Developing musical taste
January 14, 2010 10:18 AM   Subscribe

How do you develop musical taste? What does it mean to "like" a song?

A few years ago, I only listened to the music that my friend told me was "good" (ex: the yeah yeah yeahs) She also told me that most radio music was "bad" (ex: linkin park and gwen stefani). Well, I didn't know what made a song good or bad but the stuff she gave me was pretty all right, mostly popular indie stuff like the Decemberists and Belle & Sebastian and I didn't mind listening to it. I know her rejection of anything mainstream was just snobby behavior but we were in high school and I also didn't have a mind of my own to care much about music. Just yesterday, however, I decided I wanted to find music that _I_ really liked. So I deleted all my music off of my harddrive.

But how do I find music I like (especially more recent music)? Whatever sounds good? But what does that even mean? I can turn on the radio and listen to Black Eyed Peas 'I Gotta Feeling' and tell you it's catchy and I don't mind it. I don't know if I like it though because I don't understand what it means to like a song. That you don't mind listening to it on repeat? Aside from heavy rap and death metal, I feel that way about all songs. But, to make up for my sheep-like tendencies towards music, I'd like to develop an ear and certain reasons for really liking certain music that aren't based on other people's opinions and reliant on just how it's designed to make me "feel." (An upbeat dance song will probably make me feel upbeat, there's no struggle there).

I want to know why David Bowie's music is better than Lady Gaga's. Or why Miley Cyrus' music is not so good. I want to learn to discern the differences in music quality. I don't have the time right now to learn a musical instrument but I want to try and make music a larger part of my life. I just want to know how you learned to appreciate music and how you think I can learn to develop a taste for music instead of treating all music the same. I'd really appreciate (and I think this will help me get a better feel) if you could also point me in the direction of a two different songs/albums and do a little compare/contrast of the two, highlighting the differences between them and what makes one of them, in your opinion, more suitable to your tastes. Thanks!
posted by pulled_levers to Media & Arts (52 answers total) 32 users marked this as a favorite
You find music that is good when it makes you exude emotion, sing in the car/shower, dance out of the blue, or make you go "oh man, that's my song". Don't let anyone tell you differently.

I love me some disco on some days and some country on other days. I don't give a rats' ass who likes it. There's always politics and antiestablishment sentiments with music but if you like it, so what?

I go for the beat mostly. Disco and 70s/80s stuff takes me back to my favorite times growing up (roller skating, dancing at clubs, etc.) and no one is going to ruin my time because Rapper's Delight reminds me of the roller rink back in the day or if "Running with the Devil" takes me back to my parens' basement.

And tell your friend that the "yea yea yeas" suck. It's all about loving music and telling your friend their band sucks. :)
posted by stormpooper at 10:24 AM on January 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

I like Brian Eno's description of a lifelong conversation between himself and music.

According to this model of music, you discover new music and with that you will find new ways to think about music including the music you have already heard. It is then not a question of good vs. bad music as much as music that is relevant to you specifically, in the context of your ongoing conversation with the world of music.

22 years ago for me that was the Talking Heads. Shortly after that Brian Eno and Fred Frith. Then Sonic Youth. Shortly after that Merzbow. Shortly after that it was John Cage and Iannis Xenakis. Life goes on. If we do not let ourselves die aesthetically we learn new ways to listen and appreciate. Lately I am listening to Warren Burt. I knew him about a decade ago and we even did music together but I was pushing him to do noise. Now I finally appreciate his music, and wish I had taken the time to learn from him. But I was not there yet. Music is a Journey.
posted by idiopath at 10:26 AM on January 14, 2010 [5 favorites]

I just want to say that I'm the same way. I don't care about music. I like the Decemberists and Miley Cyrus about equally, which is to say that I don't get upset if I have to listen to either of them, nor would it ever occur to me to seek either of them out. In fact, it never occurs to me to seek out music, though I'm never upset if it happens to be there. I'm sort of bored by it and baffled by the central role it plays in some people's lives. But, different strokes...

It's taken me a long time to accept the fact that I'm just not into music, in the same way that some people are not into sports or not into politics. And that's okay. So you may want to step back and think about whether (and why) it's really important to change this about yourself, or whether you'd rather spend your time learning more about the things you actually care about.

