Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Musical Taste

[Note: Another repurposed post]

I don't consider my musical taste to be especially eclectic, or even particularly interesting, but it's still hard to find unifying traits among the various stuff to which i listen. First, i'd discard classical and jazz music because i don't think there's anything that could link, say, Tadeusz Baird with Ornette Coleman with the Drive-By Truckers other than maybe common historical origins from the traditions of Western music. But even if i restrict myself to popular music, it's hard to find connections.

The key features that i think cover much of my musical taste are:
  1. Interesting, often clever,sarcastic or cryptic lyrics.
  2. Melodic.
  3. Conventional or mildly dissonant harmonies.
  4. Conventional, non-synthesized instrumentation.
Since 3 of these features are aspects of the music itself (rather than meta-information such as genre, era, or region), you'd think that analysis of the signal might be in order. But i'm not convinced of that, because there doesn't seem to be a consistency of rhythms or modulation or keys. I don't think there'd be much overlap between say, System of a Down and Gershwin other than perhaps trivial similarities in rhythm.

There are at least three aspects of music that appear to figure into people's tastes. One is cultural-- people tend to listen to what other people are listening to; or people tend to assiduously avoid popular music. They also can only develop an opinion of what they hear regularly, so for instance a person in a Western country might have strong feelings one way or the other about Beethoven, but won't even be aware of Indian classical music. Lyrical preferences are, i believe, culturally influenced also, as evidenced by the fact that 12-year-old girls and 40-year-old men will rarely find common ground.

The second aspect is the set of qualities of the sound itself (rhythm, tempo, timbre, etc.). Although i've already said that i think signal analysis can't explain musical taste, i suspect that there are some characteristics of the sound that an individual might favor, like a preference for minor keys might explain interest in both heavy metal and sad, dramatic, Russian classical composers. In a sense this is only an interesting aspect of musical taste to the extent that the listener crosses genre and style boundaries. If you listen to nothing but Frank Sinatra or speed metal, then the sonic similarities in the music are insignificant.

The third is the aforementioned meta information, which, although it seems a separate category is not independent of the cultural and sonic influences,(e.g., i might seek out Norwegian death metal out of a true affection for the music, or because all of my friends in study hall like it, or because i'm a manic depressive Norwegian). Though i don't understand it myself, there are those who listen to music based on things like the era (Hits of the 60s), or the genre (space music) or the region (southern rock). In a rough sense, this type of meta information is a proxy for other sonic or cultural traits.

Ultimately, i believe that musical taste is determined by what you listen to. That might seem silly or tautological, but i agree with Aaron Copeland's statement from What To Listen For In Music: "Nothing can possibly take the place of listening to music". In other words, your musical taste can't be reduced to any set of parameters because the only way that you can judge a piece of music is to hear it.

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