Rubbish music: why we judge others for their musical tastes

One Direction, one of many modern bands whose popularity draws a lot of criticism (and web traffic). Photograph: Getty Images

One Direction, one of many modern bands whose popularity draws a lot of criticism (and web traffic).
Photograph: Getty Images

It’s common to judge someone based on the music they like, despite musical preference being largely subjective. But why do musical tastes differ so, and why do we feel the need to criticise those with tastes that don’t match our own?

While working in music retail, I hitched my sanity to a sense of smug superiority. This was not deliberate, so much as natural, to combat – what I declared to be – idiocy and ignorance, from the faceless mass of wallets and fingers and mouths yearning for the new Katy Perry. They knew nothing of Syd Barrett’s obscure albums; probably couldn’t even pronounce Tchaikovsky; and couldn’t tell the difference between Katie Melua and Norah Jones (I no longer can). We were proud of knowledge, touching invisible monocles and pursing our lips around non-existent pipes when some poor heathen thought Pink Floyd was a single artist rather than a band.

This might strike many as horrible and juvenile behaviour, yet it exists even for those never paid to inform customers of albums’ arrival or stock availability. Musical taste is still used by many as a judgement of an entire person. Adoring the latest Justin Bieber or Nickelback is, probably, more likely to invite insults than any other response. Entire articles have been written on the semi-universal hate these Canadians receive (despite their continuing enormous success). It’s partially just another case of hating popular things, I suppose.

Our musical tastes are, many think, like most aspects of ourselves: a combination of our social environments and our “nature”. This means we don’t exactly choose to like Nickelback or Pink Floyd.

But researchers at the University of Melbourne have uncovered incredible results: how much pleasure we take in music is proportional to to how much dissonance we hear. And dissonance isn’t entirely dependent on physical properties we’re born with.

As Neil McLachlan, et al wrote: “Dissonance [a sense of a lack of harmony] was strongly correlated with pitch-matching error for chords, which in turn was reduced by chord familiarity and greater music training.” This meant that the more a listener knew of what goes into a chord (which is three or more notes played at the same time), the more pleasure she got out of the music comprised of those chords. We can therefore learn to appreciate and love all sorts of music.

Lindsay Abrams, at The Atlantic explains the study further:

“Trained musicians, perhaps predictably, were more sensitive to dissonance than lay listeners. But they also found that when listeners hadn’t previously encountered a certain chord, they found it nearly impossible to hear the individual notes that comprised it. Where this ability was lacking, the chords sounded dissonant, and thus, unpleasant.”

The important part of this interesting study however comes from the dramatic claims of the lead author. If true, the research “overturns centuries of theories that physical properties of the ear determine what we find appealing.”

So, does this give us more or less licence to judge others for their musical taste? If music taste is purely like being left-handed or eye-colour, then shaming others for their taste is as juvenile as my pointless retail snobbishness. However, this and further research indicate that taste isn’t the same as being left-handed. Essentially, we can learn to like better music.

Anyone who becomes more skilled and knowledgeable about a particular enterprise will obviously appreciate it more, since she now knows what goes into making it – whether its music, painting or lab experiments.

But if we simply have not been educated to know more, are we still at fault and deserving of judgement for preferring Canadian warblers to psychedelic Brits? It still seems we’re not.

First, shaming people for their artistic taste is a bizarre activity, as most forms of shaming are. So what if someone likes Nickelback? No one is harmed; indeed more pleasure is gained since he can enjoy his band without fear of being judged by nasty “friends”.

Second, not all of us have the opportunity to learn about what goes into making music – let alone music deemed great by retail assistants at arbitrary music stores. Thus, even if we were all capable of learning to love the weird rhythms of Tool or Dream Theater, that’s not the same as having the opportunity or time or energy to do so.

I’ve tried teaching numerous people what to listen for, as a musician (well, drummer), for these complicated artists. While my friends could appreciate the songs because I explained it to them, step by step, these people are under no obligation to learn by themselves if they do not wish to.

The main thing should be whether the performer or artist is bringing pleasure to someone’s life. If that pleasure is not harming anyone, it is bigoted and arrogant to mock that individual for enjoying it. We’re not the deciders of what is “real” or “proper” music, art, film, and so on. Shaming should cease so we can all listen and enjoy whatever we like – while recognising we are all capable of enjoying more and enjoying things in new ways. We just don’t have to.

Tauriq Moosa (The Guardian) / January 24, 2014

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