If you decide that you really do want to change this about yourself, I'd suggest taking a course in music theory. It'll teach you how music is put together. For me, at least, knowing how something works makes me much better able to discern good from bad. Think about it: if you didn't know the rules of football, would you be able to judge who the best football players are? So in order to figure out who is good at music, you need to know how it's made.
posted by decathecting at 10:30 AM on January 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

If you want to hear it again, you like it. If it sounds good, it is good.
posted by The World Famous at 10:30 AM on January 14, 2010 [9 favorites]

You've just got to keep listening. It takes time. I don't think anybody can really boil it down for you, although there are classes in music appreciation which can help. But taking a position like the one you've stated here is a good start. We have to learn to listen to music just like we have to learn to play it, but lots of folks take the former completely for granted.

Listen as broadly as possible -- not just to pop music. Listen to jazz, classical, non-western stuff, old music, new music, very old music. Learning to create music, whether you learn a traditional instrument or you use electronic hardware/software, can go a very long way towards developing your tastes. Delving into the "canon" can be instructive. Listen to the works from all genres that have been held up as masterpieces and try to understand why they were received that way. I think it's a major step to be able to appreciate a work of art, i.e. to understand why it is important or valuable or why some people enjoy it, while simultaneously acknowledging that you may not care for it. Good luck.
posted by ludwig_van at 10:36 AM on January 14, 2010

I remember hitting this point. I was kinda in another boat though, because I listened to Linkin Park, Aerosmith, Godsmack, etc. and then plunged into the pit of "mainstream (radio) is always evil!" And started listening to Wilco, Train, Ween, Elbow, etc. Pretty indiscriminately.

It took another while before I realized that this was it was no better to listen to stuff only because it wasn't on the radio, so I jsut listened to everything I could. I had to develop the ability to be able to tell if I liked something. So now I realize that Godsmack wasn't as bad as some of the bands they shared airtime with, Wilco is boring, Bob Dylan is overrated and Steely Dan underrated (YMMV!). Of course, complicating the story is the fact that I snored my way out of jazz school somewhere in there.

So, my advice would be to listen to lots of stuff. Your body will tell you what you like, but you have to learn to listen (to your body and to the music). Then, if you're inclined, you can start to learn to talk about why you like or dislike something, but you won't always be able to. I have no idea why I like Monster Magnet.
posted by cmoj at 10:38 AM on January 14, 2010

"Taste" is an entirely social phenomenon. You cannot form a judgment of aesthetic value apart from the social context in which you make that judgment, and the challenge for the would be tasteful is to encounter other musics on their own terms, and in their own contexts. That's a fancy way of saying to listen with an open mind, and to remember that for almost any music you can imagine, someone, somewhere likes it. Is moved by it. Finds it beautiful. And so on. Good taste, in my opinion, is synonymous with humility in the face of demands for evaluation.
posted by fourcheesemac at 10:40 AM on January 14, 2010 [4 favorites]

This is a tough question for me to answer. It sounds like you've never had a very visceral reaction to music, and without it, it's very hard to develop musical "taste." I can describe what it's like to "like" music but I don't know if it would be helpful to someone who's never felt it.

Has music ever given you chills? It's like a shiver that runs through your body, but also makes you feel a bit like tearing up. It's maybe similar to what you might feel after seeing a tragic play -- catharsis, maybe.

I'm not saying that this happens with all music I like. There are many ways to like music, from the cerebral to the physical, but without that initial feeling I don't know if it's possible to really have a musical compass. Even if you gather a bunch of knowledge about music, without that feeling you'll still just be following what someone else has told you.

So in light of that I guess I have two suggestions:

1) Go to more live shows. Obviously it's a very different experience than listening to recorded music on computer speakers. It's messier, more unpredictable, often louder, and will acquaint you with music as a living entity rather than a static product.

