Bands, brands, and musical preferences

How STOMP research can help get it right without guessing

If you’re at all interested in studies on musical styles, you’ve probably come across the STOMP test. It’s less exciting than it sounds, being the Short Test of Musical Preferences, where you pick the styles you like, and then it tells you what your musical taste is. It’s been updated now to STOMP-R, and is available here. The brainchild of S.D. Gosling, it is not the kind of test that you find on Facebook ‘test your personality’ quizzicles. A lot of people actually find it disappointing (judging by comments posted on the web). After all, you tell it your preferences, and then it more or less tells you what you just told it.

This is because the purpose of STOMP is not to give you some amazing (and typically flattering) insight into your personality (you are bright, attractive, have an IQ of 217 and will die at the age of 431), but to gather data for proper psychological research. And the results are fascinating.

In Samuel Gosling’s and Peter Rentfrow’s original work, they came up with the result that musical tastes tend to break into four underlying styles: Reflective & Complex (Classical, Jazz, Blues, Folk), Intense & Rebellious (Alternative, Rock, Heavy Metal), Upbeat & Conventional (Country, Pop, Religious) and Energetic & Rhythmic (Rap/hip-hop, Soul/funk, Electronica/dance). They were then able to examine some of the characteristics of people who tend to like a particular kind of music, and the characteristics of the music itself. For example, if you are clever but socially awkward, you may be more inclined to like intense music. They also mapped the results onto the ‘big five’ personality attributes of Extraversion, Agreeableness, Conscientiousness, Emotional Stability and Openness.

So far so good, except that the correlations are not perhaps as strong as you might like. If you notice someone liking Intense music and thereby assumed they were liberal, disagreeable and not especially wealthy, you might well find that your expectation was completely wrong.

In 2011, Rentfrow published a further paper in which they researched further, which suggested five factors that match the data rather better. Their original version was ‘Mellow, Urban, Sophisticated, Intense and Campestral’, which is easily memorable as the acronym ‘MUSIC’, except that no-one ever uses the word ‘campestral’. This was later revised to Mellow, Unpretentious, Sophisticated, Intense and Contemporary’. However, they noticed that their original musical styles of ‘soundtrack’ and ‘Oldies’ didn’t track with this data.

As set out on Gosling’s web page, this means:

Mellow: electronica/dance, new age, world
Unpretentious: pop, country, religious
Sophisticated: blues, jazz, bluegrass, folk, classical, gospel, opera
Intense: rock, punk, alternative, heavy metal
Contemporary: rap, soul/r&b, funk, reggae

Intuitively, this represents a better formulation than either the one with ‘campestral’ or the original four factor result.

However, let me suggest—and I am speculating and intuiting here, not doing the kind of scientific work that Gosling and Rentfrow did—that we could overcome the problem with soundtrack and oldies by adding in the dimension ‘Nostalgic’. This, unfortunately, ruins the acronym (though I have a solution for that which we’ll come to), but it does give us three pairs, which are implicit in the MUSIC formulation but concealed by the order.

Quite evidently, the same piece of music cannot at the same time by intense and mellow, nor can it be both sophisticated and unpretentious, nor contemporary and nostalgic.

So, our axes become:


I’m not completely persuaded that the dominant factor Contemporary quite describes the grouping, but as a mental concept it is a useful one. Particularly, if you listen to the sounds of the Contemporary grouping, it is those sounds which are so very different from the Nostalgic grouping: square-waves, sweep-filters, monster bass, exaggerated highs, and transistor distortion alongside maximum use of limiting and compression contrast sharply with the gentle valve overdrive, tape saturation and rolled-off highs and lows we associate with nostalgic music, largely because of the limitations of technology back in the day, alongside the most transparent possible use of compressors and limiters because they were seen as an artefact of transmission to tape and vinyl which needed to be minimised, as opposed to a creative tool to produce the pumping, energetic, ‘in your face’ sound of contemporary artists.

