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Music that makes you dumb

There’s no difference in a lot of people’s minds between good musicians and popular musicians.
–Dweezil Zappa

In 2014, Virgil Griffith released a very interesting study about the correlation of music tastes and educational standardized test scores. Here’s a very short bio from Wikipedia, so that you know who this guy is:

Virgil Griffith, also known as Romanpoet (born 1983), is an American software application writer, known for his creation of WikiScanner and the lawsuits filed against him by Blackboard Inc. in 2003. He has published papers on artificial life and integrated information theory. In developing WikiScanner Griffith described his mission as “to create minor public-relations disasters for companies and organizations I dislike.”

In other terms, this guy is not an idiot. His study had not been conducted in a professional way (it was something like a hobby project after all), and the used standardized SAT / ACT tests don’t tell us if a student is a leader or a follower, although those tests may give a rough indication about how intelligent a student is and how well the student may perform in school. What Griffith found out is quite interesting however, as there seem to be clear correlations between music tastes and student performances. Please note that I used the most known artists in the following examples, but you may also want to check out the original data if you want more details.

He found that the least well performing students listen to Lil Wayne, Beyoncé, Jay-Z, Akon, Justin Timberlake, or Nickelback for example. On the other hand good and / or more intelligent students seem to prefer Radiohead, Bob Dylan, The Beatles, U2, Coldplay, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Beck, Norah Jones, Led Zeppelin, or Billy Joel for example. Students with the best results preferred Beethoven by the way.

It’s quite interesting to see that bad students tend to listen to hip hop and R&B, although there are also good students listening to rap music (Kanye West, Eminem, and Outkast being popular with more intelligent students). The best (and probably also the more intelligent) students seem to prefer “older” music, such as Bob Dylan or U2 for example. Good students also tend to like alternative music, including older stuff such as Pearl Jam, Green Day, and Nirvana. It doesn’t make sense to go into the details too much, but in general we can say the following:

Good students listen to good music, while bad students listen to bad music.

Additionally, we also see the following:

Good students often prefer older artists or even older records, as well as music that’s not mainstream. Bad students prefer current Top 40 music, and all of the crap recommended by the media.

To some degree we may also say that

  • more intelligent people tend to like good and older music, while
  • less intelligent people tend to like bad and newer music.

Remember that there is no strict correlation between being intelligent and being a good student though. The last thing I’d like to note is that in many cases (but not always), good students have a higher social status than bad students, and they will earn more money when they will start working in a few years, which again means that good and / or intelligent students who generally prefer good music also generally have more money they may spend on such music. It may not be politically correct to mention all of this, but I think it will be important for you to understand why certain people might actually buy your future record.

The following is a list of 25 artists that are the most popular among students with the best SAT scores, according to the study. Note that rock music is dominant (60%), just as indie (24%) and alternative (8%). So those three genres make up 92% among good students, and the fact that they’re quite related tells you a lot about what kind of music those students like. The best students listen to: 

  1. Beethoven
  2. Sufjan Stevens
  3. Counting Crows
  4. Guster
  5. Radiohead
  6. Ben Folds
  7. U2
  8. Bob Dylan
  9. Norah Jones
  10. The Shins
  11. Beck
  12. Led Zeppelin
  13. Muse
  14. Phish
  15. Billy Joel
  16. The Beatles
  17. David Bowie
  18. Dispatch
  19. Weezer
  20. Coldplay
  21. Red Hot Chili Peppers
  22. Snow Patrol
  23. Death Cab For Cutie
  24. Third Eye Blind
  25. The Killers

And now to a list with the 25 artists and genres that are the most popular among students with the lowest SAT scores, according to the study. Note that 52% entries are just genres, without any further specification – which means that those students have less specific preferences and less specific favourite artists. The most important genre students with low SAT scores like is hip hop (28%), while R&B makes up 8% in this group. Those students also listen to rock music, although mostly rock that’s not as sophisticated and more mainstream (Nickelback, Aerosmith, and unspecified rock). Students with very low scores listen to:

