NPR logo Continuing The Conversation: Musical Taste And Intelligence

Continuing The Conversation: Musical Taste And Intelligence

Earlier this week, I wrote about evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey's Miller's book, Spent. In it, he suggests that we can glean information about a person's intelligence based on musical tastes. Specifically: Lynyrd Skynyrd lovers = low intelligence; Bjork fanatics = high intelligence.

What followed was one of the best Monitor Mix comment sections I've read in a long time. For many people, the notion that our own intellect could be judged based on whether we prefer metal, Top 40 or Beethoven — or that we would act as judge — struck a nerve.

Below are some comments that represent a variety of opinions on the subject:

Susan Holmes wrote:

"Taste does not indicate intelligence. A conversation with the attendees of any musical event will quickly show this to be the case. I've encountered genius in the parking lots at Grateful Dead shows and astonishing idiocy at the symphony. The thesis presented above seems to be more about snobbery than rigorous study."

Read more after the jump.

Carmel Wright wrote:

"Generalizations in the 'real world' are, for the most part, useless (funny that I'm making a generalization here). I don't believe we're necessarily hard-wired for anything. Musical tastes evolve, as does our intelligence, and correlating the two may seem obvious. But that's too logical, which human beings are not. And then what happens when someone likes both Lynyrd Skynyrd AND Bjork? (There has to be SOMEONE on the planet who likes both.) ... Are they of average intelligence?"

Buzz Blankely:

"In a decade or so, the truly embarrassing thing to have in your possession will be one of these ludicrous books, not Skynyrd recordings."

Aaron Brassea:

"I'd guess that the average Hank Williams fan is smarter than the average Hank Williams Jr. fan. I don't think someone who likes Skynyrd is dumb by default, but I'd probably make low assumptions about someone who claims them as their favorite band."

Read the rest of the awesome comment block here.

Brassea's point was echoed more than once, and is one to which I can relate. It acknowledges that while we may accept that someone is catholic in their tastes — loving both Kansas and The Kinks — the real question is whether the person knows that Kansas is the inferior band. In other words, you can love whatever band or artist you want and still be considered smart, but there has to be a contextual awareness surrounding one's tastes; otherwise, well, maybe we will think you're dumb (or at least musically dumb).

Which leads to another issue that was brought up a few times in the comment section: We all know those people who are intelligent but who don't like music, who don't care about music, or who listen to bands that might be considered cheesy or lowbrow (for example, that brilliant professor you had who loved Counting Crows and Barenaked Ladies). Yet, as much as we try to be generous, I still sense that for music lovers, there's an underlying feeling that a person's intelligence is not well-rounded without at least an appreciation of "good" music.

So, while I don't agree with Miller's notion that we can be simplistic and reductive in a Bjork-smart/Skynyrd-dumb way, I do think that at the same time we buck against the notion of generalizations, we can't help but use them as a means to quickly process information. And then, of course, to use that information to judge people.

After all, more than a few people made exceptions (Nickelback, for one) for when they would question someone's intelligence, if not sanity.