How a deeper understanding of your favourite music can help you appreciate new music, too.
This is the second part of a two-part post about music preferences. In case you missed it, you might like to read part 1 first.
So, yesterday we saw how the widely-held perception that music all sounds the same these days is not supported by data — in fact, popular music is actually more diverse than ever, having reached an all-time low (much to my horror) in the Eighties. It's ok to think that way, of course, as it's simply a reflection of human nature. But can we do anything to overcome that perception, to broaden our musical horizons and listen to music more objectively?
First, it's important to consider that so-called aesthetic emotions — those that allow us to say that one song is 'better' than another — are a rather recent addition to our repertoire of affective responses to music. There was a time in the dim distant past when our only reactions to sound (and primitive music) were instinctive. At that point in time, we lacked the cognitive abilities to reason and form opinions.
But as we developed as a species over many tens of millennia, our cognitive and emotional responses to affective stimuli — including music — became more and more elaborate until we found ourselves able to attach huge significance to music we judged to be 'better' than music others enjoyed. And it's these higher-order aesthetic emotions that are particularly susceptible to powerful developmental influences of the sort we go through during adolescence and early adulthood. So what is one to do?
My own gut reaction is to seek to understand the phenomenon at hand — music — by gathering as much data as I possibly can about it. This is not an approach that appeals to everyone, for sure, and many people are perfectly happy listening to music that conforms to their long-term preferences. But not me. And seeking to understand music on a deeper level is precisely what I did in writing The Experience Factor.
Opening up to new music
In fact, the primary goal of mine in writing The Experience Factor has been to encourage people to listen to music — especially new music — with a more open mind. It can be extremely tempting to deride music that doesn’t fit our preset, longterm preferences as being rubbish, as all sounding the same, as creating no value except perhaps to a younger generation who ‘don’t know any better’.
But we were all young once, and it seems highly likely that our parents and others of older generations felt exactly the same way as we do now. And this applies not just across generations, but across contemporary genre and style preferences. Music is simply structured sound. Its component parts, melody, harmony, rhythm, and so on are the basic building blocks of every single song, symphony or soundtrack ever created. Our reasons for judging one track as being better than another often have little to with the objective features of the music itself, and rather more to do with those extramusical features we looked at yesterday in the first part of this post.
Context is key
For example, an identical rhythm may sound ‘good’ to you but ‘bad’ to me when played on a particular instrument (e.g., piano), but induce the opposite reaction when played on another, perhaps similar-sounding but contextually different one (e.g., synthesiser). Thus, aesthetic responses are strongly influenced by cultural factors. In other words, the context, such as the historical period or extramusical associations with particular instruments, plays a crucial role in determining our aesthetic response to the music.
It’s my sincere hope that anyone who reads The Experience Factor will be inspired to venture outside their comfort zone, try listening to something new, maybe reflect on why others like it so much, and endeavour to understand — even enjoy — the experience it creates. In teaching this material for the last few years, and in writing the book, I can honestly attest to having had my musical horizons significantly broadened.
And with streaming now placing virtually infinite diversity at our fingertips by granting the ability to access practically every commercial track ever recorded, along with all the positive effects that brings with it, I mean to take full advantage of my newfound musical freedom. I wish the same for all of you.
To discover more about the science of sound and music, and perhaps broaden your musical horizons a little in the process, read The Experience Factor: How Hit Songs Hack Your Mind Heart And Body To Keep You Listening Again And Again.