Discovering Your Taste

“Sometimes I feel like discovering what art you like — as opposed to what art you wish you liked — is a life-long process.” I wrote that on Twitter, so I had to be brief, but I’d like to expand on it here.

Two months ago, when I was at Fresh Inc, Stacy Garrop asked me to make a list of characteristics that described the kind of music I want to write. I found myself unable to say anything very specific, because I was trying to be as open-minded as possible. But more and more now I feel like I’ve taken the cultivation of open-mindedness too far. I wind up spending an awful lot of time listening to music that I don’t like very much, hoping that something will click and I’ll suddenly “get it,” while I neglect the music that really excites me. It’s only recently that I’ve realized how totally backwards that is.

It’s been particularly weird to discover that the more attention I pay to what I actually like listening to, the less interested I am in the avant-garde. When I was in college, I found the idea of “difficult listening” very exciting. But ten years later, how often do I actually want to listen to difficult music? How often do I find difficult music aesthetically, emotionally or intellectually rewarding, as opposed to forcing myself to sit through it out of a sense of obligation and finding it “somewhat interesting” at best? Occasionally — but not often.

I know there are people out there who genuinely love avant-garde music — ultra-complex music, ultra-minimal music, music made by quietly scraping household objects together, two-hour free improv marathons, pieces that are 75% silence, and so on. And that’s fine. But I wonder how many others there are who are trying to convince themselves to like it because they don’t want to be dismissive or closed-minded. Part of the reason I’ve struggled with this myself is that I’ve met a lot of people who really were dismissive and closed-minded, who were actively hostile to the avant-garde, and obnoxious about it. So I want to be clear: I’m not saying, “that stuff sucks.” I’m saying, “that stuff is mostly not for me, and maybe it’s mostly not for you either, and that’s OK.”

Getting back to the question that Stacy Garrop asked me: what if
we reframe it a little? What if composers made lists not of characteristics that describe what kind of music they want to write, but of musical elements and characteristics that get them excited as listeners? Here’s my first attempt; I’d love to see other people’s in the comments:

off-kilter tonality
juicy dissonance
major seventh chords
a clear pulse
rhythmic trickery
staccato sounds
angular, complex, catchy melodies
shiny synthesizers
engagement with TV and advertising iconography
engagement with the pop-culture landscape
overt polystylism
(so-called) bad taste
multiple sonic layers
multiple conceptual layers
emotional repression
formal clarity
audible motivic transformation
sharp contrasts
surprises of all kinds


  1. Eusebius
    Posted September 1, 2012 at 8:52 pm | Permalink


  2. Posted September 1, 2012 at 9:39 pm | Permalink

    Yeah, cliché is another thing that gets me excited.

  3. Posted September 2, 2012 at 1:59 am | Permalink

    Tinkertoy melodies.
    Music as daydream about sound.

  4. Posted September 2, 2012 at 7:46 am | Permalink

    I totally agree!!!

  5. Joanna B
    Posted September 2, 2012 at 7:40 pm | Permalink

    My curiosity is piqued by “emotional repression” as a musical characteristic. What does that sound like?

  6. Posted September 2, 2012 at 7:49 pm | Permalink

    I’m thinking mainly of vocal music where the words suggest some kind of painful emotion and the music seems to be trying as hard as possible not to acknowledge it. Schumann’s Dichterliebe is full of examples; “Rent” by the Pet Shop Boys is another. If you’d like an example from my own work:

  7. Posted September 4, 2012 at 1:06 pm | Permalink

    Great post. I think it’s important to have a rich and varied listening life. I try not to become too entrenched in music that’s instantly appealing to me or in music that’s more difficult for me to appreciate. The best thing about ones private listening is that you can really make it work for you (consumer power!). For example: I was listening to versions of The Mysteries of Love by Angelo Badalamenti (from the Blue Velvet soundtrack) yesterday on the subway –in particular the Julee Cruise and Antony and the Johnsons versions. I was really digging on them, but I noticed after a while that I was becoming a bit depressed (pretty emotional music I suppose). I then switched to some Frank Ocean, which is still emotional but with a bit more swagger. I found I got a similar catharsis, but without the dreary pathetic aftertaste. That got me thinking about how to make ones private listening ‘work for you’.

    Similarly, I listen to a ton of music that is purely indulgent (which if you ever see my Spotify listening is pretty clear), because I think it’s important to indulge yourself in music you find instantly attractive. Not doing so would be like depriving your sex life of those activities that easily get you off and only engaging in difficult, meditative tantric sex or something. You gotta keep it diverse: push your limits from time to time, rock the easy stuff when you crave it or just feel like keeping it light, and stay receptive to new perspectives on things you might have dismissed in the past.

    [Sidenote: The open-mind thing is something I’ve struggled with a lot. I think too much open-mindedness can be counter-productive or even dangerous. I like the idea of being “receptive to new things” instead. Forcing oneself to always keep an open mind can let in all sorts of conceptual riff raff]

    What’s funny is when serious/academic/esoteric music unexpectedly becomes superficially indulgent. For some reason, I really dig Ferneyhough on a purely sensual level. Something about the prickly scratchiness of it affects me very viscerally. Not sure why. I listen to Ferneyhough for the same reasons I listen to Doris Day; I have cravings that are practically physical.

  8. Posted September 5, 2012 at 2:45 am | Permalink

    Matt, I agree with all of that. It might have sounded like I was trying to make a purist statement against the avant-garde, and that’s certainly not the case. I also like some Ferneyhough — and even more so, some Lachenmann — for exactly the reasons you describe.

    My experience with open- and closed-mindedness has been like a pendulum: in high school and college I was way too eager to reject things based on superficial first impressions, and then for most of my 20s I’ve been way too hesitant to reject things even after many listens. Hopefully I can find a happy medium.