About Musical Tastes

Last updated 2001-01-22

Anybody who's relatively serious about music will probably have wondered about differences in musical taste. We've most likely all heard "music" that doesn't even remotely comply with the definition, at least in our own humble opinions. Yet, others react with absolute enthusiasm when presented with the same cacophony.

Culture must obviously play a role. The slightly dissonant music from some Asian cultures may not be all that universal in their appeal. The rhythmic atonal music of Africa, likewise, has a limited audience. The complex structure and harmonies of classical music in the European tradition is also shunned by many.

However, I'm in no position to second-guess cultural preferences. What little I have observed, though, has to do with age. Within a number of pretty homogenous cultures, I've noticed interesting trends that someone, somewhere with the right mix of knowledge about human development, a research grant and some willing guineapigs might one day explore.

The basic premise is founded on the observation that a lot of my friends share a virtually identical taste in classical music, yet enjoy modern-day music from very different eras. What's more, the preference in each case is for music that originated around our respective fifteenth birthdays, or perhaps a little later.

I, being a mid-Sixties model, prefer much of the Seventies material; a bit of Foreigner, Boston, perhaps some Phil Collins or the odd bit of George Benson. You might find some John Miles there, perhaps even the odd Don McLean, or even some early Chris de Burgh. If I'm really in the mood for some serious stuff, perhaps I'll get myself entangled in some ZZ Top or Led Zep for a few minutes. Slightly younger friends prefer Eighties stuff that I would regard as bland and lacking substance to the point of profound boredom. My older friends often favour Sixties stuff that I, with few exceptions, would regard as sentimental and trivial. And it's pretty much mutual in each case.

Don't forget: All of us share very similar tastes in classical music! It's not as if we have profoundly different tastes. In many cases, even our academic and professional backgrounds are very similar. Only in this one area is it patently obvious that we have widely divergent tastes. While none of us will ever admit that the others' music is slightly suspect, a distinct pained expression is never far from the surface when listening to one another's prized recordings...

Why? How can it be that people's taste in general can be so similar, yet in this one respect they can be so widely divergent?

I've heard several theories. One is that one can only associate with music that reflects one's own value system. I disagree; although I cannot endorse Mozart's value system or his lifestyle, I have a hard time imagining more perfect music than his. I enjoy the odd bit of Led Zep or even Yngwie J. Malmsteen, yet can hardly imagine a value system more divorced from my own. To be sure, I would be reluctant to submit myself to hours of their music, but I can certainly enjoy the odd track here and there.

While I havent't really come up with concrete answers while trying to explain this anomaly, I have come up with a tentative idea. Much more concrete evidence will be required before it even becomes a theory, but here it is: I think the key lies in human development phases. Much like Ericson proposed different phases in which an individual learns certain traits and characteristics, is it possible that one goes through a phase in which the ambient noise finds a place in one's frame of reference that transcends reason? Is it possible that today's teenager, when surrounded by Sixties music in a milieu of acceptance and fun that to many seems to define the teenage years, could turn into a rabid Sixties fan? Could it be that a youngster submitted to Thirties music in a similar environment would absorb even that music as his own, and sing along to Lili Marlene?

We'll never know. However, I would propose that the occurrence of truly memorable hits doesn't change that much with time. Only a few Sixties hits will truly stand the test of time. The same is true for the Seventies, and for the Eighties. In a century or two, people might recall but a handful of hits from the twentieth century. I would contend that those hits would be spread fairly evenly throughout the century, with some loading towards to end of the century purely for reasons of population and the increasing ease of making half-decent recordings. It certainly is true of classical music; although much material from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries has survived, only a minute percentage is worth a second listen. Given the declining number of composers, one must accept that the volume of good new classical material will continue to dwindle. However, a small percentage does appear to meet the standard set by the likes of Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven and Brahms. Who can ignore Elgar's cello concerto or Dvorak's Ninth?

If the premise holds, and the relative occurence of good music does indeed remain fairly constant, our strong preferences for music from one decade and our assertions that later generations' music is "noise", are clearly founded purely on animal instincts...

So what? Well, apart from the trauma of having to deal with the fact that our rampant instincts may not be as neatly under control as we were all hoping, perhaps we can start looking at modern music a little more objectively. I know that song is really pretty, but will it stand the test of time? Will someone still want to hear it in 200 years' time? Conversely, that doesn't sound like the kind of music that I want to hear, but is there some timeless quality to it that may make it weather the vagaries of time?

I would contend that, just like most of seventeenth and eighteenth century music has disappeared, leaving just a few stalwarts to delight us 200 years later, just a handful of tunes from our century will survive. Who will make the grade? Somehow I don't think that Rick Astley and Kylie Minogue will. Perhaps it's more likely that the likes of Van Morrison and Sting might leave one or two tunes for posterity. I'm sure Lennon and McCartney must be in with more than a fighting chance. Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull must certainly be a contender.

If one were to select the hundred tunes most likely to avoid oblivion, what would they be? And, perhaps more importantly, from which decade would they come? Most poignantly, would we have the guts to admit it--despite what our rampant instincts might dictate?

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