Why do I like the music I like?

As I take my seat on the train from Bristol to York and put my iPod on shuffle I find myself thinking about the reasons why I love certain types of music, but find far less enjoyment in others. Why is it that I just can’t stop listening to Kendrick Lamar’s ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’? What are the reasons for my unwavering adoration of the Fleet Foxes in comparison to my utter disdain for Imagine Dragons? So I’ve decided to have a glance at the psychology of music. French composer Edgard Varèse famously defined music as simply ‘organised sound’. So why and how do we manage to construct labels and preferences for these varying organisations of sound? Without getting into the science stuff, I want to communicate some of my views on how we listen to music.

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Several studies have shown that by the age of eighteen to twenty most people have already formed their general music tastes and the majority of us are less open to new musical experiences, and this saddens me. The types of sounds that make up certain music just seem to feel comfortable to us by this stage, whereas others don’t. When browsing Spotify and clicking through new tracks on SoundCloud it’s immediately obvious to me when something just doesn’t feel that pleasant. The reason for pre-formed preferences like this has much to do with our upbringing and the search of identity during our teenage years in particular. As we form bonds and social groups, our musical preferences become a mark of distinction and of our personal and group identity. In fact as Alexandra Lamont of Keele University recently discovered, our sonic intuition and taste for music and sound types have even been developing since before our birth, as we acclimatise and become accustomed with the sounds around us.

Alongside our upbringing, our general cultural exposure plays a large part in how our musical preferences are formed. Our own cultural education and experience has taught us to classify certain types of music as pleasurable or not, and to know which music is acceptable for different occasions of daily life. Interestingly these rules change from culture to culture; one of the main reasons why it’s important to be open to music forms that you’re not accustomed to.

Everyone has a certain level of simplicity and complexity in music that they enjoy. But in many cases our limitations on what we like become barriers to our mind’s potential. Every music genre has its own set of rules and form, and being unfamiliar with these musical structures can lead to frustration and lack of appreciation of the music, which reinforces these barriers. So it’s important to delve deeper and listen more, causing the rules of the genre to become etched in your memory. The more you understand about a certain type of music, the more you can appreciate it. Evidently our emotions and feelings of nostalgia play a significant role in controlling what we decide to listen to as we get older. But its important to keep in mind that you can always learn to appreciate other forms of music.

It takes patience, a lot of listening and an open-minded explorative mind. It’s also worth learning about how music works in order to appreciate it more. As a music student that’s what I do all the time, and the breadth of my listening keeps expanding because of it. What’s more, increased knowledge about different types of music leads to a further understanding of other cultures and how they work. That’s a good thing isn’t it?

So I implore you to go out and listen to something new this week. Be a sonic explorer! Don’t let your judgements form too easily. Step back from the speakers and think about why the music you’re listening to is making you feel the way you are. If you can, think about musical aspects such as rhythm, harmony and melody and your reactions to them. People say listening to Mozart as a kid will make you smarter at maths, but I believe music is more than just a tool; it’s something that deserves to be studied in its own right. Music is a remarkable human obsession that can manipulate our condition and emotions in countless ways and should be allowed to exist for its own intellectual benefits that it offers avid listeners and musical adventurers.

If you want to find out more about how our brain perceives music, read ‘This Is Your Brain on Music’ by Daniel Levitin.