Love of instrumental music is linked to intelligence, researchers say

From deejays to Debussy, it's all brain food.

  • A new study supports earlier suspicions of a link between intelligence and non-vocal music.
  • This may have to do with a taste for novel experiences way back on the savannah.
  • Purely instrumental music may simply be more fresh for brainiacs.

The Savanna‐IQ Interaction Hypothesis, based on the Savannah Principle, proposes that intelligent people are more likely to be attracted to novel stimuli than other individuals are. A 2011 study — "Why More Intelligent Individuals Like Classical Music," by evolutionary psychologist Satoshi Kanazawa — proposed that since music evolved from vocal sounds, purely instrumental music would, by comparison, be one such novel stimulus. Ergo, smarter people are more likely to enjoy instrumental music.

We may logically expand that category beyond Kanazawa's boundaries to encompass other, non-classical, but nonetheless purely instrumental forms of music, such as ambient/chill-out electronica, dance music, jazz, and so on. With that caveat, a study recently published in Evolutionary Behavioral Science, "Intelligence, Music Preferences, and Uses of Music From the Perspective of Evolutionary Psychology," adds fresh support for Kanazawa's take on musical taste.

Tuning up

"I first became interested in this topic while working on a project looking into the relationship between personality traits and musical preferences," says the study author, psychology and primate conservation student Elena Račevska of Oxford Brookes University, according to PsyPost. "We decided to further test his hypothesis using a different set of predictors — namely, a different type of intelligence test (i.e. a nonverbal measure), and the uses of music questionnaires."

Račevska gathered data from 467 Croatian high school students, measuring "a number of variables likely to have an effect in this relationship, such as taking part in extra-curricular music education, its type and duration."

The study confirmed Račevska's earlier insight: "We found intelligence to be a significant predictor of the preference for instrumental music." (Side note: Intelligent students were not likewise disproportionately drawn to singing.)

Račevska also found that the manner in which subjects used music, as well as its personality, affected their preference. Five such personality factors were identified: reflective, popular, conservative, intense, and sophisticated. Those who listened to music more cognitively — consciously analyzing its composition and performance — especially enjoyed instrumental music. They same people were also attracted to reflexive, intense, and sophisticated music.

Image source: PopTika / Shutterstock

What future research might explore

Račevska admits, "Intelligence is only one of the constructs connected to musical preferences, there are many others, such as personality traits, gender, age, degree of education, and family income." There's also the issue of complexity since, "complexity of vocalization is preferred by many species, which could mean that it is evolutionarily familiar."

"It would also be wonderful to conduct a longitudinal study of how musical preferences change throughout developmental stages of the human life," Račevska says, "and how they interact with numerous social and personal variables, such as societal pressures and peer relationships."

Finally, she notes, one's culture is likely to be an additional factor influencing musical preference, and "a cross-cultural study could examine and control for influences of culturally specific ways of experiencing music, and other music-related behaviors."

Image source: Marcela Laskoski / Unsplash

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