Music Preferences

What the Music Educator Should Know About Students' Musical Preferences
30 Sep, 2016

Four little-known, but very important, reasons you should care about your students' music 

By Dr. Brent Hugh, Assistant Professor of piano, Missouri Western State College

My research into music preferences of different age listeners--confirming and expanding on much work that has been done by other researchers--showed that music preferences harden with age. The
data suggest that the general school population fits the "Impressionable Years Model" of attitude change over the lifetime. The Impressionable Years Model posits that attitudes are very open early in life, become gradually more set in pre-adolescence, and, sometime during adolescence, become very set. These strong musical attitudes formed during adolescence then remain set throughout life. For instance, in the general school population, music preferences of 1st and 2nd graders are very malleable, while music preferences of high school students are very hardened and difficult to change.

Why should you, as an educator, care about this? Why should educators want to influence the music preferences of students?

There are four little-known, but very important, reasons you should care about your students' music preferences:

Musical Tolerance is Closely Associated with Social (Racial, Political, Cultural) Tolerance 

From the sociological point of view, musical styles are expressions of, and closely associated with, the societies and subgroups within societies that produce them. Different age groups, ethnic groups, religious groups, social classes, regions, and historical times and places have their own distinct styles of music, expressing their particular social styles, values, and interests. Thus it is little surprise that Bethany Bryson's groundbreaking 1996 article in the American Sociological Review found a strong association between political tolerance and musical tolerance. The correlation Bryson found between political and musical tolerance held across all educational levels, indicating that there is something specifically helpful about exposure to a wide variety of musical ideas--even above the exposure to a variety of general cultural
ideas found in those with more education--that creates political tolerance. A specific example: fourth graders receiving instruction in Native American music had positive changes in attitude towards both the
Native American music and Native American culture in general (Edwards, 1994).

As my own research has shown clearly, strong musical preferences (strong enough that Hargreaves, 1984, dubbed them "music prejudices") are very common in high school students. Educators can do something to change this; now you know one reason you should try to change it.

Tastemakers in American Society are No Longer Classical Music Snobs, but Musical Omnivores

In American society, the highbrow musical taste in previous decades has been elitist, exclusivist, and focused on classical music as performed by the best musicians--in a word, it was snobbish. In the last two decades or so, the highbrow musical taste has shifted. It is no longer snobbish, but more eclectic and musically omnivorous (Peterson & Kern, 1996). The new musical omnivore puts importance on music from a tremendous variety of sources--folk music, various pop musics, different forms of jazz, classical music, world musics--essentially any and every kind of music perceived to be authentic, high-quality and musically interesting. The omnivore treasures not one particular style of music, but quality of music in whatever style it may be found.

In today's cultural climate, few of us can heartily recommend to students that they become musical snobs. But many of us can, with clear conscience, urge students to become musical omnivores, appreciating musical quality wherever it may be found.

Our Mass Culture Tends to Be Musically Monochromatic

Students hear a large amount of music through the mass media, but much of the music promoted by the corporate arbiters of musical taste lies within a narrow range in several important musical parameters. For instance, De Yarman (1972) found that the vast majority of music found in elementary school music series published by major publishers was major (90 percent or more) and in duple meter (80 percent or more). Less than one percent of the songs in these series was in a tonality other than major or minor or a meter other than duple or triple. This overwhelming preponderance of major tonality and duple meter is also found in the music aired by radio stations and used in television broadcasts and movies (Gordon, 2000). Much commercial music is (intentionally, because of broadcast considerations) held within a narrow dynamic range. Certain topics are emphasized and many others neglected. My own informal survey of all Kansas City FM radio stations showed

  • 77% of music was in simple duple meter (2/4, 4/4, 2/2), and 23% in compound duple (6/8 or "swung" 2/4, 4/4), 0% in any other kind of meter
  • 100% of music was in major key, 0% in any other kind of mode or tonality
  • 54% of music dealt with romantic love/sexual attraction, 38% with commercial advertisement, and only 8% with "other topics" (i.e., the rest of the human experience that is not commercial or sexual)

