I think it is safe to say that I make no secret of the fact that I believe musical taste forms a large portion of our personality. I also think that our musical preferences are a factor in how we are seen by other people. We make assumptions about others based on a number of external factors: appearance, clothing choices, speech patterns, and yes, musical taste. So, if our choices of listening material help to determine not only how we view ourselves, but how others see us, where does musical taste actually come from?
According to neuroscientist and musician Daniel Levitin, even infants are capable to demonstrating a preference for certain styles of music – often either pieces they were exposed to while still in the womb or pieces that are heavily consonant and simple – hence, the dominant stylistic similarities among lullabies and children’s songs.
As we age, our tastes mature, and according to research, people who enjoy music will begin to take a definite interest by their teen years. If asked, most people hold a certain fondness for songs that comprised their musical environment around the ages of 12-15. This is typically when young people begin to identify with styles that differ from those of their parents, lending that specific style a sense of independence. It as if we are saying, “I found this music all by myself, and it is mine.” This phenomenon helps to explain the popularity of “oldies” stations, especially during the 1980s and 90s, when the baby-boomer generation were beginning to lose touch with current trends and look longingly to the music of their youth.
Levitin goes on to explain that people are capable of acquiring new tastes at any time in their lives, but typically we stop adding drastically new styles to our preferred lists around the age of 20. That doesn’t mean that we never listen to any music recorded after we hit the ripe old age of 20, it simply means that what we gravitate towards will remain more or less consistent. Why?
Well, for one thing, music becomes increasingly tangential in most people’s lives as they enter adulthood. Our focus shifts to career, family, home, etc., and taking the time and energy to stop and appreciate something entirely new doesn’t often fit into our increasingly busy schedules. It is far easier to simply write off a new style as “weird” or “just noise” than to take the time to figure out what makes it tick.
Learning new musical styles is much like learning anything else – a foreign language, how to work a computer, complex mathematic problems – it comes more easily to young flexible minds than to adults. The structures of our brains actually changes as we age, and the connections that allow us to learn new information give way to the parts if the brain that help us to remember things we already know.
That doesn’t mean we will never be able to appreciate new music once we grow up; it just means that it takes more time and energy. For example, I have never been very fond of jazz music. What I knew of it struck me as pompous, overblown, and so focused on showing off that it lacked cohesive organization. Then, about a year ago, I was assigned a jazz class to teach. Honestly, I was terrified. Jazz fans, in as much as I knew them, tended to be people who obsessively collected music and learned about artists and styles. I envisioned countless situations where my lack of deep knowledge of the style would be glaringly obvious to my classes.
Not only was I forced to learn an entirely new history of music, I needed to listen. Carefully. I needed to pick this music apart, learn what makes it tick, and figure out what musical characteristics made up the various sub-styles. Of course, the textbook would help direct my listening, but it was still crucial for me to be able to hear what I was teaching. I spoke to colleagues, spent countless office hours surrounding my brain and ears with this seemingly alien language, and gradually, bit-by-bit, the mysteries of jazz began to reveal themselves to me. Not only that, but I started to find myself gravitating toward certain styles over others. I formed a new set of tastes.
Of course, not everyone needs to become enough of an expert to teach a class in order to begin to appreciate a new style of music. That just happens to be a fringe benefit of my job. Nonetheless, there is something to be said for jumping in feet first and immersing yourself in an entirely new musical language. I can say that for me it was strange – like visiting a country where you don’t speak the language. I often had to rely on my skills as a listener and compare what I was hearing to various other styles that I knew to make sense of things. But, with time, patience, and effort, I can now say that there are certain styles of jazz that I enjoy quite a bit. Others, not so much, but I think that can be said for any kind of music.
So, what do you think? Where have your musical tastes gotten stuck? Are there connections between what you listen to now and the music of your youth? Have you ever considered branching out? I say, go for it!
The style of music, broadly speaking, that I appreciated most as a kid was peculiar. There weren’t a lot of options for discovering new sounds while growing up in Northeastern Wisconsin. We basically had four primary radio stations that I was familiar with: two played top forty hits, one played classic and hard rock, and one played oldies. Between that and MTV, there weren’t a lot of opportunities to discover much off the beaten path. As a result, my mode of self expression largely came from exploring the past.
One of my first favorite bands was the Beatles. I know that sounds like a cliché, but in the mid-1980s, it really was more of an anomaly. I sweet-talked my parents into giving me all of their Beatles vinyl, I recorded the records onto cheap cassette tapes, so I could listen with my Walkman and my boom box, and I dove head-first into a largely fictional reverie of life in a past from before I was even born. Even my parents thought I was obsessed, and they had lived through Beatlemania. That said, this strange approach to musical independence provided not only a point of differentiation from my peers but a point of contact with my parents, aunts and uncles, and other elders. Pretty soon, people from all over my family were giving me their old records and music memorabilia. Truth be told, it was pretty cool, and I still have a lot of it.
With that in mind, my musical stagnation lies largely in an era from before my own birth. Weird, but true…
So, how does that impact my taste today? I am still a fan of 1960s popular music, as well as that from the 1970s and 80s. I kind of missed the 1990s, but I came back to the fold of hearing new things by the new millennium.
So with that in mind, probably one of the bands of recent years that strays from my expected music tastes in the most satisfying way is a group called Kassidy. I particularly like their 2011 debut album Hope St.
Kassidy describes their sound as simply alternative rock, but they feature an interesting blend of foot-stomping rock and roll with complex electronic techniques and intricate vocal harmonies. They demonstrate surface characteristics of many different styles but combine them in a way quite unlike anything I’ve ever heard before.
Give it a listen, and tell me what you think!
Molly M. Breckling holds a Ph.D. in Historical Musicology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Her areas of research interest are the songs of Gustav Mahler, popular music, and music history pedagogy. Her goal is to help others listen to music more actively and to develop a greater appreciation for the music that surrounds us every day.