  1. Lil Wayne
  2. Soca (unspecified)
  3. Gospel (unspecified)
  4. T.I.
  5. Beyoncé
  6. Reggaeton (unspecified)
  7. Jazz (unspecified)
  8. Hip Hop (unspecified)
  9. The Used
  10. Pop (unspecified)
  11. Oldies (unspecified)
  12. Reggae (unspecified)
  13. Jay-Z
  14. Alternative (unspecified)
  15. Classical (unspecified)
  16. Akon
  17. Aerosmith
  18. Justin Timberlake
  19. R&B (unspecified)
  20. Taking Back Sunday
  21. Ludacris
  22. Nickelback
  23. Carrie Underwood
  24. Rap (unspecified)
  25. Rock (unspecified)

So in the end you can see that tastes are very different when comparing students with the best SAT scores to students with the lowest scores. If you still don’t get it, then take a look at the most popular artists at some of the most famous US educational institutions, all with an average SAT higher than 1395:

California Institute of Technology

  • Radiohead
  • Pink Floyd
  • Coldplay
  • The Beatles
  • Led Zeppelin
  • Green Day
  • Nirvana
  • Jimmy Eat World
  • Classical (unspecified)
  • Linkin Park

Yale University

  • U2
  • Jack Johnson
  • The Beatles
  • Radiohead
  • Coldplay
  • Bob Dylan
  • Beethoven
  • The Shins
  • Ben Folds

Harvard College

  • Coldplay
  • U2
  • Radiohead
  • The Killers
  • The Beatles
  • Snow Patrol
  • Pink Floyd
  • Jack Johnson
  • Red Hot Chili Peppers
  • Bob Dylan

Princeton University

  • Coldplay
  • U2
  • Radiohead
  • The Beatles
  • Jack Johnson
  • Counting Crows
  • Red Hot Chili Peppers 
  • The Killers
  • Guster

MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology)

  • The Beatles
  • Radiohead
  • Coldplay
  • U2
  • Pink Floyd
  • Beethoven
  • Nirvana
  • Classical
  • Queen

Stanford University

  • Radiohead
  • U2
  • Coldplay
  • The Beatles
  • The Killers
  • Jack Johnson
  • Death Cab For Cutie
  • Pink Floyd
  • The Shins
  • The Fray

Carnegie Mellon University

  • Nirvana
  • U2
  • Snow Patrol
  • Green Day
  • Coldplay
  • Red Hot Chili Peppers
  • Modest Mouse
  • Radiohead
  • Pink Floyd
  • Norah Jones

And then finally check out the tastes at three of the lowest scoring institutions, all with an average SAT score lower than 800 (which is a shame, and I think the US government should do a whole lot more in order to improve the US education system and help those schools and their students to perform better one day):

Wiley College

  • R&B (unspecified)
  • Rap (unspecified)
  • Gospel (unspecified)
  • Jazz (unspecified)
  • Hip Hop (unspecified)
  • Reggae (unspecified)
  • Lil Wayne
  • Pop (unspecified)

Alabama State University

  • R&B (unspecified)
  • Rap (unspecified)
  • Gospel (unspecified)
  • Jazz (unspecified)
  • Hip Hop (unspecified)
  • Reggae (unspecified)

Shaw University

  • Rap (unspecified)
  • R&B (unspecified)
  • Hip Hop (unspecified)
  • Nas
  • Lil Wayne
  • John Legend

Recent US studies (Dr. Kimberly Noble / Columbia University, and others) using MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) technology showed that people growing up in less favoured social environments have brains that are up to 6% smaller than average. The most dramatically affected areas include the cerebral cortex, which is the outer layer of the cerebrum, composed of folded gray matter and plays a key role in memory, attention, perception, awareness, thought, language, and consciousness.

This may also at least partially explain why people growing up in such environments perform less well in school (lower SAT numbers), and also why they prefer less complex music. And this also reflects some huge problems of society of course, and hopefully this may change one day. Maybe artists should address those problems in their songs, instead of singing about ass shaking babes in the clubs. But let’s head back to our strategy for a moment. I think by now you should get it:

If you make good music that will probably be more complex and more challenging, then your fans will likely be more intelligent, more educated, more successful, and they will be able to spend more money on your music.

