To me, the most striking aspect of Howard Stein’s article was its recognition of the complex interplay of factors in the development of individual musical preferences and the immersion level in music. As Stein discusses, the development of a musician’s life—and of any individual’s relationship to music—is intertwined with world events, politics, culture, personal upbringing/biographical events, inherent musical abilities, personality, and temperament. It is this complexity that fascinates me as a social psychologist, yet the psychological research on musical taste has sometimes neglected that complexity.

For example, over the years, I have had many students in my methodology course do their required empirical research projects on personality and music preference. They rarely find any patterns. The same is largely true for the abundance of research in the professional literature on this topic. Examining personality traits, such as the commonly studied “Big Five” traits of Conscientiousness, Agreeableness, Neuroticism, Openness, and Extroversion as single correlates of music preference has yielded very few consistent significant findings.

However, if we view music preference as resulting from the interaction of a host of personal, cultural, historical, and developmental variables, then these null findings make sense. As Stein’s essay illustrates, a more nuanced approach to understanding music preferences and patterns of engagement with music is needed. One interesting model of a more complex approach in psychology to

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studying music preference is provided in the design of a recent study that included the “use of music” as well as personal values, culture, and personality in examining musical preferences.

I was also intrigued by Stein’s comments on music as a “marker” of the social/cultural standpoint. In discussing the tensions between Tchaikovsky’s music and that of Brahms, Stein writes: “The oppositional process of either/or, us/them, is unmistakable, expressed in a musical idiom. In both instances, the Other type of music embodied all that was wrong and distasteful about music, culture, and life itself.”  In describing the oppositional reactions to Brahms and Wagner, Stein also invokes attributions of classic vs. futurist and conservative vs. progressive.

Certainly, these conflicting cultural and musical positions have existed throughout history at points of inflection, periods of social change so profound as to be culture-shifting. In my lifetime, two such eras provide particularly vivid examples. In the United States, the introduction of rock ‘n’ roll in the 1950s heralded more than just new musical styles; it helped usher in significant social changes with respect to race and segregation. The music pitted young fans against segments of the older, more conservative White generation and the racist norms of the time. Greater political and economic freedoms of the era provided many teens the time and means to buy recordings and attend rock ‘n’ roll concerts, often crossing racial barriers to do so. Significant social progress ultimately resulted from the oppositional position of these young rock ‘n’ roll fans. Thus, one could argue that musical preference in this era was a marker for political and racial attitudes. (For a detailed discussion, see Eric Vaillancourt’s “Rock ‘n’ Roll in the 1950s: Rockin’ for Civil Rights” in his 2011 Master’s Thesis, The College of Brockport: State University of New York.)

The 1960s and early 1970s provide further examples of musical preference as a marker for a person’s political stance. This was a period of significant social change and new emerging musical styles. Although the many evolutions of music in the 60s and early 70s are too complex to discuss here, it seems reasonable to say that ardent fans of such new musical forms as psychedelic rock and hard rock, as well as protest rock, embraced changing moral and personal standards as well as stood in political opposition to the status quo of conservatism, war, and repression. Indeed, protest music of the 60s, be it rock, folk rock, or rhythm and blues, explicitly represented the rejection of conservative personal, cultural, and

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political values, and brought life to a new youth-centered opposition. Just a few obvious examples of such music include: Bob Dylan’s Blowin’ in the Wind, Sam Cooke’s A Change Is Gonna Come, Barry McGuire’s Eve of Destruction, and James Brown’s Say it Loud: I’m Black & I’m Proud.

In contrast, those who eschewed these new forms of popular music tended to support the existing, traditional cultural norms. To these traditionalists, the new musical forms represented what was wrong with the beliefs and behaviors of the new generation. Without a doubt, musical form by musicians and music affinities among audiences can be effectively examined as markers for political stances, especially during historical periods of intense change.

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Donna Crawley

Donna Crawley, PhD, is Professor Emeritus of Psychology at Ramapo College of New Jersey. Her research has focused on such topics as the detection of deception, factors affecting criminal case outcomes, and the relationship between empathy and mortality salience. Her areas of expertise also include the psychology of cults, which she has studied for 40 years. She may be contacted at .

How to Cite This:

Crawley, D. (2023). Music and political stance. Clio’s Psyche, 29(2), 132-134.

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