BLOG: Why do we like the music we do?
9th May 2008 | 12:07
Neuroscience is beginning to unravel one of music's greatest mysteries
Whilst looking over some of the blogs that have popped up on MusicRadar in the last month or so, it struck me there are several entries – with titles such as 'The worst cover versions on YouTube' and 'The worst song of all time' – that seem to concentrate on panning rather than praising music.
However, there's a reason that we post such seemingly negative lists. Far from being jaded cynics (as the journalist stereotype may suggest), we're all passionate music makers and write blogs like this because they're (hopefully) entertaining, funny and, sadly, more likely to spark a heated debate than a 'best of' blog.
In fact, it's the prospect of debate that interests us most. We're fascinated when someone leaves a comment on a blog saying they love music that gets unanimously slated in the office, and we're flabbergasted when a member of the team dislikes something the rest of us rave about. But why do we like the music we like, and dislike the music we don't?
As I sit writing this blog chez MusicRadar, I can look over the corporate, cubicle-style desk divider that separates me from my colleagues and see people with a wide variety of music tastes. Sitting directly opposite me is a chap into everything from Joni Mitchell to Avenged Sevenfold, although he finds Led Zeppelin and David Bowie 'boring'. This frequently is puts him at odds with the guy adjacent to him, a man with good old-fashioned rock 'n' roll sensibilities and a disdain for shred and fusion guitar bordering on the fascistic.
In the corner by the window I can see the headphoned head of another team member, and given its subtle, repetitive bobbing I suspect he's listening to some of his favourite old-school soul records as he types away at his computer. He hates shred-fusion too.
Why we like the music we do is a question that's long been mused over by musicologists and psychologists alike, and it's a central issue in the book This Is Your Brain On Music by music and neuroscience guru Daniel Levitin. In the book, Levitin mentions studies showing that our tastes for music start forming even before we are born, where one-year-old infants showed a preference for songs they'd been played in the womb over unfamiliar music.
"Studies show that our tastes for music start forming even before we are born, where one-year-old infants showed a preference for songs they'd been played whilst in the womb over unfamiliar music."
Levitin also highlights studies showing that the basis for most of our tastes is formed during our teenage years, while our brain is actively sorting out its neural pathways and trimming off the ones it doesn't need - meaning we're less likely to acquire new musical tastes after the age of around twenty. He explains that music understanding – and thus enjoyment – is built around mental 'schemas', or templates for music shaped early on in life. Thus someone who listened to jazz a lot as a child will build up an appreciation for the form of jazz pieces and be likely to enjoy it as an adult, whereas listeners without early exposure may find jazz inaccessible at first as they would lack the mental schemas for the genre.
Of course, music taste is far too big an issue to be attributed to exposure during early life alone, and even too broad to be explained solely through neuro-musicology. The numerous aspects that go toward making a song what it is often transcend the music itself, and the lyrics, production, the social, cultural and political identity and even the accompanying artwork can be as important as the melody, harmony and rhythm.
Your enjoyment will also depend on what you want from music, so people who think of music as high art might be turned on by Björk or Pink Floyd, while a clubbing maniac might be disappointed if the DJ dropped a version of Radiohead's We Suck Young Blood.
The debate rolls on
Music is such a massive subject that neuroscience's best efforts – and we've only just scratched the surface here – can only really theorise about rather than prove why one man will prefer Rick Wakeman and another man Rick Astley (although, personally, I prefer neither).
Whatever determines our musical tastes, though, they can become deeply engrained and emotions often run high when discussing them – and as I said at the start, encouraging debate is what we often strive for when writing blogs.
Why? Because debate about taste is one of the most important facets of being a music fan - in fact, the movements of the mods and rockers of the '60s and the punks of the '70s were as much about the music they disliked as the music they liked. It's part of the passion that surrounds the art; it's really not about being grumpy or negative but being true to yourself and getting involved.
To that end, we're happy to let the debate continue – but we promise to do a 'Best Of' article soon. And for the record, I'm quite partial to a bit of shred and fusion guitar now and again.