In determining our musical leanings, I put great stock into the constructs of our musical backgrounds. Almost irrefutably, the experiences we have with music in our pasts will determine the music we listen to in the future. “But wait, no!” you might say. “That can’t be true! Surely I’ve been lured by fresh artists into foreign genres before, some which I’d never have given a chance otherwise!” Well sure, we’ve all been there (and probably felt like quite the pioneer, haven’t we?), but in today’s modern society where genres are plentiful and tastes subjective, it can be interesting to ask ourselves from time to time a variety of questions. Under what pretenses do we make these choices? What defines our threshold for acceptance vs. rejection? More fundamentally, what is it that makes our back-hair stand on end, and where does it come from?
These questions are not easy to answer, as the human brain is a remarkably complex thing. For every time the brain tackles a new sound, it assesses its value on a subconscious level by asking simple things like, “Is this music, or is this noise?”, “Am I intrigued, or am I bored?”, “Am I pleased, or am I repelled?”, and so on. The depth with which we inquire often reflects the depth with which we listen. Still, it should be noted that if history (or even life experience) has taught us anything, values are not universal—and so neither are musical values. Studies have determined that to some people, music can have an effect much akin to cocaine (in that it triggers a substantial release of dopamine to the brain), while to others, music is perceived as bland and meaningless as static white-noise. To some, genre, structure, or lyrical content can be the leading determinants for these contrasts; to others, it makes the least bit of difference. Certain music has even been known to raise blood pressure and incite anger and agitation, which begs the question: Would these reactions and aversions to certain types of music remain so consistent if we lacked the societal connotations we associate them with? This, of course, pertains to a much broader question at hand: Nurture vs. nature? While science continues to explore this ongoing debate, it is known that from a very early age, we begin to form a rudimentary idea of what constitutes “music,” as a foundation. Even throughout our adolescence, as the layers of complexity begin to mold us into keener listeners, there may always be certain elements of that original foundation which govern our choices therein. Almost makes you doubt freewill, doesn’t it?
Since these impressions start forming so early in life, geography alone has played a major role in distinguishing one musical value from another, historically speaking. For instance, in many parts of Africa, music was a complex rhythmic pursuit for centuries, largely due to the ritual dance processions they accompanied. In Europe, more of an emphasis was placed on tonal harmony (due to the prevalence of large church choirs). These diametrically opposing positions were kept from mingling for many more centuries due to isolation and segregation—that is, until a groundbreaking fusion began to take shape in the Americas, in the form of blues, soul, ragtime, and ultimately jazz. Many of the common rhythms we associate with jazz today can still be found alongside the medieval tradition of 4-part harmonies (SATB), both happily married, widely accepted, and in a perpetual state of evolution.
Clearly, while we are powerfully driven by these foundational guidelines, the complexity of our brains can also be our deliverance. Our preconceptions are subject to constant revision by virtue of time, place, exposure, a little imagination, and a zest for creativity. But to prove that the same can apply from a listener’s standpoint—not just a musician’s—then let us imagine the entire spectrum of musical history (and all the genre-divisions, fusions, and retro-infusions that go with it) to be representative of an individual’s experience with music in their own lifetime. A marked conclusion might be that the faster ideas can float around, the faster we can evolve. The 20th Century and, to a greater extent, the Information Age, have shown us the wide variety of styles that can exist when information is made readily available. But I can even attest to this within my own life. In college, my own musical tastes were in a frenzy of evolution—only to be followed by a halting summer stagnation. When I have access to foreign ideas, I am more prone to accepting them (or understanding them at the least). Without such access, it’s easy to misinterpret and get caught up in a tizzy of narrow-minded justification. This isn’t to say that our opinions are suddenly rendered moot, but simply that most are difficult to quantify in any generalized capacity without proper knowledge of their origins.
When we consider the information available to us today, it’s fair to admit that we have it pretty good. The advanced algorithms utilized by music applications such as iTunes and Pandora suggest artists that relate in some way to other music we select—all at very little effort to us. And these algorithms are growing ever more complex, starting with “genre” at its broadest, and working inward toward “aspect” which encompasses a whole realm of factors to consider. To name a few, one could suggest that there’s a nostalgic quality associated with big band/swing music, that could also be associated with 40s/50s standards. One could also suggest that there’s a rebellious attitude associated with the 90s Punk that could also be found in politically charged Rock from the 60s and 70s. Granted, these are merely conjectures from sparse statistical observations, but are merely meant to illustrate the subtle grounds upon which an unlikely candidate might jump the genre wall.
But ultimately, these jumps can only be made only by you, the listener, and you alone—likely by a detailed set of criteria that transcends your own understanding of yourself (consider it your own personal set of Pandora algorithms). So whether you’re the type to swoon over a romantic instrumental, or thrash your head to a guitar solo, it should never be overlooked that passion, above all, is a binding virtue, and is rarely unfounded. We might all try to understand another’s version of it, before dismissing it.