Blinding Us With Science/Rant

Jonathan Bellman

Friend Eric forwards a link to this Scottish study that purports to find correspondences between musical taste and personality characteristics. The short version: only fans of Indie and Rock/Heavy Metal have low self-esteem, fans of Blues, Jazz, Classical Music, Rap, Opera, Reggae, Chart Pop, and Soul have high self-esteem, fans of Country and Western, Reggae, Bollywood, and Indie are all “outgoing”…and on, and on.
Prof. Adrian North, who finds the results of his study “significant” and “surprising,” is a professor at Heriot-Watt University. Don’t feel bad; I’ve never heard of it either (I’m sure they’ve not heard of the University of Northern Colorado, to be fair), and you know it’s a good place because in addition to their three Scottish campuses they have one in Dubai. That link is to a BBC story; I would have thought BBC would have pointed out the obvious:
Take the characteristics for fans of Classical Music: high self-esteem, creative, introvert, and at ease, and those for Rock/Heavy Metal: Low self-esteem, creative, not hard-working, not outgoing, gentle, at ease. What does that say for me—I like (indeed, play) Classical Music, and Rock? I have high and low self-esteem? How in God’s name does “Indie”—a self-promoting and self-marketing band—mean one particular kind of style? But more importantly, who is this clown from Heriot-Watt to say define what a fan of “classical music” is? Early Music, Beethoven Symphonies, Bartok piano music, Harry Partch, all wrapped up in one? Same for all other genres: Opera, Rock, Indie, all the rest. How can these things be dependably defined?
What kind of professor would design this godawfully flawed and meaningless study and then—mirabile dictu!—find it “significant” and “surprising”? North is Director of Psychology. I mean, what? How does this pass for anything? How does this genius, who obviously has not the first idea about how music works or how to think about it, come up with these idiotic, arbitrary, entirely uncodifiable categories and think he can base an actual study on them?
Or are the categories defined by the test subjects? Yeah, I pretty much like, y’know, Rock. Guess that means I agree with other Rock fans about what Rock is. And other Classical fans, and so on.
For pity’s sake. I don’t often agree with the pseudo-populist, know-nothing hysteria about Those Silly Professors and Their Resource-Devouring, Useless Studies, but…it’s hard to think anything more charitable about this. This is the stupidest, most incompetently conceived, mostly completely pointless study involving music I have ever seen.
At least he isn’t a music professor. Better Psychology should take the hit on this one.

About jonathanbellman

Professor of Music History and Literature and Head of Academic Studies in Music at the University of Northern Colorado. Author, *The _Style Hongrois_ in the Music of Western Europe* (Northeastern University Press, 1993), *A Short Guide to Writing About Music* (2e, Longman, 2008), *Chopin's Polish Ballade: Op. 38 as Narrative of National Martyrdom* (Oxford University Press, 2010), Editor, *The Exotic in Western Music* (Northeastern University Press, 1998), author of bunches of articles and reviews and so on. Likes to play the piano, the mandolin, and even guitar sometimes. A. M. and Jo Winchester Distinguished Scholar at UNC, 2011.
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9 Responses to Blinding Us With Science/Rant

  1. rootlesscosmo says:

    Stroll over to Language Log
    http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/
    and search the archives for posts on BBC science reporting. The study you mention does indeed sound like balderdash to begin with, but even it had been the soundest, most careful investigation, the BBC would have turned it into garbage as they routinely do. They’re a disgrace–and evidently an unrepentant disgrace, at that.

  2. Mike B-C says:

    I’ve heard of Heriot-Watt, but only because it is one of the few universities in the world to have an upper level program in brewing science. It’s a fairly prestigious school in that regard, but I cannot speak for the other departments. I know a graduate who makes some pretty damn fine beer professionally. Perhaps Prof. North conceived this study while sampling too much of his colleague’s work?

  3. Andy H-D says:

    Even if you could compartmentalize genre (Style? Damn you musicology!) like that, how are you going to quantize taste of individual subjects? I’m sure there is precedent for it, but how many people are going to walk in and say “I only listen to Bollywood. Ever.”
    But I’d go to a school with a top flight brewing program. Potential transfer idea if the election goes bad.

  4. Jonathan says:

    All of these are credible thoughts, and I’ll just say to Andy H-D that he isn’t the only one having Plans B, C, and D float by in his daydreams.

  5. David Cavlovic says:

    But…but…
    What if you like everything?
    Is that considered to be well-balanced, then?

  6. Peter (the other) says:

    Wow, but what do you really think?! I like it 🙂 (as one who rants way too much, my bad self).
    David North has actually done a bunch of interesting work that I have read, in the field of applied psychology and music (like his research on background music in a wine shop). He often works with a David Hargreaves (who is in Education at Roehampton U.), and I have just finished their new tome (quelle coinci-dinc) The Social and Applied Psychology of Music. Although I found the book a bit all over the map, there were many interesting references that I will find useful.
    Just to moderate a bit, I might suggest that the information provided by the BBC article was not enough to formulate an opinion on the experiment’s design and validity. I imagine North’s “surprise” to be based on much of the same pre-existing beliefs as you hold. Sometimes statistics reveal curious things that one hadn’t even set out to find. Then again, Internet surveys always raise questions as to the sample, but did you see the respondent size, something like 35k! I took it myself, and outside of some aggravation at the forced answers (one had to choose between two, opposite conditions), found it reasonable.
    I have nothing to back this up, but in the UK I have often felt that there is much more of a communal understanding of musical genre and sub-genre. Perhaps this is due to the original, small but concentrated channels of broadcast (BBC 1-4), or the late institution Top Of The Pops. I remember doing a laundry in a launderette in Kilburn (North London, circa 1989) and was completely surprised to find myself sitting next to a sixty-year old woman who was as conversant with the top twenty as any fifteen year old. Wouldn’t miss TOP for the world.
    In any case, perhaps one should wait to read the paper to have the information to properly criticize. Psychologists, like musicologists, work with something that everyone thinks they kind of have a grasp on.

  7. Peter (there I go again) says:

    Oops, I meant Adrian North, and I guess your comments are html free? Some day I’ll start proofreading my blog comments before I post(pshaw).

  8. You’re right, of course.
    But are *you* really all that surprised?
    Is this the first time that psychologists, philosophers or social scientists have decided to study music and have just come up looking completely ignorant of music’s diversity, or the diversity of those practising music at a professional level?
    We should be so lucky! 🙂

  9. I’ve been working this story too, and I published this afternoon: http://www.sequenza21.com/index.php/908

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