If you’re a mathematician or statistician reading this, you will immediately have worked out that these axes can, in binary form, be turned into eight combinations of all three, twelve combinations of two, and the six individual types.

For non-mathematicians and statisticians, it means you could have music which was Intense, Sophisticated and Nostalgic—for example, Joni Mitchell’s Amelia recorded with Pat Metheny on Shadows and Light—or perhaps Contemporary, Intense and Sophisticated, such as Florence and the Machine, or perhaps Nostalgic, Mellow and Sophisticated, such as Norah Jones Don’t Know Why. Carly Rae Jepsen might be more Contemporary, Intense and Unpretentious.

Now, what about our acronym? I’ve ruined MUSIC by adding N (for nostalgic) to it. Could we fix that, and get a worthwhile additional pair of categories out of it?

I think we can. For years I have been apologising for my dancing skills by saying ‘everyone knows that musicians can’t dance’. Actually, I have no particular evidence to support the assertion, but it usually ends the discussion, which is what I’m particularly looking for.

What I have noticed, though, is that there is a big difference between the experience of music as an interactive form from as a listening form. I went to a concert recently where everyone sat stock-still and listened with complete intensity. You would expect that of a classical concert in a concert hall, but this was folk at a pub. A couple of years ago I went to see Maddy Prior and the Carnival Players, who clearly want to get your feet tapping, and are probably not averse to you singing along. At a work’s disco, people who want to dance will dance to classics or the latest hits. When I used to organise work’s parties, I learned fairly early on that you needed to book a band and a DJ to attract the widest audience: some people want to dance, some people want to listen. The disparaging term for ‘contemporary worship’ in churches is ‘happy-clappy’, and the people who tend to use that term prefer a choir which will sing the service, with interaction by the congregation only during the hymns.

You can probably see where I’m going with this: if you add ‘Interactive’ and ‘Audience’, you can end up with the acronym ‘MUSICIAN’.

Now, all this may seem interesting (or not) but largely irrelevant. What is the application—to bands, brands, and not annoying your friends or customers?

You probably recall the culture-clash scene in the Blues Brothers where Jake and Elwood ask the barmaid at Bob’s Country Bunker what kind of music they usually play. ‘We’ve got both kinds,’ she replies, ‘Country and Western’.

People have extraordinarily strong opinions about music, but, unlike their opinions about politics, football and religion, they generally can’t articulate them. As a musician, if you’ve experienced the ‘Bob’s Country Bunker’ moment when you realise that the music you have prepared is the opposite of what people at the venue want, you will know what I’m talking about. I’ve known musicians who have been interrupted by venue owners in mid-song—and not because they weren’t ‘good enough’—because the owner felt they were wrecking the ambience. This is not some meta-cultural battle between Mods and Rockers. Play the wrong kind of music, and you can literally have people hissing at you.

Leaving aside my unscientific addition of Nostalgia and perhaps Interactive or Audience, Rentfrow’s Mellow—Unpretentious—Sophisticated—Intense—Contemporary classification goes a long way to explain how (if not why) people come to associate the ‘wrong’ kind of music with ‘wrong’ in other ways. Play the wrong kind of music in a church (sophisticated in a ‘happy-clappy’ church, unpretentious in a traditional church), and people will question your attitude (‘just showing off’/’doesn’t care, shouldn’t be playing’). Play in a bar or café, and they are quite likely to simply pull out the plug on your PA system (as per the Blues Brothers). Even at an open mic night, where you would expect people to be open to anything, you will see hostility. I went to the final of an open mic competition (as audience), and someone in the row behind me decided to explain why some of the acts were terrible and shouldn’t be playing—which was quite a trick, since the music was peaking at the end at 120 db.