Unfortunately, the relative monochromaticism of the music students hear encourages the early formation of rigid musical preferences, with all the attendant problems that brings. By exposing students to a much wider variety of music in the early grades, helping students to develop an understanding and appreciation for this music, and teaching students to sing and perform much music that lies outside the narrow cultural norm, music teachers can help students develop a broader and deeper musical understanding. Whether your goal is to create students who can sing a pop song, star in an opera, or just hum along with the radio, your students will be better served by knowing and enjoying a broad variety of musical styles.

None of this means that popular commercial music heard in the mass media is "bad". It simply means that this music is but one color within a whole rainbow that we would like to students to see. (Others have given a variety of reasons for using popular music in the music curriculum, but in this context I will add one more: When you use popular music, you leverage the students'--especially older students'--strong pre-existing musical preferences. These strong musical attitudes can be powerful motivators and, additionally, a useful "foot in the door" to introduce the student to related musical styles.)

Expanding Students' Musical Preferences Helps Develop Students' Musical Abilities and Understanding

It is well known that all human knowledge is a "play of differences" (Gordon, 2000, p. 1). No fact or idea can be known in isolation; ideas are known and understood by comparison and contrast with other similar ideas. A person with broad knowledge can "triangulate" a new idea with many other ideas of greater and lesser similarity. Thus, for a person with broad knowledge and experience, the understanding of a new idea can be both broader, because it is understood in the context of a wide range of ideas, and more precise, because the ability to distinguish one idea from a broad range of others leads to a more multifaceted understanding of the idea. A person with a narrower range of knowledge triangulates any new idea within a narrower field of differences and thus understands it less completely and in less detail (Gordon, 2000).

For instance, De Yarman (1972) explored whether kindergartners and first graders "who were taught to sing songs only in usual meter [duple and triple] perform songs in usual meter" better, the same, or worse "than children who were taught to sing songs in usual, mixed and unusual meters" (p. 30). Students were taught according to the experimental plan for an entire school year. De Yarman found that students who were taught to sing songs in usual, mixed, and unusual meters performed songs in all three kinds of meters--usual, mixed, and unusual--better than those who were taught in usual meters only. The superior performance of those taught usual, mixed, and unusual meters came despite the fact that this group sang less songs in usual meters in order to make time for the mixed and unusual meter songs.

De Yarman found a similar result for teaching of tonal melodies: "Young children who are exposed to both tonal and nontonal music perform tonal music better than children who receive instruction in only tonal music" (p. 32).

These ideas of Gordon and De Yarman are confirmed by the findings of researchers in computer-based neural networks, which are designed to mimic the neural-based learning processes of the human brain. The neural network model suggests that "our decreasing ability to accept new things is essential in the making of sophisticated taste" (Mok, 2000, para. 2). Nevertheless, the period of greater flexibility of attitude can be prolonged in order to develop a more wide-ranging and inclusive knowledge. The final result will be a broad knowledge that is still detailed. The student who rushes early to inflexible opinions on music may develop a detailed knowledge sooner, but the area of knowledge will inevitably be narrower and depth of understanding shallower. The student who keeps musical opinions flexible longer will developed a knowledge that is both broader and deeper.

You Can Influence Students' Musical Preferences

Educators should recognize that students are developing (or, for older students, may already have) strong musical preferences. Educators should understand that this hardening of taste over time is a universal element of young people's musical development. In fact, development of musical attitudes is essential in the development of musical understanding and discrimination. The fact of hardening musical attitudes is out of our control; what we can affect is how fast the musical attitudes harden, how hard they eventually become, and how broad the student's musical interests become during the "impressionable years" when musical attitudes are more malleable. In short, part of the teacher's job is to slow the hardening of musical
taste and to expand the student's musical horizons.

