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  • Photo: Helsinki City Museum / Juho Nurmi.

From Bach to Beyoncé - examining musical preferences in Helsinki

This article presents the interim results of a study based on a music taste test that is part of an ongoing Helsinki City Museum exhibition. The participants' three favourite genres so far are rock music, easy classical and old jazz. By contrast, electronic music, contemporary art music and heavy metal are most likely to cause the listeners to tune out.

An exhibition that puts the listener in the centre

The Helsinki City Museum exhibition ‘Music! Echoes from the Past of a City’ opened at Hakasalmi Villa in March and will continue until early 2017. The exhibition breaks new ground in approaching the history of music by presenting the music memories of ordinary people instead of focussing on composers, instruments and professional musicians. No division is made between classical and popular music.

The audience was invited to take part in creating the exhibition because the aim was to strongly highlight the vibrant and diverse music culture of contemporary Helsinki, alongside nostalgic objects and photographs. Therefore, the preparation for the exhibition, which took several years, involved extensive filming and collection projects through which music enthusiasts were able to participate in its creation.

The habits and behaviours of music fans were observed and recorded at a symphony concert, a jazz club, the Tuska and Flow festivals and a ‘Eurovision viewing party’. There was also a visit to meet students of a music institute in Malmi, including toddlers in a musical nursery school and drummer teens. Group pictures and badges were collected from choirs. The audience shared both their best and worst memories related to music and music lessons.

The exhibition itself also gives a large role to audience participation. Music is played in many parts of the exhibition, of course, but in a contemporary museum the visitor can do more than just watch and listen. One of the rooms is an old-style classroom where visitors can play a ‘school song game’ and have a new go at the singing test that most of us remember from school years. In the ‘historical dance school’, visitors can learn popular dances from the 16th-century galliard to the hip hop of the 1990s.

The tour of the exhibition begins with a music taste test. It is a touchscreen game where the player “browses radio stations” and reacts to a series a music samples by pressing buttons indicating like or dislike. At the end, the test reveals whether the player’s musical taste is focussed on high culture, traditional, rock-inspired or contemporary pop music, or if it is omnivorous.

The fun and easy test has been well received by museum visitors, perhaps because it appeals to people’s desire to test themselves, increase self-knowledge and compare themselves with others. Whilst being entertaining, the test is based on recent Finnish socio-musicological research on taste. The test also provides researchers with a new kind of data based on playable samples and spontaneous reactions, to be used in a forthcoming study on musical preferences.

Designing the test

The planning for the music taste test began as a collaboration between the Helsinki City Museum and City of Helsinki Urban Facts in 2013. The objective was to obtain information about visitors’ musical preferences through an interactive exhibit, and the first challenge was to decide on a set of musical genres that would best serve to highlight the differences in individual tastes.

On the basis of previous research, and following lengthy discussions, sixteen genres of music were finally decided upon. Music can, of course, be divided into countless subgenres, but our aim was to keep the number and duration of the music samples in the test limited so that museum visitors could complete it during their visit to the exhibition.

The next task after selecting the music genres was to choose a one-minute long sample to represent each style. This should be a typical example of the genre but not too easily recognisable (to eliminate the impact of the participants’ pre-existing preferences or dislikes towards individual songs or performers). As could be expected, choosing the pieces of music was not easy, and the final selection can of course be debated. The following music genres and samples were chosen for the test.

1. Easy-listening classical

Johann Christian Bach: Oboe Concerto in F-major, T291: 1. Andante

2. Opera

G. Rossini: ‘Bel raggio lusinghier’ from Semiramide

3. Contemporary art music

Magnus Lindberg: Engine

4. Finnish folk music

Helsingin pitäjän spelarit: Oskarin polkka

5. World music

Rachid Taha: Ya rajah

6. Old jazz

New Orleans Rhythm Kings: Jazz Me Blues (1934)