As said before, it may not be politically correct to say all of this, but I think it’s important to know what the facts and the real trends are if you want to succeed as an artist. All of this will also be very important in order to understand why (good) rock music still sells better than any other genre out there. We’ll talk about that phenomenon soon. At this point I’d like to say once more that there is no good and no bad genre, so all of the above does not mean that all rock is good while all hip hop is bad. And it certainly doesn’t mean that music made by Caucasians is better than music made by African Americans. Check out the Masters Of The Past, and you’ll see that many of the greatest artists of all time have been African Americans. And don’t forget that all music genres, including rock and pop, have black roots. None of those numbers or statistical interpretations shall be used for any kind of stupid discussion or conclusion about intelligence, genre, and race

The numbers only seem to indicate that there is a category of high end rock, indie, and alternative music (Nirvana, U2, Radiohead, The Beatles, …) that’s attractive to more intellectual people, while there seems to be less hip hop in this domain. Which does not mean that highly intelligent or educated people will not listen to hip hop, but if they do, then they certainly don’t go for the low end crap. More intelligent people won’t listen to low end rock either by the way – which also means that Coldplay’s decision to become more mass-compatible by integrating more and more mainstream pop elements and collaborating with artists such as Beyoncé will certainly cost them some of their credibility among highly educated people.

So what’s the final recommendation? Well, I think you shouldn’t do music with a specific group of people in mind. Don’t make music that’s targeted only at Harvard students. But in the end you will have to do music for thinking people aged 15 or higher, and this because of the following reasons:

  • Less intelligent and / or educated people will NEVER buy music created by an unknown underdog, as most of them are most likely followers, and they will be highly influenced by the media – which is a shame, and this is something society should definitely fight.
  • More intelligent and / or educated people will more likely appreciate complex and challenging art and even pay for it.
  • The music industry is producing tons of crap for kids and less intelligent people already (just look at the Top 40 and you’ll know what I mean), which means that you would face high competition in that segment.
  • At the same time the music industry is negelecting the small group of thinking leaders, which means that you will face almost no competition in this segment.

Always avoid competition by the way.

There seems to be a correlation between music tastes and education/intelligence.

In 2007, the University of Warwick published a study conducted among the members of the National Academy for Gifted and Talented Youth (representing 120,000 students with top 5% academic achievements, 1,057 students aged between 11 and 18 years old did the survey). The result was that those students preferred rock music, closely followed by pop. But a large number of the students also listed heavy metal as their favourite music genre, and it seems that many of them like the genre because it helps them to better get along with the pressures associated with being gifted and talented.

Another study done in 2014 Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, based on interviews with 36,000 people from 6 different countries, showed that that classical fans and heavy metal fans are very similar in many ways. Metal and classical fans tend to be creative, gentle people, at ease with themselves, while they may also be outsiders and nerds. In an interview by The Guardian, Professor Adrian North, who led the study, said that “We think the answer is that both types of music, classical and heavy metal, have something of the spiritual about them — they’re very dramatic — a lot happens”. This has mostly been explained by the fact that (at least good) metal tends to be highly complex (similar to classical music), while not vocal driven. North also classified audiences into the following categories, as there seems to be a correlation between liked music genres and personality:

  • Rap / hip-hop: high self-esteem, outgoing, not very eco-friendly.
  • Heavy metal: gentle, low self-esteem, reserved, and comfortable with themselves.
  • Indie rock: low self-esteem, creative, lazy, headstrong.
  • Electronic / dance: sociable, headstrong, outgoing, creative.
  • Classical: high self-esteem, introverted, high earners, eco-friendly.
  • Pop: high self-esteem, hard-working, outgoing, low creativity, nervous.

A study lead by the University Of Texas analyzed the music tastes of people based on a few categories and came to the following conclusions:

  • The unpretentious music audience  (pop, country, religious) is usually agreeable, extraverted, conscientious, attractive, wealthy, athletic, but also politically conservative and not very intelligent.
  • The sophisticated music audience  (blues, jazz, bluegrass, folk, classical, gospel, opera) is usually unathletic, liberal, intelligent and very open to trying new experiences.
  • The intense music audience  (rock, punk, alternative, heavy metal) is usually more athletic but less dominant than the previous category, but also liberal, intelligent, and very open to trying new experiences.
  • The contemporary music audience (hip hop, soul / R&B, funk, reggae) is usually extraverted, agreeable, attractive and athletic, but less reflective or rebellious, and doesn’t appreciate intense or complex music.

Again, these are just trends of course, and it says nothing about individuals listening to one or another genre.

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Chapter 2.4   •   Page 5 of 18

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