From the Outside: Music for Smart People—Or Maybe Not
If you spend a decent amount of time on the Internet (and as an online journalist, I certainly do), you’ve probably come across this chart supposedly showing the music preferences of the intelligent versus the stupid. It looks a lot like what stereotypes would have some people believe: Beethoven falls well ahead of the rest in intelligence ratings, and Lil Wayne appears to be the loser, sharing the lower strata with artists such as Beyoncé and T.I. Other artists and genres, such as techno, fall in a less-polarized middle space. Unsurprisingly, it has been shared widely on social media, attracting the attention of those whose opinions about rap or country music appear to be validated by the chart. To be honest, though, I don’t buy it.
The first reason why is the way the chart was made: by looking at the average SAT scores at colleges, and then looking at the most popular artists or genres at that school. Although it achieved what look like interesting results, the study is obviously skewed. First of all, the SAT doesn’t actually measure intelligence—that’s what I.Q. tests are for (although that test has its own problems). The SAT measures how good an education one got, how much they have memorized, and how good they are at taking tests—not to mention how much money they had for SAT prep classes. It’s a test about strategy, confidence, and memorization skills, but not about intelligence. A lower score might mean a student has debilitating test anxiety, or comes from a poor neighborhood or a lower-performing school, but it doesn’t mean they’re dumb. (I know these things because I taught SAT prep for three years.)
Then there is the fact that what we have in this chart is an average of scores across the school combined with an average of musical tastes. The guy who listens to Lil Wayne might have had perfect SAT scores, but his Beethoven-listening friend might have scored just average. Who knows? The study method doesn’t tell us any of that. Nor does it tell us about the taste or intelligence level of anyone who didn’t go to the particular colleges examined. Needless to say, from a scientific perspective…a lot more research would need to be done in order to find meaningful results.
Out of curiosity, I clicked on the link that brought me to the study author’s personal website. He says, in pretty straightforward terms, that the study is not to be taken seriously. He first posted similar findings for books under the title Booksthatmakeyoudumb, “largely as a troll,” as he says on his site. “I learned that the Internet does not understand the juxtaposition between scientific-graphs and trolling,” he goes on. The book findings were even more painfully wrong than the music ones: all of the African-American lit falls on the low end of the spectrum, when it’s common sense that an entire genre (not to mention one frequently studied by literature students) wouldn’t be only in the purview of dumb people.
The creator of the graph, Virgil Griffith, called his book findings “hilarity incarnate,” although it probably also reveals some depressing things about what people with lower educational resources—not lower intelligence levels—read. But it got him a lot of attention, including an interview from a BBC talk-show host. People started to request that Griffith do the same thing for music, and needless to say, that got even more attention—people love listening to music more than reading books, apparently. But in regards to the results, Griffith said, “I don’t want to be smart if I have to listen to Counting Crows.” I’d have to agree with him on that. Fortunately, the chart doesn’t actually tell us anything about the correlation between music and intelligence, so there’s no need to worry: my affection for Lil Wayne has nothing to do with how smart I am.
Griffith comes across as a bit pretentious on his website, but undeniably intelligent—and he’s basically succeeded in trolling the entire Internet. The strange thing is that none of the sources that published his findings (which are from 2009, but the chart attached to them is new) seem to have clicked over to his website and read what he had to say, which is essentially that this data tells us absolutely nothing. You can’t just take two disparate sets of information, chart them together, and make assumptions about causation…no matter how well the findings might seem to corroborate your opinions. I’d be lying if I said the colorful chart wasn’t kind of fun to look at, although it is confusingly laid out, with entire genres such as “classic rock” occupying spaces alongside artists like the David Crowder Band, which I’m not cool enough to have heard of yet. Also, EDM seems a bit underrepresented, especially considering that I’ve recently written about the overwhelming popularity of electronic music on college campuses. But ultimately, none of that matters. This study is just one big joke—the person behind it said so himself.