7.  New jazz

John Coltrane: Countdown

8. Old funk, soul, disco

Sly and the Family Stone: Underdog

9. Rap

Ville Kalliosta feat. Davo, Petos, Puppa J: Se mitä puhutaan lujaa

10.  Contemporary RnB, “playlist music”

Beyoncé: Single Ladies

11.  Techno, house, electro

Norman DJ: Go Back

12.  Heavy metal

Kreator: Civilization Collapse

13.  Rock music

Creedence Clearwater Revival: Travelin’ Band

14. Finnish rock

Verenpisara: Suunta

15.  Old Finnish schlager

Olavi Virta: Yön kulkija

16.  Contemporary Finnish schlager

Anne Mattila: Kaipuuni on uskomaton

During the test, the music samples are played in a random order and unidentified. The player evaluates each sample on a three-level scale – in practice, by pressing a touch screen button with one of the following options to which the game assigns the weight of 5, 3 or 0 points.

"Awesome music!" (5)

"I could listen to this" (3)

"Oh no, change the station!" (0)

The result displayed to the user at the end of the test is calculated by categorising the music samples into four groups based on socio-musicological research on taste. The test adds up the points for each group.

The result is presented to the player as a visualisation showing the preponderance of each ‘genre group’ in his or her musical preference. After finishing the test, the player also has the option of seeing the titles of the samples, the genre classifications as well as the scores given. In addition, the player can comment on the accuracy of the result.

The background variables in the test were age (9 age groups), language in which the test was taken (Finnish, Swedish or English), education (primary education; secondary education; Bachelor or equivalent degree; Master’s or higher degree), place of residence (Helsinki; the rest of the Helsinki Metropolitan Area; other Finnish city; small locality; countryside; overseas) as well as postal code.

The test application stores the song-specific scores and the respondents’ background information for all completed taste tests. In addition, the time spent on each reply is measured and recorded. This is presumed to reflect the certainty of taste, concerning both the pleasure derived from favourite music and the rejection of the most disliked music.

First impressions of the data

The exhibition has pulled in over 20,000 visitors in the first six months from March to August 2015. The music taste test has been taken 1,634 times, which may seem like a small number in comparison. The relatively low number of responses is partly due to technical problems in the initial phase, but another explanation is that the museum visitors are often part of guided group tours which do not allow enough time for everyone to take the test. The log shows a rather large number of unfinished tests.

The majority (78%) of those who took the music taste test were from the Helsinki Metropolitan Area. Almost 150 international museum visitors also completed the test.

As is the case with many other cultural surveys, the majority of the respondents of the music taste test – two out of three – were women. The ages of the respondents were more evenly distributed between different age groups. The age breakdowns of men and women were very similar.

The educational level of the respondents was rather high. The proportion of respondents with an upper tertiary degree was particularly prominent, especially among men. Only the share of respondents with primary or upper secondary education is lower in proportion to, for instance, the average share in Helsinki.

Three tunes stood out

The selection of 16 tunes contained three samples which were rated 'awesome music’ by around half of the respondents. The result in itself signals that the respondents represent a very heterogeneous group. That said, it can be speculated whether the three most popular tunes are more in the mainstream of their respective genres than the rest of the samples and whether this affected the ratings.

There were also three widely disliked genres: electronic music, contemporary art music and heavy metal. It was the assumption of the authors even when choosing the samples that the Kreator heavy metal song, for example, would strongly divide the opinions of the test participants. That is exactly what happened.

The share of respondents choosing the middle option (‘I could listen to this’) was relatively even across all music samples, which can indicate two things. On the one hand, the respondents seem to have been rather omnivorous. On the other hand, this result can also be taken to mean that music no longer necessarily invokes very strong passions in either direction, with the exception of two or three genres of music.

The musical tastes of men and women differed noticeably from each other with regard to a couple of pieces of music. The various genres of rock, electronic music and modern jazz (Coltrane) were better received by men than by women. Women favoured opera and 'traditional' classical music. The most drastic differences were recorded with two genres typically placed at opposing ends of the taste spectrum, namely heavy metal and opera. This is in line with the results of more extensive studies on musical preferences (Purhonen 2014).

