Musical “Omnivores” Proliferate as Tastes in Tunes are Becoming More Diversified

"2015 CMU Music Marathon- Webster Hall", Image by Feast of Music

“2015 CMU Music Marathon- Webster Hall”, Image by Feast of Music

Back when such things actually existed in the analog world, I worked in a large music store in the middle of Times Square in New York. There was an unofficial policy there that the music played throughout each day in the store was to always be a wide mix of musical genres and sub-genres, often including some very exotic sounds.

Having grown up with my radio perpetually tuned to what was then WNEW-FM 102.7,¹ all I ever knew about was rock and roll. However, because I had daily exposure in this music store to all of these other types of music such as jazz, classical, folk and international, it opened up a whole new world for me. To this day, I remain very grateful for this experience because it greatly expanded my appreciation and enjoyment of the endless diversity and talent of music, musicians and songwriters.

The other great thing about the store was that many of the people on the sales staff were, in their own way, experts in many different genres. Some of them were also aspiring musicians². Not only were they there to help sell music, but they readily provided deep and wide perspectives and histories about artists, performances and recordings. Regular customers shopped there principally because of this (way-before-the-web) access to this trove of knowledge.

This enduring memory for me is why a fascinating post on on September 15, 2015, entitled The Rise of the Musical Omnivore (no author is credited), immediately captured my attention. I highly recommend reading it in its entirety. I will summarize and an-note-ate it, and pose some of my own, well, key questions.

New Study Re-examines Musical Preferences

Tastes in music have always been perceived as related to the listener’s societal “class”. However, recent research findings indicated that the “upper” classes are adding those types of music often associated with the “middle” and “lower” classes (although these terms are not specifically defined in the article). As well, “musical taste can become more independent” of class through “an intensive engagement with music”. (A Subway Fold post on August 11, 2015 entitled Rock It Science: New Study Equates Musical Tastes to Personality Traits, looked at this from another perspective.)

These findings and much more were published by a team of academic staff members from the Max Plank Institute (MPI) for Empirical Aesthetics and the University of Vienna online in Frontiers in Psychology  on August 20, 2015 in an article entitled Exploring the Musical Taste of Expert Listeners: Musicology Students Reveal Tendency Toward Omnivorous Taste. The authors are Paul Elvers, Diana Omigie, Wolfgang Fuhrmann and Timo Fischinger. I also recommend reading this full report.

These new types of more receptive listeners are termed ominvores whose musical preferences include a mix of styles, despite their original inclinations towards classical and jazz. This phenomenon is now being seen more commonly in music students, whereas previously it was limited to listeners in “higher social classes”. Among such students, half are them are such omnivores. A quarter of them will also listen to different genres “depending on their mood and the occasion”.

The researchers’ study focused upon the preferences of “expert listeners” such as music students as well as “average listeners”. The focus on the former group was to determine whether their “musical training and knowledge” led them to develop different tastes than those in the populations without this education. The study’s sample included 1,000 students from Germany and Austria who were either majoring or minoring (no pun intended), in music. They were queried on how frequently they listed to any musical genres including “rock, pop and classical music to punk, heavy metal, emo/screamo³, gospel, reggae and world music”.

Results and Analysis

Among the study’s findings were that:

  • Rock listeners listen to their music more often but rarely hear other genres.
  • Conventional listeners of classical, house and pop listeners listen to their music “moderately often”.
  • Engaged listeners listen “substantially more frequently” than the other two groups and, while most often listening to classical and jazz, are also more likely to regularly include folk and rock. Thus, this group is more likely to include the omnivores and exhibit a “generally higher intensity of music listening”.

According to Paul Elvers from the Max Plank Institute and one of the co-authors of the study, they critical issue here is how these groups are distributed within the musical expert and control groups.  His team found that:

  • 50% of music students were engaged listeners.
  • 36% of music students were conventional listeners
  • 13% of music students were rock listeners
  • 25% of the control group were engaged listeners
  • 50% of the control group were conventional listeners
  • 25% of the control group were rock listeners4

Mr. Elvers further believes that the findings about music students not showing a preference for classical is due to a change in their contemporary education where pop and rock have entered their curriculum at Humboldt University of Berlin. This is where most of the study’s participants originated.

Additional findings concluded:

  • Rock music listeners “form their own cluster”, while classic listeners showed the most receptiveness to other genres and thus the omnivores were more among them.
  • There was no meaningful correlation between “social origin and musical taste”.
  • Instead of “social origins”, knowledge of, and education in, music was much more determinative of the survey’s subjects’ receptiveness to “a broad musical repertoire”.

According to Melanie Wald-Furhmann, the Director of the Music Department at MPI for Empirical Aesthetics, because the students who were surveyed for the study are young, this may indicate a trend.  She further believes that this potential movement away from the connection between social identification and musical preferences could turn out to be an interesting development.

The researchers were aware of their study’s limits regarding the age and education levels of their sample students as not being representative of the entire population. They have begun a follow-up survey to “gain broader and more detailed findings”.

