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What does Geography have to do with Song Preference?

by Kimberly on October 11, 2017 · 0 comments

I was recently inspired by an episode of the Revisionist History podcast to explore musical characteristics associated with “sad” music. This particular episode stimulated some other thoughts as well, in particular the role of geography and song preference.

Where does this come from? In the podcast episode, host Malcolm Gladwell explored characteristics associated with specific genres—more specifically the repetitiveness of song lyrics from those genres—and how these may mirror personality characteristics of the people from those areas where the genres emerged.

Let me break that down a bit more . . .

An article was published in Pudding Magazine in 2015 that used an algorithm to analyze the repetitiveness of song lyrics (it’s actually a fun, interactive read, if you’re interested).

Although the Morris article itself looked at lyric repetitiveness across decades and by artist, Gladwell seemed to focus on this little nugget of information Morris shared:

“Genre does seem like a differentiating factor here. In the 00’s, our artists actually separate pretty cleanly into two clusters, with country music and hip-hop (and whatever John Mayer does) on the left, and pop and rock on the right.”

With “left” referring to songs with lower levels of lyric repetition and “right” to songs with higher levels.

Gladwell goes on to suggest that the reason for this lyric repetitiveness (or lack thereof) may stem from characteristics associated with the geographic locations from which these genres emerged. For example:

  • Song writers of popular country and hip hop songs are from, respectively, the south (Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama, etc.) and Detroit. Gladwell argues that due to shared cultural experiences—with those living in the south being largely white Southern Protestants and those from Detroit having shared urban experiences—these songwriters came from more tightly knit communities. This then allowed them to share more complicated stories and use more precise imagery in their lyrics. Thus, less repetitiveness.
  • In contrast, Gladwell suggests that pop and rock music emerged from a larger geographic area. This means songwriters are from different places, no one speaks the same language (literally and culturally), and there is more diversity. Though musically this diversity may lead to more innovation, when it comes to lyrics Gladwell suggests this same diversity leads songwriters to keep their lyrics simpler and more repetitive.

Now I’m no expert in musical preference, nor am I an ethnomusicologist. However, I am one who seeks to understand human behavior, musical and otherwise, and use this understanding to inform my music therapy clinical, teaching, and research work. Thus I find these types of discussions intriguing and thought-provoking.

At the outset, it does seem there may be an association between geographical culture and musical preference. Though this particular line of reasoning is based on a single article in a non-peer reviewed publication, my personal experience of learning certain styles of song based on where I was living (country music in Colorado, pop music in Kansas City, and Hispanic children’s, religious, and pop songs in Miami) provides some level of corroboration.

Ultimately, though, the big takeaway for me is that the concept of musical preference is complex. Right or wrong, I tend to fall back on the role of the individual in musical preference, considering things like the association between personal memories and long-term preferred songs, or the role mood and other contextual factors play in daily favorite tunes one plays.

So from that perspective, it’s refreshing to me to have a new angle from which to consider this idea. Particularly one more group sociologically-based and less individual psychologically so.

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