2) Learn an instrument. When you're directly involved with the music making, you're exponentially more likely to experience that elusive feeling.
posted by speicus at 10:40 AM on January 14, 2010 [2 favorites]

pulled_levers: "I'd really appreciate (and I think this will help me get a better feel) if you could also point me in the direction of a two different songs/albums and do a little compare/contrast of the two, highlighting the differences between them and what makes one of them, in your opinion, more suitable to your tastes. "

I will contrast the youtube clip of John Wiese's Circle Snare to this youtube clip of Cock ESP's Back in Black and Blue. I link to short clips because most people complain that this music hurts their ears.

John Wiese is borrowing elements from Xenakis, the world of academic computer music, Pierre Henri's musique concret. There is a cerebral, even strangely contemplative and ordered element to the sounds. The noise is crafted and carefully placed and accentuated, in a bed of silence.

Cock ESP is borrowing from the theatrics of professional wrestling, they are a stage show as much as a band. Their sound is analog, constant, full of accident. It has a closer relationship to the anti-ego intentionally unsophisticated approach of some of Cage's compositions. They draw heavily from Fluxus, where art was about the event, the happening, and not just a transparent presentation of an idea on stage.

When I was younger I was more interested in the excitement and iconoclasm Cock ESP, as I get older, and mellower, and after decades of listening to noise my ears are better able to hear the distinctions of timbre within noise, Wiese is much more appealing.
posted by idiopath at 10:41 AM on January 14, 2010 [2 favorites]

You're basically asking us to quantify our tastes, which is more or less impossible. But I'll share my personal opinion anyway.

I like originality and complexity. Any song with layers of harmonies and instruments is sure to catch my attention even on repeat listens because there's always something new to hear. I like unusual combinations of instruments. I like lyrics with wordplay or thematic depth to ponder. I like hearing singers explore their range. I like musical "skill," which I can't really define because I'm an unskilled non-musician, but I appreciate intricacies that suggest a given piece of music is difficult for most people to play. (Watching live shows or video helps because I like to watch real artists working hard, building up a sweat with fingers flying, etc., to make their music.) I love inventiveness with technique, instruments, and production. If it's electronic music, I want to see how it was made and listen to innovators trying things that haven't been done before.

Conversely, I don't like songs with generic themes like "love," "breakup," "materialism," and "dancing." I don't like music that reuses popular trends like auto-tune without pushing them in a new direction. I don't usually like soloists or vocal groups that just sing with a faceless studio band hiding in the shadows (unless the singing and songwriting are exceptionally talented). I don't like club music that's only intended for making kids bump and grind to on the dancefloor and for radio/MTV play. A big part of "bad music" isn't even the music itself, but the way it's marketed; I hate what Disney does with its teeny-bopper music and merchandizing properties, for example. I don't even know what Miley Cyrus sounds like but I've seen enough sparkly Hannah Montana backpacks and birthday cards and toothbrushes to know that I'm not interested.

For a reference point, here are some artists that I do like:
Alison Krauss
Blue Man Group
David Crowder Band
DJ Shadow
Gotan Project
The Postal Service
Stéphane Pompougnac
Within Temptation
posted by The Winsome Parker Lewis at 10:43 AM on January 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

speicus: "Has music ever given you chills? It's like a shiver that runs through your body, but also makes you feel a bit like tearing up. It's maybe similar to what you might feel after seeing a tragic play -- catharsis, maybe.

I'm not saying that this happens with all music I like.

There is music that can give me those chills that I do not like, personally. Just like there are people who can give me an erection that I would never want to have sex with. It is a biological reaction, and only a small part of music appreciation.
posted by idiopath at 10:44 AM on January 14, 2010

Oops, missed the part about not having time to learn a musical instrument. My advice then would be to learn a musical instrument ANYWAY. If you just set aside a little bit of time a day you might be surprised at the progress you make, and the things it reveals to you.

