Monday, February 28, 2011

A Discerning Ear for Taste

In the last six months, I've cottoned to the varied expressions of musical arts in a way that I've never cottoned to them before. I've made opera a monthly excursion, and I make a point to read at least a few articles about the composer and libretto of the performance I'm attending (so far, for the curious: Verdi's "A Masked Ball", G&S's "The Mikado", and just two weeks ago Puccini's "Girl of the Golden West"). I bought a new, entry-level high-fi sound system (for the curious, Vienna Acoustic's Haydn monitors, a Marantz P8003 integrated solidstate, and some very-fine-indeed cable on loan from a benefactorial professor), with abuncha CDs from as many genres with which to acquaint myself. I now try to acquire electronic copies of scores for the performances that I listen to, in order that I can learn to read through the performance, much in the way that the composer wrote it and the conductor (and musicians, for that matter) read it.

In all, the experience has been, if not cheap, unadulteratedly wonderful. And doubly so for the fact that I cannot foresee its end. My life, in short, is happier. And that, because I have a deeper appreciation - which is simply to say, a more deeply moving experience - of music every time I listen.

Now, you'd be right if you guessed the following two things (though, it'd be odd if 'guess' accurately characterized how you came to believe them): first, I have what, at one time, could've been described as a relatively extensive musical education; second, I didn't listen to much music before now, apart from whatever was on the local public radio station. The first, I won't detail, except to say that I can read music and play more than a few (but far fewer than many) piano scales. The second, though, may require some explanation. I didn't listen to music as a child in no small part, I suppose, because when I was at the age when children come to want to listen constantly to music, my family just didn't have any on. So, I never knew what music my parents took to, until much older, and I had little acquaintance with any popular music until I was of an age to find it distasteful. Or rather, maybe a theory of popular music enjoyment has to begin at a time when one accepts unquestioningly the soundness of popular music as a form of artistic expression. This, I think it's obvious, never happened for me. Consequently, I never listened to popular music when I was young, and by the time I was in middle school and therefore old enough to begin enjoying the pop-y ballads and whatever was on the radio, I just didn't enjoy it.

All of this resulted in an odd, but interesting, feature of my musical outlook (or whatever): I don't have preferences. Or at least, I don't have genre-, instrument-, singer-, or whatever specific preferences - which is to say that I don't prefer things in any of the ways that I recognize a lot of other people as preferring music. A few examples. Out of hand, for example, I don't dislike rap. And I don't, out of hand, enjoy classic rock. I don't hate Cher, or Madonna, or Lady Gaga. Just as I don't love Dire Straits, the Beatles, or Willie Nelson. And it's this way for everything. Or, almost everything. There are some styles at the boundaries of what count as music that I find myself having an impossible time appreciating. Hardcore punk (or "Screamo" as it's aptly nicknamed) grates my audial sensibilities in a very unappealing way. It frightens me, for one. And how, as an expression of art, it differs from an expression of rage is almost never obvious. But that's a different post. My point here stands: even with Screamo, I think I could appreciate whatever is supposedly good in it, if someone would just point to what I'm not seeing.

Anyway, I don't think it's so interesting that my musical tastes turned out this way - it seems natural, after all, given what I was working with. So, what has been interesting about all of this? Watching other people talk about their tastes, that's what's been interesting. As near as I can tell, most people have little room in their lives for music that doesn't come after whatever they like now. Which is an impolite way of passive-aggressively saying: lots, and lots, of people hate lots and lots of music for, as near as I can tell, absolutely no reason. "I just don't like how it sounds," is the most common declamation. What's odd about that reaction, though, is how unimpeachable its utterers take it to be. Really? I mean, saying that you don't a piece of music because you don't like how it sounds is just saying that you don't like piece of music because you don't like that piece of music. Which, for those keeping score out there, isn't a reason at all.

So, what gives? I mean, that this tautologous expression, and its variants, get treated as unimpeachable reasons for rejecting certain songs, certain genres, has to say something about the culture of music appreciation, doesn't it? My guess is that these sorts of phrases, aren't treated as reasons, per se, justifying why people don't like a certain song or whatever. Rather, when a person uses a phrase like, "I just don't like how it sounds" in what's normally the 'justification slot' in a critical conversation, what he's really doing is invoking a certain kind of critical etiquette. What kind? The kind that restricts the acceptable response from the questioner (the one who asked, "Why don't you like this song?") from further pressing the respondent for reasons justifying his distaste.

If this response really is just an invocation of etiquette, and how I've described it really is how the etiquette works, I think it would go a long way towards explaining why it appears that "I just don't like how it sounds" gets treated as an unimpeachable justification of distaste. To illustrate, suppose that that response really were an unimpeachable reason. How could the questioner reply to it? Well, he couldn't. After all: the reason is unimpeachable. Now, suppose, as I do, that "I don't like how it sounds" is just an invocation of a rule of etiquette that prevents the questioner from politely pressing the respondent any further. How might the questioner respond? If he wants to maintain polite conversation, as conversations about musical taste most usually are, the respondent can say nothing further - just as he can say nothing further in the case of the unimpeachable reason.

It's probably a lot harder to say just why we've developed this etiquette. My rough-and-ready stab is that most people who listen to music have biases that they don't want to investigate - genres, artists, what have you that they haven't really appreciatively listened to, and for no good reason. But being a biased consumer of anything is kind of embarrassing, and we develop etiquette for efficacious reasons - which include avoiding embarrassment. So, it's my guess that this sort of etiquette is a cover for an otherwise embarrassing bias. A bias which the etiquette allows us to treat in the same way that we treat those things we've listened to appreciatively and rejected.

I wonder, though, how common is this kind of experience with other people's musical preferences? My limited sense is that it's pretty common, because almost everyone listens to music and there's an intense social pressure (for reasons I have no clue about) to be able to say whether one likes or dislikes whatever he's listened to. But then, perhaps it's less common than I think - and indeed, more isolated that I've experienced. Thoughts?