Very occasionally, a song or a band is able to take you from one extreme to another. Perhaps one of the main reasons for the perennial popularity of Stairway to Heaven is that it starts as Mellow and Unpretentious (nothing is less pretentious than a descant recorder or a 12-string guitar), and finishes up Intense and Sophisticated (there are few people in the entire world who can play the guitar solo at the end). It also travels, or travelled, from a nostalgic beginning to a (then) contemporary end. That is quite a trick, though even Stairway to Heaven never manages to be intense and mellow at the same time.

If you are looking for the audio for a brand, or anchoring the sound of a band, then you can pick one of the factors as your key factor, and then move the sliders (as it were) on the others. Listen to a pop album (ok, no-one does any more, because the idea of listening to an entire album straight through is itself a rather nostalgic idea), and you’ll hear that while the basic Unpretentiousness remains, it will have more intense songs and less intense, more danceable songs and more listenable, and, as likely as not, at least one song with a nostalgic sound, or which is an old song freshened up.

In branding terms, it is not so much a question of finding the most popular kind of music as finding the most appropriate and sticking with its feel. Reflecting on contemporary advertising, this is something that advertisers get wrong a lot. Folk music, for example, tends to be used to conjure up country products, or in mocking something unsophisticated. I always felt this jarred, but didn’t know why. Rentfrow’s formulation gives us the answer: folk as a genre is in the category of Sophistication. Country and Western would be a better choice if the ‘simple goodness of the soil’ is what the advertiser is after. In extending a brand (always a risk), you would then want to consider sticking with the core attribute, but varying another. If, for example, your car advert used the introduction from Layla, then you would need to decide whether this ‘just seemed to fit’ at the time because it was Intense, or because it was Nostalgic, or because it was Sophisticated. All three are playing a role here: it’s rock, so its natural zone is intense. But it’s a nostalgic track for many people. And, for those in the know, the introduction is fiendishly difficult (so much so that Eric Clapton later claimed he’d forgotten how to play it—highly modest, and probably not actually true. If you do want to play it, the secret is to pre-bend the top notes before you strike them and then relax them back). If your brand is about an intense driving experience, but you want to be perceived as more up to date, then going with Green Day or Florence and the Machine might be your next step. On the other hand, if you wanted to attract the older (and wealthier) driver to stay with your brand, or return to it, then Nostalgia would be the factor to stay with. Freebird could be the song you were after, or, for a highly dateable sound, All Along the Watchtower. If you decided that it was Sophistication, and you wanted something more recent and more mellow, Norah Jones might be your next step.

The same goes for brand distinctiveness. Al Ries suggested that the way to pick your corporate colour was to look at the colour of your main competitor and pick the opposite. This may explain why about half the leading brands in the world are red, and the other half are blue.  The colour space is over-exploited from a brand perspective. For one major rebrand, we were shifting the dial by degrees to find a blue that would inspire, but not resemble the green or the red of the two main competitors. In a crowded market place, you may end up either forced into mauve or mustard (colours which begin with ‘M’ such as maroon or mulberry are rarely popular), or else reluctantly going with a different shade of an already well-known brand colour.

In music, you have a much better field—except that, until now, nobody could really tell you what the ‘opposite’ was. Rentfrow’s formulation helps us a lot here. Your main competitor is using an intense, nostalgic, sophisticated track? Pick something which is mellow, contemporary and unpretentious—perhaps a trance-influenced hip-hop pop sound, perhaps an update on the 90s trip-hop sound.

What about branding a band?