I would suggest doing this BEFORE learning music theory, which is good but secondary to the experience of music making. That is, theory is a crucial and important part of making music, but next to useless on its own.
posted by speicus at 10:46 AM on January 14, 2010

It sort of sounds like you are trying to hold your own when talking to music nerds? I think that activity has little to do with music you enjoy or appreciate, but like any nerd fiefdom is more about knowing the trivia associated with a thing people really love. I think if you want to develop a better sense of music appreciation decathecting’s music theory class suggestion is a good way to start. Some people are nerds about different stuff, I will discuss for hours why the video game Shadow of the Colossus HAS CHANGED THE MEDIUM FOREVER OMG!!!1! But personally I can’t work myself into the froth over Lady Gaga vs. Bowie thing. I like the music I like and who cares? Also it sounds like the radio and the indie scene aren’t happening for you, you may want to explore older genres of music to see if those rhythms are more to your liking. Liking a song is like having a crush on it, you want to interact with it and hear it a lot.
posted by edbles at 10:47 AM on January 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

I want to know why David Bowie's music is better than Lady Gaga's.

And therein lies your problem. (Or lack thereof.) It's all subjective. To my ear, Lady Gaga's music is far more enjoyable than than that of what I consider to the the pretentious, preening, repetitive Bowie ( is there a song more excrutiatingly bad than Space Oddity?) But hey, that's just me. You might find a few million people that disagree with me.
posted by Neiltupper at 10:51 AM on January 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

There are lots of ways to develop music appreciation! My tastes have always veered towards the unfamiliar--in high school, I was the friend telling you everything on the radio suck, but as the years have passed by, I only appreciate MORE music, not less.
Nowadays, I think about Lady Gaga only a little less often than I think about Morton Feldman. A big part of maturing as a listener is learning about the many ways a piece of music can be interesting or valuable, so if you want to develop your own tastes, listen to as much as possible. Don't worry about developing standards of good and bad!

If you have an open mind, this is a really great opportunity to discover some new stuff! Maybe check out WFMU for some good ideas? I like Liz Berg's show for pop-ish art rock stuff and William Berger's show for noise.
posted by supernaturelle at 10:53 AM on January 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

Recovering rock snob here, who now unabashedly listens to pretty much everything and bobs my head to the beat while doing it. I agree that good music stirs a particular emotion in you whether it's sadness, joy, or wanting to work out harder, and that is incredibly subjective. If you connect to a song, then that's the most important thing music can do. I tend to focus on words a lot, so if the lyrics seem well-written and original, then that's a big plus. When it comes to jazz or classical, it's more of a visceral reaction. If it can move me in some direction, then it is valuable. What makes music good or bad and enjoyable or painful to listen to, however, does not always correlate.

For example, as much as I love Miley Cyrus's Party in the USA (it's fun to sing along with and it's also a great workout song), I realize it's not a "good" song. It tells a story which is in its favor, but the ideas and the music contained within are a bit simplistic and cliche. Does it have staying power? Probably not. Meaning, except for people who are nostalgic for this time in their lives, it's not going to be listened to much in 20, 10, heck, even 5 or 3 years. On the other side of the spectrum you have a band like R.E.M. who started performing around 1980, have had a number of successful albums, built a huge following, and have songs that will still get radio play even though they are over a decade old. Not everything they record is gold or pure genius, mind you, but overall, the writing and orchestration were solid enough to create an audience, earn respect from their peers, and secure them a visible place in rock n roll history. Those things can only happen if there is recognizable talent involved and in my opinion, all of those factors combined qualify a particular song or piece of music "good."

Short answer: if you like it, that's a huge step towards it being good, and ultimately, what is good or not is entirely up to you. If you are glad, or maybe appreciative is a better word, when you hear a particular song, then you like it. Not everything you like will display virtuosity, but that's okay because what matters is the enjoyment of the music, not what other people think of it.
posted by katemcd at 10:53 AM on January 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

Listen broadly. Choose a new radio station every couple of days, take CDs out of the library, or look for interesting podcasts, just any way you can think of to get lots of unfamiliar music going past your ears. Don't write off music based on its genre, whether it's Top 40, country or classical.

When you've found a few things you'd like to hear more than once, then listen deeply. Think about what you like about the music. Find out more about the genre of music and listen to other artists within that genre. Find out who the artist cites as influences, and go listen to those artists.

Don't feel you have to have objective criteria for what makes a song "better" than another one, that's not especially meaningful for enjoying music. If you like it enough to listen to it, it's good enough. As you listen more, you'll start to identify what makes a song "better" for you.
posted by Daily Alice at 10:56 AM on January 14, 2010

There is music that can give me those chills that I do not like, personally. Just like there are people who can give me an erection that I would never want to have sex with. It is a biological reaction, and only a small part of music appreciation.

