable results Lizardo and Skiles found had to do with changing dislike rates for varying education levels.

“We can see that the bulk of the decline in dislikes for classical music comes from the less educated. This group shows a markedly decreasing propensity to use classical music as a tool in symbolic exclusion,” they wrote. “Among the more educated, on the other hand, we see either no change (among middle-aged and older adults) or a spike in the likelihood of rejecting classical, in particular among young adults (aged 30-44).”

This is somewhat counter-intuitive and again open to glass half full or empty interpretations depending on where you look. For example, researchers found that a college-educated person between the ages of 25 and 29 had an 8% chance of saying they disliked classical music in 1993, but that jumped to 15% in 2012. However overall, the idea that respondents with lower education attainment are increasingly less likely to say they dislike classical music could mark significant progress for a musical style that has often battled with a highbrow perception.

As a musical culture, we’re probably unlikely to change our “I like everything… except” tendency soon. But if we shrink that list of what sociologists call “symbolic exclusion,” we give ourselves a chance to discover things we didn’t know we enjoyed. And whether that is classical or bluegrass, that can open the door from not disliking something to maybe one day actually liking it.