Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Music and class

As someone who enjoys classical music's greatest hits but who has tried and failed on multiple occasions to find an opera without "rock" in front of it that he likes, I felt some validation in revisiting the GSS module in which respondents were queried on the genres of music they like and finding that opera isn't widely enjoyed by any major subset of the population.

Building on Inductivist's famous post where he examined estimated average IQ and musical tastes, the following table shows the percentages of people who said they either "very much like" or "like" (on a five point scale, the others being "mixed feelings", "dislike", and "dislike very much") by self-identified social class. The table is ordered by a classiness index*:

Show tunes/musicals37.547.158.366.7
Big band48.554.164.270.0
Contemporary rock50.657.457.058.3
New age16.116.519.117.1
Easy listening58.262.360.051.1
Heavy metal19.513.210.86.7

The data are from 1993, and over the intervening two decades the death of radio and rise of file sharing has fractured the contemporary music scene (and also fractured the utility of a term like genre to describe music) to the extent that it is probably difficult for casual listeners to identify who the new pioneers of sound are across various genres they don't actively keep themselves familiar with, but the categories are still generally recognizable today, even if many of the musicians who represent them are not.

Of the categories the wrong kinds of white people listen to--metal, bluegrass, country--the latter two are actually pretty popular across class lines, though they display an easily observable prole tilt.

Everyone likes oldies just as I expect I'll like hearing pop 40 stuff from the nineties and oughts when I'm in my later years even though I don't make an effort to hear them today. Nostalgia is potent and pleasurable.

If you want to be taken for a patrician rather than a pleb, make sure to have a ready answer for the question of who is the greatest composer of all time (if you're a lightweight like I am, just answer Bach, Beethoven, or Mozart and you should be fine).

Metal and rap aren't enjoyed by most people, which may go some way in explaining why those are the kinds of music you hear blaring from cars at a stoplight or from your neighbor's basement, as being into either of these marks someone as having 'unique' musical tastes and allows him to express his differentiation from the mainstream. Nor is opera, as aforementioned, widely listened to, leading to a sort of high brow, more tasteful figurative blaring among aficionados.


* Computed by taking the percentage of upper class respondents who very much like/like (like) a genre and multiplying it by two, adding the percentage of middle class respondents who like it, subtracting the percentage of working class respondents who like it, and subtracting the percentage of lower class respondents who like it after multiplying that percentage by two.


Saint Louis said...

It's interesting that not only is classical music liked more by the upper class than any other class (which I would have guessed), it is actually the most-liked genre of the upper class (which I would not have guessed).

By the way, does anyone have any idea what happened to Inductivist? He's had no new posts in 6 months.

Audacious Epigone said...

He mentioned that he's been doing a lot of academic research lately that has overlapped with the bread and butter of his blog, but the unbroken silence over that period of time is surprising.

Ed Tom Kowalsky said...

Actually, most musical heavyweights would answer Beethoven, Bach or Mozart when asked who the greatest composer of all time is. But ask them who their favorite composer is, and they'll probably go with somebody a bit more obscure such as Bruckner or Prokofiev. That duo happens to be my favorite, BTW.

Aeoli Pera said...

Anecdotal, but metalheads who listen to classical seem to prefer Chopin and Bach overwhelmingly.

silly girl said...


how about Carmen by Bizet?

My favorite song from Carmen is Love is like a bird.

Here is lovely rendition:


Anonymous said...


How about other classical vocal and chorale music like Bach masses, Handel's messiah or Carl Orff's Carmina Burana? Did you like "Oh Fortuna"? I mean that is even played at sporting events:


pat said...

I'm an opera fan.

I've sung in about thirty operas. No, that's not right. I've sung about thirty different roles but in a couple shows I have sung multiple parts. For example I've sung three of the four bass roles in La Boheme. The fourth one the Customs Guard only sings one note. I figured I could skip that one.

In Kurka's masterpiece "The Good Soldier Schweik" I sang four roles including the Third Psychiatrist.

I had season tickets to the SF Opera for about thirty years.

I also had my own opera company for a while. Kent Nagano was our second conductor.

Yet, I am only considered a middle of the road opera fan. Real fans are much more deeply committed.

Most seasons I went to only the shows I wanted to see. Real fans went to every opera. Hell, real fans went to every performance of every opera.

I tend to think in Italian opera analogies the way most American men think in sports analogies. I have to translate in my head before I open my mouth or type my comments.

Opera fans and classical music fans are clearly smarter than fans of other musical forms. This was pointed out to me by the smartest man I ever knew well - Jeff Raskin.