As creatures possessing biology, all our reactions to music are "biological." The poster requested a way to have stronger reactions to music and I'm suggesting one way to go about it. If it is a small part of your music appreciation, that is your taste, but please don't try to qualify or quantify mine.
posted by speicus at 10:59 AM on January 14, 2010

It all really is subjective. (ugh, i can't believe a scientist like myself is saying this, i should be giving you a formula to discern good music from bad, but...) How does the music make you feel?

Can you relate to the lyrics? Does the music incite any kind of emotion in you? Do you see beauty in it? Does it relax you? Those are pretty good qualities of a good song.

Also, don't limit yourself to pop music. You may find that you think early baroque is the shit, or nothing gets you riled up as much as Brahms. Maybe you'll find a depressing country tune to be cathartic. Gregorian chant? Javanese Gamalan? Personally, I'm a member of the church of Coltrane (well, not actually, but I really like him).

Basically, what I'm trying to say is this: listen to a lot of music (you can get it for free at most libraries). keep the stuff you like, and ditch the stuff you don't. This is probably the best way to develop your own taste for music.
posted by chicago2penn at 10:59 AM on January 14, 2010

I want to know why David Bowie's music is better than Lady Gaga's. Or why Miley Cyrus' music is not so good. I want to learn to discern the differences in music quality.

To learn about music quality, listen to a lot of music from different eras. One of the things I've discovered is that I don't like a lot of modern chart pop hits because I've heard very similar music many times before. For instance, in terms of pop music, I like (some) Bananarama because it was fun when I heard it when I was young, but hearing fifteen or twenty bands do the same kind of music and the same kind of song again and again made me understand on a visceral level that there's nothing original about Bananarama either. When you've heard a lot of very similar music, you appreciate the original and different even if you don't necessarily like it.

Also, I suggest talking to someone with audio engineering training and listening to music with them. My husband used to work with some local bands and discussing what he liked and didn't like about particular pieces of music on the technical side helped me understand some things about my own taste. Specific to your questions, one thing I learned was how to tell (at least sometimes) when production is covering up for flaws in the execution of the song, like using AutoTune to fix when someone doesn't sing on key.
posted by immlass at 11:03 AM on January 14, 2010

Go see live music made by people you know.

Listen and love. Everything else is pretense. Life is too short to worry about "taste". Ultimately all that gets you is a prize in a pomposity contest.

If you want to actually know about how music works, start with a musician or band or two that really moves you. Look up what they are imitating/inspired by/grew up listening. Listen to them. Then do the same with those folks. In other words, go back in time step by step, and listen to it all. Go back to the beginning of recorded music. You'll encounter such a wealth of wonderfulness along the way. It's an amazing journey.

But, seeing music made live by people you know (or even making music yourself), and/or just enjoying what you enjoy, is waaaay better than any of that.
posted by Erroneous at 11:03 AM on January 14, 2010

speicus: "If it is a small part of your music appreciation, that is your taste, but please don't try to qualify or quantify mine."

I should have been more clear. I had no intention of dismissing your reasons for liking music. I have had many people dismiss the music I listen to on the grounds that it is too cerebral or does not give that chill, so wanted to offer my counterpoint.
posted by idiopath at 11:08 AM on January 14, 2010

I don't understand what it means to like a song. That you don't mind listening to it on repeat?

No, that just means you don't mind the song. The question is if you actively want to listen to it on repeat and you feel like this makes your life better, richer, more exciting than if you hadn't listened to it. For someone who's passionate about music, listening to your favorite music isn't like noticing that the wall in a room is a nice cream color that's reasonably unobtrusive and tasteful and then going about your business without thinking any further about the wall. It's like having a great time hanging out with a long-lost friend and realizing you want to always stay in touch with this person because they're not quite like anyone else you've ever met.