My Questions

  • Are the findings just as applicable to listeners in other countries, or are there differences from nation to nation and perhaps among geographic areas within each nation?
  • Are the definitions and recordings of what constitutes rock, jazz, folk, metal, classical and other genres also universal across nations and cultures, or do they varying at different locations around the world? If so, would further studies need to be taken to fully map out and understand these differences?
  • Has the universal availability of nearly all the world’s music throughout all sorts of online distribution channels also become a variable to be considered for further studies like this one?
  • How are the results of this study helpful to the marketers, media planners and executives of music companies and artists’ talent managers?
  • How might educators at the university level and earlier make use of this study in planning their curricula?


1.  For an excellent history of this once influential and popular station and rock radio during its heyday, I highly recommend a book entitled FM: The Rise and Fall of Rock Radio, by Richard Neer (2002). The author was a DJ on WNEW-FM during most of the station’s existence. For many years since then he has been a sports radio talk show host on WFAN in New York.

2.  One of my co-workers there once went for an audition when some group called Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band was looking for a new drummer. He did not get the gig. I wonder what ever happened to that Springsteen guy.

3.  This also perfectly described the collective response in New York on Wednesday night, October 22, 2015, when our  beloved New York Mets won the National League pennant. On to the World Series! GO METS!!!

4I suggest that everyone in all of these groups put aside their differences and watch the absolutely hilarious School of Rock starring Jack Black.


The Spirit of Rock and Roll Lives on Little Steven’s Underground Garage

“Little Steven” Van Zandt has some of the best jobs in the world: He has been a member of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band for nearly 40 years; played the role of Sylvio on The Sopranos on HBO and currently stars in Lilyhammer on Netflix; and hosts of the widely syndicated weekly radio show Little Steven’s Underground Garage. Really not a bad bunch of gigs. In every one of these roles he always seems to be sincerely and thoroughly enjoying himself.

No matter what I am doing on Sunday nights, I am glued to my radio (tuned to WAXQ in New York) for those two hours of pure rock and roll joy. (Podcasts of the latest shows are posted soon afterwards on the LSUG site.) Little Steven takes his audience on a trip to the musical realms of garage music. A sampling of the classic garage luminaries played and discussed include such greater lights as The Beatles, Stones, The Who, Ramones, MC5, Iggy & The Stooges, NY Dolls, Joan Jett, The Kinks, Paul Revere & the Raiders*, The Count 5, and The Sonics. A cross-section of the contemporary garage leaders recently spotlighted on LSUG include The White Stripes, The Black Keys, The Cocktail Slippers, The Dollyrots and The Jellybricks.  He also plays many great rarities including, just to pick three examples: Doin’ All Right by Big Midnight, What is the Reason by The Rascals, and Bye Bye Baby by Mary Wells.

It’s difficult to precisely define “garage rock“, but you know it when you hear it – – and you’ll hear plenty of it booming out while Little Steven is holding musical court on The Underground Garage. This is guitar-driven, loud and rebellious music-to-break-your-lease-by. All of those slashing power chords, pounding drums and thumping bass-lines make it impossible to play this music quietly. It is rock music in its truest spirit and rawest forms.

Web radio and MP3 players notwithstanding, commercial rock radio is largely just a memory now here in NYC. What makes that so sad is that this city had a long and proud history of rock stations led by the gold standard of WNEW-FM. They led the way in this market and format.**

Fortunately, when Little Steven first went on the air in 2002, I immediately sense that the spirit of that station and those times had, albeit for just 2 hours a week***, had returned. His enthusiasm for this sound, the bands, and the musical history of this genre is incredibly infectious. He understands how and why these recordings were made and he cheerfully shares his encyclopedic knowledge with his listeners. Indeed, as someone who has lived the life and times of a rock and roller, there is a remarkable sincerity and authenticity to what he says.

His radio host affectations and shtick are also undeniably charming. Never have you heard anyone use the conjectures “cool” and “baby” so often and get away with it. What would be so pretentious from anyone else sounds so very right coming from him. As well, for every show he selects and expounds upon his picks for that week’s “Coolest Song in the World” and the “Freak of the Week” to honor a musician or some other figure in pop culture. These riffs are priceless!

Check out The Underground Garage’s web site for the numerous radio affiliates now carrying the show, play-lists, an up-to-date archive of playable streams, band calendars, historical essays, and a ton of other great material. More importantly, next Sunday night give it a try. It’s a welcome reaffirmation that the truest – – and coolest, baby! – – spirit of classic and contemporary garage rock and roll lives on.


* The band’s Just Like Me is considered by many of the garage faithful to be somewhat of an anthem. I could not possibly agree more.

** For an excellent history of the station and rock radio during its heyday I highly recommend FM: The Rise and Fall of Rock Radio, by Richard Neer (2002). The author was a DJ on WNEW-FM during most of the station’s history. For many years since then has has been a sports radio talk show host on WFAN in New York.

*** Little Steven also currently produces an Underground Garage Channel for the Sirius satellite radio network.