Why More Intelligent People Like Classical Music

The Intelligence Paradox: Why the Intelligent Choice Isn't Always the Smart One - Satoshi Kanazawa 2012

Why More Intelligent People Like Classical Music

I first became interested in the possible effect of general intelligence on musical tastes when I was visiting my wife's hometown of Novgorod, Russia, in June 2002. Novgorod is an ancient provincial town, not at all cosmopolitan like Moscow or St. Petersburg. And it was years before the current influx of guest workers from the former Soviet Republics in Central Asia into Novgorod and other Russian cities. So I was just about the only Asian—the only non-Slav—in the entire town of Novgorod, and I stuck out like a sore thumb everywhere I went. People stared at me because it was obvious to all that I was not a local.

The only other time I experienced anything like that in my life was when my car—my trusted 1977 Datsun Cherry F-10 hatchback—broke down in Wallace, Idaho, during my transcontinental drive in the early fall of 1986. I had to spend several hours in Wallace, while my car was being repaired in a local garage. I appeared to be the only non-white person in the entire town of Wallace that day (or, quite possibly, any day), and everybody looked at me like I was a rock star. A group of teenagers would walk by and wave at me simply because I looked different.

Anyway, being in Novgorod was like being in Wallace, Idaho, all over again, and I was the only Asian in the whole town. I did not see another non-Slavic face during my entire visit.

One night, my wife and I decided to go to a classical music concert held at a local concert hall. It was a very small concert, with a small audience and a small orchestra. Yet there she was, the first violin of the small local orchestra in Novgorod was an Asian woman. She was the only Asian I saw in all of Novgorod during my entire visit.

Could this be a coincidence? I don't know anything about classical music, but casual observations seemed to suggest that many of the famous classical musicians throughout the world were either Jewish or Asian, the two ethnic groups with the highest average intelligence. It also seemed to me that many of the people who enjoyed listening to classical music (which decidedly does not include me) were typically highly educated and upper-class (therefore, more intelligent) people. Could there possibly be a connection between intelligence and appreciation for classical music? Are more intelligent people more likely to appreciate (and therefore perform) classical music? If so, why? What's special about classical music?

Here's another casual observation. If you like driving across the country in the United States (as I do), and if you are a fan of the National Public Radio (as I am), you may notice a pattern in the character of NPR stations across the country. In big cities (like New York or Washington DC), NPR stations tend to be news and talk stations and air news and talk programs throughout the day. In small towns, in contrast, NPR stations tend to air news and talk programs (like Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Fresh Air) only during the morning and evening driving hours, but otherwise air music throughout the day and night. I assume this is because carefully produced news and talk programs are more expensive to purchase and air than CDs, and NPR stations in large cities have larger budgets that allow them to purchase such programs, whereas NPR stations in smaller towns with smaller operating budgets must play music from CDs most of the day.

Typically, NPR and other radio stations which play music have “themes.” No radio stations play a random collection of music; they usually focus on certain genres of music to play. So there are “classic rock” stations, and there are “country western” stations. Over the years, I have noticed that NPR stations that are not news and talk stations frequently play classical and jazz music.

According to surveys conducted on behalf of the Recording Industry Association of America in 2008,1 only 1.9% of a representative sample of Americans purchased classical music (in all formats) in the past month, and 1.1% purchased jazz. The largest number of people (31.8%) purchased rock music in the past month. More than 10 times as many people purchased rock music than classical and jazz combined. In sharp contrast, of the 143 NPR stations which provide online streaming as of April 2011 (out of a total of 910 NPR stations nationwide2), 42.7% (61) play classical music, and a further 14.0% play jazz. Only 30.8% play the combined genres of rock, pop and folk.3 Judging by these statistics, classical and jazz listeners are nearly 20 times overrepresented among the NPR station listeners (3% of the American population vs. 56.7% of NPR stations).

But why is this? Why do NPR listeners like to listen to classical or jazz music? NPR stations and their listeners are notoriously and overwhelmingly left-wing liberals. And, as I show in Chapter 5, left-wing liberals are on average more intelligent than right-wing conservatives. Does that mean that more intelligent radio listeners are more likely to prefer classical or jazz music? If so, why?

In order to answer these questions, I first had to find out how music initially came about in human evolutionary history. What is the evolutionary origin of music? Why are humans musical?