If you don't know what it feels like to have an involuntary voice in your head say, "Wow, I LOVE this song!" and you realize you've only been considering music to be good if your friends say it's good, maybe you just don't love music. Having us Metafilter commenters tell you how to recognize good music doesn't seem like much of an improvement over having your friend do it. There's nothing wrong with not being passionate about music, anymore than not being passionate about paintings or sculpture or poetry.

For example, I admit that I am inevitably unmoved by poetry, but I don't think this reflects poorly on me in the slightest. I can't read it and think anything other than, "Um, is this good? Am I supposed to like this? What would someone who's better than me at reading poetry tell me I'm supposed to think about this?" Therefore, I do not have a passion for poetry and do not waste my time on it. I just admire the people who do get more out of it. And again, there is nothing wrong or weird about this is. Maybe you're like that with music.

In contrast, when I listen to an album, I don't care what anyone else thinks I should think about it. For instance, I though Regina Spektor's music would be worth listening to because it was praised. So I listened to a few of her songs, but at first I didn't feel strongly about them. But then I listened a few more times and realized I loved the music and wanted to hear more like it. So I bought her two most recent albums (at the time), Soviet Kitsch and Begin to Hope, and listened to them more and more, and I felt more and more strongly about not just the "emphasis" songs (you know, the hits or songs that sound like they were meant to be hits - "Fidelity," "Us," "Better"), but also lesser-known songs like "Flowers" and "20 Years of Snow" that are just awe-inspiring. I heard more and more texture and feeling with each listen. In contrast, I listened to her new album and didn't like it. I saw that it got equally good reviews as her earlier albums, and this is totally irrelevant to me, because it's not MY experience. I feel like I'm hearing her try to recreate her previous successful music with too much effort, too much self-consciousness. So I am not going to listen to the new album but will continue listening to the earlier ones, and I don't care at all whether this is approved by critics or my friends or anyone because it is the thing that is rewarding and enriching and inspiring to me.

Does this kind of thing -- positive or negative reactions that grow over time and don't derive from what other people say or what you think other people would say -- sound like the kind of thing you experience when listening to an album repeatedly? Then you have a taste for music and should cultivate it more by buying more albums, listening to them repeatedly, and keeping track of the music that instinctively jumps out at YOU. Not me or your friends. The music should directly touch and move you based on your individual, indescribable, moment-by-moment reactions to it.

If this sounds foreign to you, maybe you just don't have a taste for music. Don't try to go through this process just to fulfill the expectations of Metafilter users or your friends -- there's no point unless you really really really REALLY enjoy doing this. Some people do, and other people don't. Some people are just satisfied to listen to music that other people selected that's reasonably pleasant -- at a friend's house, at a restaurant, in a movie soundtrack. There's nothing wrong with this, just like there's nothing wrong with the fact that some people love spending hours poring over the nuances of why one font is better than a different font, and other people are satisfied just reading text that's readable and don't need to think much about what font it is.
posted by Jaltcoh at 11:11 AM on January 14, 2010 [4 favorites]

You "like" music in the same way you "like" food or beer or movies or video games. You just do; some "taste better" or are more entertaining or have a greater emotional impact for you, and part of learning to like music is learning why you like particular music, and that's up to you, and mostly requires just listening to a lot of different music. I like some music for the lyrics and singing, some music for the technical ability demonstrated by the artists, and some music because I like particular instruments played in certain ways that I find aesthetically appealing.

For instance, I like Murder by Death for a lot of reasons: their music has a southern gothic vibe that I dig, I like the fact that they write concept albums about the devil attacking a town in Mexico, I like the fact that they're a (fairly) hard rock group that includes a cello, because I'm particular fond of the sounds a cello makes. Most of all, though, I like them because their music and lyrics makes me feel badass when I'm listening to them.

I like Amanda Palmer because I think she has a beautiful voice, because she has a particular type of stage craft which I really admire, because she has good taste in fantasy authors with respect to dating, but most of all because both the lyrics and the music she writes resonate with me particularly and feel powerful to me.

