Study abuse: ‘Smarter people listen to instrumental music’ (in Croatia)

Abstracts and releases about study results proliferate these days, and scribes who write for news sites often don’t go beyond the excerpts. Now some media are running stories about a study done on “high school students”, with results indicating “intelligence to be a significant predictor of the preference for instrumental music, but not of the preference for vocal-instrumental music.” Genres of instrumental music cited by The NY Post include “jazz, classical, big band and ambient/electronica.”  If you buy into this sweeping statement, it’s a good idea to consider relevancies, some of them pointed out by the study author who is a PhD student at Oxford Brookes University in the United Kingdom.

The study was conducted by surveying 467 “high school” students. The school is located in Croatia. I was curious about the makeup of the student population, so I did a bit of digging. As best I can tell, what we in the US call “high school” is not mandatory in Croatia. I found info on education in Croatia, but most of the articles, such as the article sourced to the World Bank (National Report Croatia) and another from an organization self-described as an “Education Encyclopedia”, give scant details on entry requirements for “high school” or secondary school as most articles call it.

I scanned an article at Wikipedia with my customary skepticism of that source. I don’t speak Croatian, the language at least 95 percent of that country’s population speaks, so I can’t vouch for the accuracy of the article. I was intrigued enough to share an excerpt here, though, on how secondary education in Croatia works:

“The process of getting into a high school in Croatia is rather difficult. A student chooses 5 schools which they want to go to (students that are interested in vocational schools may choose two programs within a school) and then list them. The first school on the list is the school that the student wants to go to the most. In Croatia, the maximum number of points while signing up is 80; the points are gathered from primary school grades and any extra criteria such as competitions, diseases and similar. The point threshold is a certain number of points below which a student can’t sign up for the school. For an example, if a certain school has the point threshold of 65, nobody with 64 or less points can sign up. Schools usually have quotas of how many students can enroll in that particular year.”

Can you really form conclusions about the world at large by using 467 carefully selected students from a country where 86+ percent of the population share one faith, and roughly 90 percent belong to one ethnicity, Croats? While the study author did acknowledge “gender, age, level of education, income and other factors also play into the results,” without telling us how in the story we cannot form a sound opinion.

This type of sweeping generalization isn’t confined to PhD studies about music. Media routinely parrot claims from “scientific studies” without digging into the details. I think we live in a pop science age.

My nitpicking the study conclusion has nothing to do with aesthetics. I love classical music while I simply cannot listen to jazz. Did anyone think to ask what other types of music students prefer, or how their country’s culture impacts their aesthetic? Apparently not.

While many intelligent people may prefer instrumental music, this study did not provide a foundation for headlines like this one in The NY Post: Smarter people listen to instrumental music: study. I’d wager smarter people like to listen to all different kinds of music, but you’d have to do a number of studies of different populations, and see if the results could be replicated, to come to a sound conclusion. I’d start with how you determine criteria for measuring “smart”.

(Kay B. Day/May 23, 2019)


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