Raskin was, as most of you know, the brains behind Steve Jobs. He is usually called the "The Father of the Macintosh". He was also the first conductor of my opera company.

He had his own orchestra and he assured me that they were all smart.

How's that for proof.


Audacious Epigone said...

Silly girl,

Yes to O Fortuna, though I confess I'm only familiar with it because of TSO:


Steve Sailer said...

Try Rossini's "Barber of Seville." I saw a semi-pro version in March for $15 bucks in a church auditorium that was a blast.

Steve Sailer said...

"how about Carmen by Bizet?"

Yes, it's more like an American musical with very catchy tunes.

The 1983 movie version is terrific. The 1950s African-American movie version is pretty good too.

FredR said...

I knew a lot of upper-class kids at my elite college that were very into bluegrass, so maybe up-to-date numbers would reflect that.

On a related note, I wonder if Sailer's High-Low vs. Middle model for political conflict might also be a common breakdown in cultural preferences. Compare, for instance, Rap vs. Oldies.

kick6 said...

I wonder how EDM would play into that. However, as a genre, it is so enormously fractured (whilst also being encompassing of a lot of rap and pop) that it might be impossible to add.

Anonymous said...

Heavy Metal is hardly monolithic. There are certain subgenres that have a very WT fan base, but other subgenres that appeal to people of higher socioeconomic status. Underclass metal fans like Pantera, not Queensryche. The members of the former were both proud Texas rednecks and avowed potheads, whereas the latter hail from Seattle, and the classically trained vocalist eventually reinvented himself as a wine critic.

Most forms of metal are very technically challenging and difficult to play, and the varieties of metal that have "clean vocals" (instead of snarled/growled vocals) have a quasi-operatic style that's incredibly difficult to do and which vocalists of most other genres don't seem capable of. In contrast, most indy rock bands seem to employ a combination of mumbling and whispering for vocals.

It's a bit frustrating to me that the genre is viewed as so monolithic by the general population, but the reputation isn't completely undeserved. The harsher forms of metal -- black metal, death metal, thrash, nu-metal, metalcore, etc -- now comprise the majority of metal bands and are in the forefront of people's minds when they think of "metal". I used to like a couple of those genres when I was younger, but now find them completely unlistenable. The varieties of metal influenced by Iron Maiden, Dio, Judas Priest and the Scorpions, however, still sound great to me though. The songs are extremely melodic and catchy, and I think it's a bit unfortunate that bands that play this style that came into existence after the 1980s never gained much recognition in the U.S., as many of the newer bands have created music more interesting than that of their predecessors. It's a different story in Europe and South America, where a band like Blind Guardian would play an arena instead of a club.

I'd be interested to see the results for progressive rock, referring to bands like Rush, Yes, ELP, King Crimson, Jethro Tull, etc. Again, this is an extremely challenging form of music to play, but tends not to be very well-liked by members of any social class. Perhaps both progressive rock and metal are the two least popular genres that still manage to be profitable somehow.

Anonymous said...

Also, a note on bluegrass: I live an extremely SWPL city (Portland!), and the genre is extremely popular among progressives and quasi-hippy types who live here. You could probably attend a bluegrass show here every night of the week if you so desired. It's definitely not a redneck thing anymore. I'm not sure how this happened exactly, although I can speculate that bands like the Grateful Dead and Phish passed on their appreciation of it to their fans, who attended East Coast colleges and universities.

Anonymous said...

I only like one metal band and that is Dethklok.

It's from a TV show called Metalocalypse if you have never heard of it before.

It's all done by the insanely talented Brendon Small who did the music for the TV show Home Movies as well.

Saint Louis said...

"Also, a note on bluegrass... It's definitely not a redneck thing anymore. I'm not sure how this happened exactly..."

It has always seemed to me that it was sparked by the movie "O Brother Where Art Though?"

Music Institute in Lucknow said...

Great service provided by you.Thanks for sharing a very interesting and informative content, it helps me a lot, keep it up!

Anonymous said...

Regarding bluegrass, there is a more recent study that confirms that this genre is now liberal and highbrow, although other country music is not.

It also found that some typical highbrow and lowbrow tastes didn't correlate to intelligence the way you might think,


Matthew said...

This post would be better titled "Music and class 20 years ago."

as said...

Good point by Pat (Albertosaurus).

I was an amateur classical musician. Classical musicians are like craftsman. They spend a lot of time honing their craft. If they had opinions on music, they seemed to keep it to themselves. I was more likely to hear what they thought about other musicians.

I found that connoisseurs actually don't play anything at all or do it especially well. But they have opinions. They'll be able to tell you who the best musicians are in every instrument and so on.