I like the Barenaked Ladies because I think their lyrics are often very clever and funny and they often contain a type of wordplay that I really enjoy, but as well as being funny, they often, even sometimes in the same song, have takes on subject that are particularly moving or emotional. They wrote a song about a bank robbery that failed because the bank was full of nuns and the robbers panicked, and yet despite the absurd topic made it an interesting, emotionally powerful examination of interpersonal relationships, and it also somehow incorporates a midi sounding bloopy noise in the instrumentation and manages to be beautiful at the same time.

I dislike U2 because I think their lyrics are usually trite and meaningless, because the actual music backing up their songs is staid and uninteresting compared to many other rock groups, and because I think Bono is a pretentious douche who is way too full of himself, even though he has done a lot to help people and also to help progressive politics, values which I share with him.

I dislike Sting because in most of his songs I hate his fucking voice, and because I think "Every Step You Take" is a creepy song with a stalkerish vibe.

I dislike Keane because I find their songs viscerally annoying.

So you see, I like or dislike music for a variety of reasons, most but not all of which are based on my own personal aesthetics. Those are just three examples of likes and dislikes, with the "whys" thought out to varying extents, but none of those sentences fully explain why I like or dislike a musical artist. And sometimes I can like individual songs from artists I mostly dislike, and I usually dislike some songs from artists I mostly like. For more examples of songs I like, here's a convenient link to my MeFi Music playlist. Other people like totally different things than me, including liking things I actively dislike, and their reasons or lack of reasons are just as valid as mine.

So I guess my recommendation is to spend a ton of time digging through MeFi Music and/or and figure out what you like. You don't actually have to think about it too much. You can also use Pandora once you've found some things you like to find other things that are similar to the things you like.
posted by Caduceus at 11:11 AM on January 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

This is really hard because clearly you are starting from a place lacking in passion towards music. However, I would focus much, much, much, MUCH more on what you like and what you can discover than what you DON'T like. Don't listen to Bowie because he's better than Lady Gaga or whatever, listen to Bowie because he's BOWIE. You can also listen to Lady Gaga, they are not running a race, neither of them has to win. There is virtually nothing to be gained from spending time criticizing things you don't like (but I would argue there is a great deal to be gained from learning to like things you were initially disinterested in but might grow to like. Music of this nature might be critically acclaimed or your friends might love it, but it might take time to grow on you.)

As to Bowie, I would recommend listening to "Life on Mars?" on repeat. I didn't fully get Bowie until I heard this song. I'd have a hard time describing just why it's so good, but it's a song I'd consider perfect. Just listen to the notes he hits at the beginning of each phrase from 0:45 - 1:17 (take a look at the lawman). There are a thousand other reasons I love this song, but the way his voice sounds when he hits those notes would probably be enough on its own.

Something that might teach you more than comparing say Gaga and Bowie, or the like, would be comparing songs that are widely loved vs dismissed by the same artist. I lean more towards Belle & Sebastian/Decemberists vs Miley Cyrus, yet you could listen to the songs "Toxic" by Britney Spears and "Since U Been Gone" by Kelly Clarkson, which are fantastic, and contrast it with other music by those artists that I'm not a big fan of and perhaps get some understanding. Almost all pop music hopes to be as infectious and well formed as those two songs, but it's a rare accomplishment.
posted by haveanicesummer at 11:19 AM on January 14, 2010

Here are some random reasons you might find to like or dislike something.

The lyrics: Some lyrics say something new or interesting or something you never thought of before. Some lyrics are sexist or irritating or just seem to be thrown together without thought. That song "Push the button" annoys me, because I just sit thinking... if you like him so much why don't you ask him out yourself you daft woman! I like some Black Eyed Peas songs, partly because I think their lyrics are written well.

How does the music makes you feel? Someone once told me that they listened to lots of ANGRY ANGRY music because feeling angry was better than feeling sad or numb. I (sometimes) like feeling calm so I like music that's good at making me feel calm. I really enjoy dancing so I also like music that makes me want to dance.

What do you think of the artist? If you don't think much of the artist themselves, you might not like their music so much.

Does it have staying power? Lots of catchy tunes become very boring after you listen a few times, c.f. the Crazy Frog.

How skilled is the artist? I don't so much like songs where the singer doesn't sing in tune, or takes big breaths in the middle of what's supposed to be a sentence, or where the emphasis in the tune sounds all wrong with the lyrics. I like Rage Against The Machine because I can listen to the guitar solos and think "Wow that is clever!".

