Learning to Listen

Types of Musical Knowledge and Genre Preferences


  • Anna Michelson Northwestern University
  • Dr. Kat Albrecht


How does musical knowledge relate to genre preferences? Analysis of the 2012 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts shows that people with musical knowledge (operationalized as music lessons, music appreciation classes, and musicianship) like to listen to more genres. This is consistent with previous work on education and cultural consumption. However, we find differences between the types of musical knowledge: music lessons and musicianship strongly predict listening to almost all genres while music appreciation classes have mixed effects. Drawing on supplemental interviews, we theorize that different types of musical knowledge produce different legibilities. Sonic legibility, or the ability to evaluate intramusical elements (tone, notes, complexity), is acquired through music lessons or musicianship. Social legibility, or the ability to evaluate extramusical elements (reputation, history, symbolic associations), is acquired through music appreciation classes or through informal networks. We argue that legibility is the key link between musical knowledge and genre preferences, insofar as people report they “like to listen to” a genre when they feel they have the capacity to engage with it. 

Author Biography

Dr. Kat Albrecht

Kat Albrecht is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Criminal Justice and Criminology in the Andrew Young School of Policy Studies at Georgia State University. She received her PhD in Sociology from Northwestern University and her J.D. from the Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law.