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Musical Taste

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There is something intractably fascinating about musical taste. At one level it’s just a personal thing – the musical equivalent of not being fond of celery – but somehow it also seems more important to us than that.

For instance, Chris Rowbury wrote back in June 2008 about how he doesn’t like a cappella (by which he meant the panoply of a cappella popular styles, rather than unaccompanied singing in general). And the late Steve Hall once told me that he liked pretty much all styles of singing except opera. Now, I happen to like both a cappella and opera, but I’m not going to get distracted into talking about why these particular musics are worth listening to – and indeed participating in – as these conversations usually get diverted into.

Instead, I want to think about how people experience these musical dislikes, and what they mean to them.

Chris articulates his dislike of a cappella in terms of the dichotomy between the natural and the mass-produced. Popular a cappella styles put such an emphasis on precision and clarity that he hears this as a commodification of the voice. The perfection the styles strive for comes over as a denial of individuality – as plastic, rather than real. Steve, meanwhile, articulated his dislike of opera in similar terms: to him the voices sounded unnatural, over-produced, like normal voices on steroids.

Both of these responses plug into narratives of musical value and personal authenticity that have circulated in our culture for at least 200 years. Both Carl Maria von Weber and E.T.A. Hoffmann write lovingly about simple, genuine feeling in even not very competent performances and very acidly about the ego-centrism of virtuosity. More recently, as Janet Halfyard points out, it’s only the baddies in Buffy the Vampire Slayer who can sing in tune - musical ineptitude acts as a sign of honesty and good faith. So, people seem to experience personal musical taste in terms of value systems in wider culture, although the musical styles they attach to those narratives can be quite different.

But the dislikes are held with a passion that is visceral and immediate. People may articulate the grounds for their dislike in rational terms, but the experience itself is much more primal, preceding rationality and provoking a surprising strength of response. It might just be ‘personal taste’, but people really care.

The word ‘personal’ here seems to be playing a multiple role. It is how we defend our responses – nobody else can tell us how to feel – and also how we protect each other from being (too) offended by them – I’m not saying your music’s crap, it’s just not my music. But it also signals how we seem to take music personally. People seem actually affronted by certain types of music.

I find this very interesting indeed. It hints at all sorts of deep relationships between the musics you engage with and the kind of person you think you are. And these relationships are understood at an almost entirely intuitive level, and provoke the kinds of responses that are typically associated with assaults on our egos. Our rationalisations of these responses always make logical sense – since they form part of how we maintain a stable sense of self-identity – but they will never persuade someone who experiences the music differently.

Indeed, I understand that some people can even listen to Berlioz for extended periods of time without feeling the need to chew off their own left leg.

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