I spent some time this year working on a brand for a singer/guitarist — cellist duo. To some extent, what you are reading now came from research I did for that project. When you start to try to put the sound of a music act into words, which you have to do if you are ever going to get anyone to listen to the tracks, things start to get difficult. Everyone would like to describe themselves as ‘one of a kind — a life changing performance which you will never forget — touches a nerve and sends shivers down your spine’. However, these are really just superlatives strung together. You might equally write “we’ve got an act we want you to listen to, and they are very, very, very, very, very, very good”. Someone booking an act for a side-show at a local fete is genuinely not interested in whether or not your band is ‘life-changing’ or ‘life-affirming’ or ’empowering’, though if you have too many of these kinds of words they may think that you are going to be troublesome to work with. If you can describe it in Rentfrow’s terms, or versions thereof, you may stand a better chance. “Glock is a mellow, contemporary band with a sophisticated mix that gets people onto the dance-floor”, “WyldSwan is a folk-metal four piece which combines emotional intensity and musicianship with a sound that has burst straight out of the 1970s”, “RootKit is straight up, out-and-out urban dance music”. You can make up your own variations.

The brand synergy comes when you underline the musical style with the lyrical style (according to Gosling’s research these are tightly linked) and find a name and a visual style which matches that. Perhaps you are thinking ‘but all bands do that’. Well, all the bands you’ve heard of do. The bands you haven’t heard of are often the ones which are giving a visual impression of contemporary cool (because their designer listens a lot to P!nk) but are actually playing nostalgic, intense music. Most people’s first bands are nowhere near as sophisticated as they think they are. As their musical skills develop, their playing tends to get more elaborate. They may think they’re still appealing to the unpretentious audience that first loved them, but they have actually moved to the opposite end of the sophisticated—unpretentious spectrum.

The point here is that, just like home-made logos and ‘all the fonts we could find’ brochures put together by the salesteam, most musical brands are actually incoherent. Exactly what your logo, typography, audio signature and self-description are can vary almost infinitely, but all four of them must be appropriate to each other, otherwise the result is diffuse and lacks credibility, clarity or relevance.

In the Mix

This section is a bit audio-technical. If you’re a business owner, band manager or merely curious, you can probably stop reading now. If you’re a producer, sound engineer, or just the guy who calls the shots on the sound, this may help you.

The table below gives eighteen elements often found in a song mix, along with characteristics which tend to go with Unpretentious, Sophisticated, Intense, Mellow, Contemporary and Nostalgic. These are very much starters to think about. Not all Unpretentious music has simple, repetitive melodies, and a song may be sophisticated and still work in an established song structure. On the other hand, if you are working on a track and it keeps on getting away from the core sound of your band, then some of the things here may help you. Equally, if you are using a signal chain or preset that ‘always works’, but it isn’t working, you may be doing something which is germane to a particular musical characteristic, but doesn’t fit what you are doing.

U: Unpretentious, S: Sophisticated, I: Intense, M: Mellow, C: Contemporary, N: Nostalgic.

  U S I M C N
Melodies Simple, repetitive Complex High, large jumps Low, flowing Rhythmic Naïve
Song structure VCVC8CC Amorphous Climactic Constant Distinctive elements, eg rap section VCVCVC, 12 bar or 8 bar
Bass line Simple Melodic Driving Sub-bass Synth Fender bass or acoustic
Drums Patterned, high Improvised Pounding, follow song Smooth, solid platform Beats Acoustic kit, muffled
Pads Swells, strings No Low in mix High in mix New sounds Elec piano, organ etc
Guitars Strum Melodic Electric Acoustic No Classic sounds
Harmonies Simple Modulation Rich Sweet or none Counterpoint Ring & Lock
Accents Strong none     Strong  
Track Compression Solid Minimal Intrinsic (eg, overdrive) High Pumping Analogue
Echo & Reverb Bright Natural Expansive Floating Low Plate or spring
Main vocal Light Rich Towards screaming Breathed Talk Sing
Sound effects Literal Authentic Deep Ambient Industrial Radio drama
Buss compression Heavy Minimal Low Total Pumping Tape saturation
Transients Naive Articulated High Low Max Reduced
Harmonic enrichment Fizz None Burn Air High Low
Buss reverb Wet Ambient Drum ambience High Low Ringing
Final EQ Bright Natural Full or scooped Smile curve Bass and Top Muffled
Limiting Heavy Minimal Maximised Smooth Clipping Soft

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