The fact that the respondents consisted of museum visitors was expected to increase the popularity of both classical music and opera also among men. A small detail to be noted is that the male respondents liked contemporary art music more than women. It can be asked whether this is a similar phenomenon to the popularity among men of another 'difficult' genre: progressive rock.

It was also interesting that the Contemporary RnB genre was judged so much more positively by women than men. Since the sample was a relatively recent, easily recognisable hit track ('Single Ladies' by Beyoncé), the respondents' opinions may have been affected by their personal attitude towards this particular track or artist rather than the entire musical genre. It is a matter of speculation whether another song in a similar style would have been received differently.

Age, education and taste in music

Figures 2 and 3 (see below) give rise to several observations.

- Classical music is strongly favoured by older respondents. The same is true for the Olavi Virta sample, representing older Finnish schlager.

- Electronic music, RnB and rap were clearly genres that only appealed to the younger audiences. The funk track by Sly and the Family Stone also went down particularly well with people aged 25–34 – interestingly, since the song is over 40 years old.

- Rock is music for middle-aged audiences. Many studies have noted that the audience of rock music has diversified in terms of age, whilst it was originally strongly identified with youth (Keskinen 1994, Alasuutari 2009).  For example, the CCR sample in the test was well received regardless of respondents’ age or education.

- The selection of 16 samples included a couple of tracks that were given more or less similar ratings across all age groups. The responses were most consistent with regard to the world music sample, 'Ya rajah' by Rachid Taha. The popularity of this piece could perhaps be explained by a certain trendiness attached to ethnic influences (also widely used in mainstream pop) and the familiar-sounding yet unclichéd and slightly exotic melody.

- As the stereotype suggests, classical music, opera and jazz are favoured in particular by educated people.

- The popularity of the different genres of popular music does not vary much by educational level but more according to age.

- Figure 3 shows conspicuously high ratings for some music genres among the respondents with only primary education, but these are explained not so much by the educational level but rather the young age of these respondents.

Listening duration and favourite genres

The data also contains information about the length of time that the respondents spent listening to each piece of music. This brings a new perspective to the research. There were three baseline hypotheses.

a) Favourite music will be listened to longer than an unfamiliar piece or a sample representing a less appealing genre

b) When hearing a familiar or generally pleasant-sounding song, the respondents may move quickly on to the next sample

c) When hearing a sample they dislike, the respondents will also move on to the next song immediately.

None of the hypotheses received strong support. Some respondents did indeed stay and listen to their favourite songs for fairly long periods but this did not affect the average listening duration. Some of the less popular pieces also registered longer listening times – perhaps because these were experienced as difficult (Magnus Lindberg) or unfamiliar (Norman DJ). It could be assumed that the listeners thus needed an above-average time before giving their assessment.

The genres that registered the shortest listening times were Finnish folk music, modern jazz and heavy metal. Almost everyone listened to the 'traditional Finnish folk' sample only for a short time, which seems to indicate a strong and unambiguous opinion about the genre. The variation in listening durations was greatest with the Johann Christian Bach excerpt and the contemporary art music sample.

A more detailed research report on the subject will be completed in early 2017 after the end of the exhibition.

Vesa Keskinen is Researcher at City of Helsinki Urban Facts. Jere Jäppinen is Researcher at the Helsinki City Museum and the producer of the Music! exhibition.


Alasuutari, Pertti (2009). Snobismista kaikkiruokaisuuteen. Musiikkimaku ja koulutustaso. In Suomalainen vapaa-aika. Arjen ilot ja valinnat. Ed. Mirja Liikkanen. Gaudeamus.

Keskinen, Vesa (1994). Mozartista Leskiseen. Helsinkiläisten musiikkimaut. Helsingin kaupungin tietokeskuksen tutkimuksia 1994:6.

Purhonen, Semi (2014). Musiikki. In Suomalainen maku. Kulttuuripääoma, kulutus ja elämäntyylien sosiaalinen eriytyminen. Semi Purhonen and team Jukka Gronow, Riie Heikkilä, Nina Kahma, Keijo Rahkonen, Arho Toikka. Gaudeamus.

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