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Student Research Shows Proximity A Factor in Musical Preferences

Zach and Shaun
Zach Silver '18 (left) and Shaun Schaefers '16 presented at the recent national conference of the Society for Music Perception and Cognition.

Oct. 30, 2015   

BLOOMINGTON, Ill.— A group of twentysomethings are sitting around talking about a new music act or band. When someone in the group says, “that’s a cool band,” the comment is often followed by the question “Where are they from?”

Is the comment just conversational chitchat, or something more important? Are individuals more likely to favor music that originates from a nearby location? Illinois Wesleyan University Assistant Professor of Music Joe Plazak and his research students are trying to answer this question.

Plazak, who investigates musical preferences, leads a music cognition group of student researchers. Members Zach Silver ’18 and Shaun Schaefers ’16 knew that individuals who interact and live close to each other are more likely to develop a relationship, and they wondered if this social psychological phenomenon – the proximity principle – would hold true in music preferences.

“We wondered if individuals were more likely to favor music that originates from a nearby location,” said Silver, a music and psychology double major from Vernon Hills. Ill.  He said research demonstrates people have a propensity to develop emotional connections, both positive and negative, to physical spaces.

To collect data to help answer the question, Silver and Schaefers developed a custom Javascript applet with Associate Professor of Computer Science Mark Liffiton to collect data online.  Participants listened to two musical samples and then provided preference ratings using a 5-point Likert scale.

Preliminary results, which the students and Plazak presented at the recent national conference of the Society for Music Perception and Cognition, indicated female participants might value “near” music more than male participants.

The students said more research is needed to substantiate the marginally significant finding. But the findings can be important, the researchers said, so musicians can understand that musical preferences are not only limited to a group’s “sound.” This might also lead to bands and promoters using better marketing strategies based on geographic area, according to Schaefers, a music education major from Aurora, Ill.

“Musical preferences are amazingly dynamic and complex,” said Plazak. “The music we prefer depends on many factors such as the time of day we hear it, our immediate social context, our age and our values.”

Plazak added that the project required Silver and Schaefers to approach the research from an interdisciplinary standpoint. “Zach and Shaun had to transcend their training as musicians and make connections across campus to succeed,” Plazak said. “Their critical thinking skills and creative problem-solving, hallmarks of a liberal arts education, helped them gain meaningful insight into the implications of our research. We were able to find both new answers and new questions.”