On Taste

Kind budsTaste in music, as in anything else, is acquired. While it is exceedingly individual—you are the one who forms a connection with particular compositions—it is also something that is shared. The people with whom you form bonds often like the same music that you do, more so than, say, they all share a taste for herring. Your friends may enjoy reading the same authors, but the likelihood of that is less than their liking the same music. This is because music is something that occurs in the environment such that while we are sharing experiences with our friends the music is there, at some level of common perceptibility: it may be in the background; we may be at a concert and it is in the foreground. This level of commonality can be built over time: people who share, generally, an affinity for a finite-yet-permeable set of musicians will, for example, read this website and not go searching for opera or chamber music or what have you. So there is a reinforcement of beliefs and tastes.


It is almost Pavlovian. You experience a set of circumstances. There is music playing. If the experience is sufficiently extreme at either end of the spectrum, you are likely to remember that music. You are likely to react to it in the future in a way that provokes, in some measure, the feeling experienced the first time. The classic “They’re playing our song” is indicative of this sort of thinking or being.

Like several other tastes (e.g., remember your first cigarette? beer?), there tends to be appreciation of the musical object through repetition. And unlike other things, music can be more readily repeated, so the possibility of hearing something with a degree of frequency—perhaps an excessive, obsessive one—is more achievable than, say, trying to learn to love beer posthaste. If you are in an environment that is supportive of the sounds in question (i.e., your peer group), then you’re more than likely to hear the sounds on several occasions. And so you learn to like it.

Consider a type of music that you abhor. You will not go out of your way to listen to it. You will avoid it. You will, perhaps, have a difficult time understanding why anyone would like that sound. For you, that sound is nothing but noise. Which goes a long way toward explaining why there is music that you like and music that you don’t but which other people find to be exquisite, at the very least. Chances are, there is little that can be done to change the status quo, your status quo.

There is music that you liked when you were young. Some of that music has worn grooves into your cerebellum that you may not realize until, say, you get a copy of a Rhino repackaging and suddenly realize that you actually know the words to songs that you didn’t even consciously remember existed. Some of the music from days gone by just doesn’t do anything, perhaps even being like the cheap wine that you used to swill: You’re not going to do that again.

It is interesting to note the proliferation of new music releases from the past, particularly from bands that no longer exist. Part of this is driven by technology. Part of this is driven by commerce. Part of this is driven by our desire to find solace in the music that once mattered to us, music that continues to reverberate, music that in many ways contributes to who we are.

And so we claim that rock and roll can change your life. But in many ways, rock and roll has helped create our lives.

7 thoughts on “On Taste”

  1. What came first—the music or the misery? Did I listen to music because I was miserable? Or was I miserable because I listened to music? Do all those records turn you into a melancholy person?

    People worry about kids playing with guns, and teenagers watching violent videos; we are scared that some sort of culture of violence will take them over. Nobody worries about kids listening to thousands—literally thousands—of songs about broken hearts and rejection and pain and misery and loss. The unhappiest people I know, romantically speaking, are the ones who like pop music the most; and I don’t know whether pop music has caused this unhappiness, but I do know that they’ve been listening to the sad songs longer than they’ve been living the unhappy lives.

    — Nick Hornby, [url=http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/1573225517/gloriousnoise-20/ref=nosim]High Fidelity[/url]

  2. Interesting piece, Stephen. One of my big concerns on my blog (click homepage) is the relation of music to identity. Particularly for audiophiles: what we listen to is who we are, to a great extent. I recently posted something about a stranger (friend of a friend) going through my ipod at a party. Initially, it felt weird, too intimate, to have this person scanning the list of bands who make up my brain. But then he noted one of my favorites positively, and I felt a sense of immediate kinship.

    And thanks for the Hornby quote, Jake! The best novel on the topic, I find.

  3. Mary:

    Yes, music can cause an almost-immediate affinity group to form. But had he finished his scan and simply rolled his eyes in a “jesu-this-is-scary” manner, there would have instantly been the opposite effect.

    And as to the point on your site about the more obscure the band the better: Did you ever notice how when the obscure become less so they seem to lose something? Of course they haven’t lost a thing; you have.

  4. Actually, if he’d rolled his eyes, I would have smiled at his benightedness and taken it as yet another confirmation of something–who knows what?

    I would never wish a band obscurity, but there is something kind of personal in the fact that they’re you’re own little thing. I’m always amazed, frankly, when anything I like makes it out of the lower tier. I mean, my musical tastes are pretty well-defined–obviously I have my own little sub-sub-category of obsession–but I’ve grown used to the idea that not very many people hear what I hear in it. That doesn’t make it better, or me better; it just means that I’m more or less alone with the music that means something to me.

    What happens when that privacy is broken, though? Fans of The Shins and Arcade Fire must be reeling these days, for example, like someone is shining a searchlight into the dark bedroom of their souls and throwing it onto the cover of a magazine. It’s got to be a weird feeling.

Leave a Reply