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Kathleen O'Toole, News Service (650) 725-1939; e-mail:

Birds of a feather sing together: Musical tastes provide clues to how cultural niches develop

The Beatles consumed many thousands of man and woman hours in their day. They still do, along with Mozart, Whitney Houston and the Spice Girls. Whenever people play, listen, dance to or talk about music, the music is consuming a limited resource people's time and energy, says Stanford sociologist Noah Mark. It is largely for that reason, he argues, that we don't all like the same kinds of music, and that tastes for different kinds of music are concentrated within different sociodemographic niches of society.

Mark, who hails from Mechanicsburg, Pa., near Harrisburg, came to Stanford last year as an assistant professor of sociology. Growing up, he said, he was interested in social issues, but it wasn't until he was an undergraduate at Drew University in Madison, N.J., that he was exposed to sociology and its positive, scientific perspective on social life. "Previously, I had only been exposed to a normative perspective. I found that the switch from always dwelling on what people should do and shouldn't do to thinking about what social processes do occur, don't occur and why made thinking about social issues seem more productive."

In graduate school at the University of Arizona, Mark learned more about theories that attempt to explain people's differing cultural tastes, and he began looking around for a way to test them. If he could explain the patterns of people's preferences for types of music such as rap and bluegrass, he thought, he might be able to shed light on how cultural practices and preferences more generally develop and change in a country as diverse as the United States.

Mark began by borrowing general ideas used by University of Arizona sociologist Miller McPherson to explain the sociodemographic composition of voluntary associations, such as soccer clubs and church groups. "I'm trying to build on a long tradition of empirical work in sociology that shows that individuals who are similar on any of a large number of characteristics, including age, education, occupation, social status and race, are more likely to be friends, associates or spouses than chance predicts," Mark said recently during a break from teaching classes. If "birds of a feather flock together," he decided to explore whether "birds of a feather sing together," the name he eventually gave to an article published in the journal Social Forces.

Record companies, radio stations and their advertisers have known for some time that different types of music appeal to different age, gender and racial groups. A heavy metal artist's fans are mostly young white males; Lawrence Welk's fans are mostly people who remember World War II. The question Mark wanted to answer was why.

From a social scientist's perspective, he said, "one can understand why a genre of music is liked by a relatively homogeneous set of people as it is first being developed: Musical innovation is one of the natural cultural products of social interaction, which we know occurs disproportionately between similar people." Examples are the Scots-Irish origins of country music and bluegrass and the African American origins of blues.

"If you think back to people who lived as hunters and gatherers, the members of a single hunting and gathering society all liked the same kind of music; they sang to each other, passing music traditions from generation to generation," he said. Modern Americans, however, do not live isolated lives. They have multiple acquaintances that link them indirectly to each other. Stanley Milgram demonstrated these links in the late 1960s by asking a random sampling of people in Wichita, Kan., to each contact a New Englander whom Milgram briefly described in a letter. The Kansans were asked if they knew the person, and if they did not, to send the letter on to an acquaintance who might know the target person in New England. On average it took just six transfers for the letter to reach the specified person.

Based on Milgram's "small-world" finding, Mark said, one might expect a fan's preference for the Beatles or Spice Girls to spread gradually from one acquaintance to another until everyone likes that type of music, wiping out the niche pattern.

He tested potential explanations for the persistence of musical niches on data collected from more than 1,500 adults in the 1993 General Social Survey, a high quality survey directed by the University of Chicago. Each adult had been asked about his or her feelings toward 18 types of music and, on average, respondents said they liked 2.23 types strongly and an additional 5.43 types less strongly. Mark used this data to identify the sociodemographic niche occupied by each type of music. People who like a musical form are concentrated in its sociodemographic niche, he said, but not every person who falls into the niche of a musical form necessarily likes that type of music.

"What I found was that the more musical niches you are in, the smaller is the proportion of those types that you actually like. I believe the reason for this relationship is that musical forms compete with each other for the limited time and energy of potential fans. If we look just at weak preferences, we find this relationship is much weaker. This makes sense because maintaining a strong taste takes up more of a person's time than maintaining a weak taste does. Therefore, the competition is more intense among strong preferences than among weak ones."

As an example, he says, "Suppose you have a weak preference for reggae music. Maybe that means you have an album you play every couple weeks, so it doesn't take much time. If you have a strong preference for blues music, maybe you are in a band that plays that kind of music, so you meet twice a week for a couple hours with the band, spend time at home practicing alone, talking to your friends about it and reading about it, so it will be hard to have a strong preference for reggae or rock also.

"What's interesting to me about this is that it supports a general theory that would explain many types of the variation that we see across sociodemographic variables," he says. "Music may seem like a light topic, but sociologists would argue that it's important because the things people do for fun form the basis for a lot of connections between people, and across those social connections a lot of social resources and information about jobs and other things can flow. Being familiar with the right kind of culture can put you at ease with people who can provide you with certain resources."

Similar processes also may be at work in other aspects of culture that consume time and energy, he said. Examples might be other leisure activities, religious participation or the development of beliefs and values.

Research projects also consume time and energy, and Mark has other projects to pursue, but he says he will continue to find time to study ways that time constraints affect culture.


By Kathleen O'Toole

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