Elizabeth Hellmuth Margulis Ph.D.

Looking at Listening

Are Musical Preferences All in the Sound?

New research shows information shapes how people hear and evaluate music.

Posted May 17, 2017

Source: fototolia

People can try two merlots and find one exquisite and the other mediocre. What gives rise to these preferences? The most commonly held explanation implicates subtle differences in the chemistry of the wine. But a provocative study by Baba Shiv and colleagues revealed that taste is shaped by more than chemistry.

In the study, people were shown the price of each wine before they sipped it. Unbeknownst to the participants, the wine labeled as cheap and the wine labeled as expensive were sometimes the exact same wine. The two didn’t taste the same, however. When participants were told the wine cost a lot, they savored each taste, finding it high quality and delicious. When they were told it was cheap—even when it was actually the same wine—they enjoyed it markedly less.

This study shows that extrinsic information can affect the basic pleasure experienced in sensory experiences. Could the same thing be true for aesthetic experiences, such as listening to music?

In a recent study in our lab, we addressed this question by playing people pairs of performances of the same piano piece. Before we presented the excerpt, we told people either that it was performed by a world-renowned concert pianist or that it was played by a conservatory student of piano. These labels served as proxies for supposed value, similar to the price tags in the wine study. Sometimes the labels were accurate, sometimes they were reversed, and sometimes both performances in the pair were exactly the same.

Participants didn’t prefer the performances that were actually played by professional pianists over the ones played by student pianists, but they did prefer the performances they had supposedly been played by a professional—illustrating that extrinsic factors also shape the way people experience complex sensory stimuli such as music performances. People also tended to prefer the performance they heard second within the pair, again pointing to the significant role of context in shaping enjoyment.

Although simple in design, this study underscores the fact that responses to sound are not driven exclusively by the nature of the sounds themselves. The contexts, expectations, and social positioning brought to the experience significantly impact the way a musical performance is heard and evaluated. Concert presenters would do well to conduct more research into the factors that tend to give rise to the most powerful listening experiences.


Kroger, C. & Margulis, E.H. (2017). But they told me it was professional: Extrinsic factors in the evaluation of musical performance. Psychology of Music, 45, 49-64.

Plassmann, H., O'Doherty, J., Shiv, B., & Rangel, A. (2008). Marketing actions can modulate neural representations of experienced pleasantness. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 105, 1050-1054.

About the Author

Elizabeth Margulis is Director of the Music Cognition Lab at the University of Arkansas and author of On Repeat: How Music Plays the Mind.


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