Every so often I try to step back from myself and figure out why I do the things I do, and in particular why I like the things I like. My musical tastes are something I find a little intriguing as my friends and I share music, sometimes able to find almost no common ground. It’s not that I listen to the most obscure music, either. Just stylistically I prefer some things that may make some people cringe, and I don’t find a lot of appeal in things that a lot of people like. It’s not like one day I set out saying to myself, “I think I’m only going to like speed metal,” or, “I really don’t like happy-sounding keyboard-based rock.” It’s just naturally the way I’ve come to think and feel about the art form of music.
At any rate, over the past few weeks I’ve put some thought into what it is I inherently seek and prefer in music and come up with a few metrics by which I’ve noticed I measure music. Then I sort of estimated how much weight I give them when determining how much I like a particular band, album, or song. That second part is very malleable, but I attempted to give some average responses. And I know often when people talk about music genres (and in particular things they don’t like), some people feel offended and feel like they need to take up the cause for their particular favorite genre, artist, etc. So if anyone reads this, don’t get offended. That’s not my aim. I’m just trying to hash out an honest analysis of what type of things appeal to me and why, and I encourage others to do the same. Without further adieu… how I subconsciously (or I guess now somewhat-consciously) assess music.
- Innovation (15%) – I’ve noticed that a large part of what appeals to me is how unique and new the sound is to me. This doesn’t mean that no one has done it before, but just that it’s a new aural experience for me. For example, when I first heard Number One Gun in summer 2003, I was enamored. I’d never heard emo rock like that before, and it was exciting to hear something fresh and different. I suppose it will be more and more difficult to run into such things as I get older, as a large part of me falling in love with certain kinds of music just had to do with my first exposure to them. It was the same thing with the spacey-electronic-interlaced rock of Falling Up in 2004 and the chaotic near time-signature-less hardcore of Norma Jean a couple years later. Just because something is new to me, it doesn’t mean I will like it, but if it falls within most of the below criteria and also happens to be fresh to my hearing, it stands a good chance. Falling Up’s last couple of albums were full of sounds I’d never heard before, and that’s the primary reason I like their style. This is also why I don’t usually find myself to be a fan of older music or new music that sounds like something from bygone decades. I’ll quickly move on to my next criterion for fear of inciting the wrath of those who swear by such styles.
- Complexity (25%) – To go back and listen to the stuff I loved in high school, one would never guess complexity was a factor in my musical tastes. Indeed, then it was not; pop punk was my top genre for a long time. It must be a taste I’ve developed over the years, but now if music is to catch my attention, it almost has to be intricately written and produced. I’m not so much a stickler for the “you have to be able to play that song exactly live” argument anymore. I would much rather have the composer put in extra time layering and accenting in the studio to produce the perfect vision of the song and elicit the strongest emotional response than to leave things out for the sake of saying, “I won’t be able to do that live.” (To me, live performances are less about the exact sonic replication anyway, and more about the most complete artistic and heartfelt performance). In most of my favorite albums, I can listen to them dozens of times and pick out something new every time if I try to. It’s a factor that goes a long way in making music great to me – attention to depth and detail. It doesn’t even necessarily have to be central to the song, and often times it’s not. It could be the way a synth with subtle tremolo in the distant background reminds of the quivering voice of someone on the verge of tears, or something as simple as a shaker picking up the rhythm section to drive the chorus without the casual listener even noticing why that part sounds so much more driving. So… while I can enjoy the minimalistic approach, that really has to be done as an artistic statement, and I almost always prefer layers and layers of complexity in my favorite music.
- Lyrical content and message (30%) – This can be a sticking point in my adoption of music. It can have everything else listed here in vast amounts, but if I can’t relate to the message, I can’t form an attachment. There are topics I can more easily connect to than others, of course. I really prefer the tone of the message to be serious and of consequence as opposed to superficial and needlessly cheery (or worst of all about nothing at all). Naturally, I find deeper meaning in things that are close to my heart, so those things have an advantage in this evaluation. Eternal and spiritual matters, relational dynamics, and sometimes world issues (which really tie into spiritual matters to me) probably top the list, and also anything which can paint a powerful metaphor for one of those things. Extra bonus points if the lyricist is beautifully articulate and can always seem to select the perfect word (even if it’s something I have to look up). So… this factor can quickly eliminate a vast swath of music out there for me based on my personal tastes.
- Production quality (20%) – This didn’t used to bother me quite as much, but I notice it more and more lately. If I’m noticing how unbalanced the mix is or how muffled the vocals are, I’m not really listening to the song. I also tie raw talent into this category since it takes at least a certain level of talent to produce quality recordings. Again, this is something I can be loose with if it comes to an artistic statement. For example, Josh Scogin of The Chariot insisted in recording their first album live in the studio instead of piece-by-piece as most everything is done now. The sound quality most definitely suffered, but there’s a sort of coagulation and raw emotion that is only caught in that moment the band is passionately performing as one. (Of course it takes even more talent to make anything tape-worthy with five people playing at once). Anyway, top-notch production quality, tight performance, and professional mixing goes a long way in allowing the song itself to speak to me without the medium getting in the way. It’s a fine line anymore with the possibility to make almost any song digitally “perfect,” but I believe the human ear can still tell when something isn’t genuine. I still enjoy precise double bass and painstakingly-toned guitars that nestle beautifully into the mix.
- Meta qualities (10%) – I’d be lying to say that personal information about the artist doesn’t play into whether or not I like music. Knowing where the artist is coming from can make all the difference in interpreting the message, and knowing what they’re all about can be either much more attractive, or altogether repulsive independent of all the above factors. I won’t single out bands and call into question whether they make music just for the money or because it actually means something to them, but that feeling magnifies everything else, by my perceptions. For example, if I read a bio or artist statement of a scarcely-known act and they talk about how their music is all about seeking meaning and truth, I’d be much more lenient than perhaps another group whose “about us” section talks about how all they want is to live the “rock and roll dream” of fame and partying. It may be judgmental in some ways, but fruit doesn’t lie, and personally I can have somewhat of a hard time separating the art from the artist (at least once I know some background). It is what it is.
So after some introspection, that’s those are the filters I currently use in deciding what I like. They’ll probably change since they already have over the decade or so I’ve been finding for myself what music I like. I’d be interested to hear the thoughts of others on this subject and will probably get lots of rebuffs and critiques of my opinion either way. Just laying it out there.