Many studies have shown that music preferences can be influenced by educators. In general, it is easier to influence attitudes of young students and progressively harder as students become older. Here are some ways you can influence music preferences: 

  • My own research showed that something as simple as a brief talk about the composer and musical style can positively influence students' attitudes about the music.
  • Repeated listening, over an extended period, is vital to creating understanding of a music style and has been shown to affect music preferences (Peery & Peery, 1986; Hargreaves, 1986). (Click here to read my ideas about how to easily and simply integrate listening into the school classroom.)
  • Positive statements and attitudes by authority figures and peers have been shown to affect music preference (Radocy, 1976; Duerksen, 1972; Furman and Duke, 1988; LeBlanc, 1982).
  • Music is a social art, and in a school it is quite possible to create a social environment where musical experiences with a wide variety of musical styles are accepted and encouraged.

Already we are doing a lot of things right: Hargreaves (1986) concluded that general musical training promotes "greater overall liking for all types of music investigated (including classical and popular . . . )" (p. 101). There is evidence (although further research is required for confirmation) that musical attitudes of serious music students do not following the "Impressionable Years Model" but rather the "Aging Stability Model". In the Aging Stability Model, preferences gradually become more set over the entire lifetime. Thus, those in their 20s and 30s who have had music training may be more open to new musical ideas than are their peers with little musical training, whose musical preferences were set in adolescence and have changed little since then. 

For many reasons, then, the music student with an open-mindedness towards many kinds of different music may be one of the finest products of our musical training. Let us make many more such listeners!

--Brent Hugh

These ideas are based on my research into music preference over the lifespan. More ideas, information and references relating to this research can be found at


Bryson, B. (1996). "Anything but heavy metal": Symbolic exclusion and musical dislikes. American sociological review, 61(5), 884-899.

De Yarman, R. M. (1972). An experimental analysis of the development of rhythmic and tonal capabilities of kindergarten and first grade children. In E. Gordon (Ed.), Research in the Psychology of Music (Vol. 8). Iowa City: University of Iowa Press.

Duerksen, G. L. (1972). Some effects of expectation on evaluation of recorded musical performance. Journal of Research in Music Education, 20(2), 268-272.

Edwards, K. L. (1994). North American Indian music instruction: Influences upon attitudes, cultural perceptions, and achievement (D.M.A. Thesis, Arizona State University, 1994).

Fung, C. K. V. (1994a). Undergraduate nonmusic majors' world music preference and multicultural attitudes. Journal of Research in Music Education, 42(1), 45-57.

Furman, C. E. & Duke, R. A. (1988). Effect of majority consensus on preferences for recorded orchestral and popular music. Journal of Research in Music Education, 36 (4), 220-231.

Gordon, E. (1974). Toward the development of a taxonomy of tonal patterns and rhythm patterns: Evidence of difficulty level and growth rate. In E. Gordon (Ed.), Research in the Psychology of Music (Vol. 8). Iowa City: University of Iowa Press.

Gordon, E. (2000, October). What is audiation? Lecture given at the World Piano Pedagogy Convention, Las Vegas, Nevada.

Hargreaves, D. J. (1984). The effects of repetition on liking for music. Journal of Research in Music Education, 32(1), 35-47.

Hargreaves, D. J. (1986). The Developmental Psychology of Music. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

LeBlanc, A. (1982). An interactive theory of music preference. Journal of Music Therapy, 19(1), 28-45.

Mok, S. C. (2000), Age & Changing Preference. [Correspondence on email list "Psymus", 4 Sep 2000]. 

Peery, J. C., & Peery, I. W. (1986). Effects of exposure to classical music on the musical preferences of preschool children. Journal of Research in Music Education, 34(1), 24-33.

Peterson, R. A., & Kern, R. M. (1996). Changing highbrow taste: From snob to omnivore. American Sociological Review 61, 900-907. 

Radocy, R. E. (1976). Effects of authority figure biases on changing judgments of musical events. Journal of Research in Music Education, 24(3), 199-128.

Photo: Christian Brandt

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