What instruments does the song use? I like songs with lots of bass guitar, I love saxophones, I love singers with really mellow voices, they could sing the dictionary and I would still like the song.

How does the artist perform? Some artists (Robbie Williams... Prodigy...) have impressive stage shows that are a whole different kind of entertainment to just listening to a CD. For some artists, the music is the important part and if you see them live they will just sit and sing with a guitar. Which of those is "your thing"?

If you want to start developing your own ideas about what you like and not, I'd try listening to LOTS of different music; and if you have the time, I'd try learning an instrument or learning to sing or to write songs. This might give you some more insight into the challenges of the musicians you are listening to. Plus, go and see some live music!
posted by emilyw at 11:19 AM on January 14, 2010

What food is good? What art is good?
Who's better, Sinatra or Sex Pistols?
Discerning what the 'good' is in anything comes from experience and interpretation.

Or, you can just enjoy whatever comes your way.
posted by artdrectr at 11:21 AM on January 14, 2010

Music has been a process for me. I started listening to 'indie' rock in high school as a personal statement (almost a fashion statement), and then found that I really liked it and bought it as a hobby (and still as a fashion statement), and then had my CD collection stolen twice, and moved more to digital music, which eventually lead me to liking electronic music and dance music.

I used to be a rockist, and thought that pop music was automatically crap because it was widely liked and 'commercial'. I wish I could go back in time and disabuse myself of that notion much earlier than I actually did.

I know that I like a song mostly because some part of it sticks with me after I've heard it. And, part of this, is that it does something new, or it does something old with particular force and conviction. I can like something for being over-the-top and trashy (like buzz-saw dubstep) or being poppy in a pitch-perfect way (Miley Cyrus) or just being something I can relate to (any number of sad-bastard indie acts, like The National). The only thing is that there has to be something there. I can't like Nickelback beyond the broadest level of smirking irony because it's a) a genre that doesn't really do anything for me and b) not new or exciting or even particuarlly well done.

This has been sort of rambling, but then again it's a really broad question. I hope you like music at some point in your life.
posted by codacorolla at 11:22 AM on January 14, 2010

I'll also point out that a Google search for "What makes music good" turns up several essays and discussions which you might find informative.

As to Bowie, I would recommend listening to "Life on Mars?" on repeat. I didn't fully get Bowie until I heard this song. I'd have a hard time describing just why it's so good, but it's a song I'd consider perfect

Good lord, yes. For another absolutely perfect pop song, I submit Crying by Roy Orbison.
posted by ludwig_van at 11:23 AM on January 14, 2010

I wrote a comment a while back in a thread on "smooth jazz" on this subject which made it into the sidebar, so I guess it was ok. Herewith, I submit it for your approval. That entire thread is instructive on these issues.
posted by fourcheesemac at 11:32 AM on January 14, 2010

I should have been more clear. I had no intention of dismissing your reasons for liking music. I have had many people dismiss the music I listen to on the grounds that it is too cerebral or does not give that chill, so wanted to offer my counterpoint.

I'm familiar with this dismissal and agree that it's bunk. However, I don't think that encouraging the poster to mistrust her visceral reactions to music will help her make her own aesthetic judgements. If anything, it will do the opposite!
posted by speicus at 11:35 AM on January 14, 2010

"Liking" a piece of music is about having some kind of visceral reaction to it that gets a hook or melody stuck in your head, makes you want to listen to it again, becomes deeply associated with memories of a certain time in your life, or as speicus said, sends chills up your spine.

I've never understood how anyone can appreciate music based solely on industry charts, internet top 10 lists, or what the cool kid says is good... buying an album just because a lot of other people have bought it is just trendmongering. Not that there's anything wrong with buying a popular album, either... but you should buy it because the music grabs you.

I grew up in the 1980s, but my early musical tastes were largely informed by listening to my older brother's 1970's rock and my parents' 1960's jazz. In sixth grade, all of my classmates were all abuzz about Bruce Springstein (Born in the USA had just come out), Bon Jovi, and Michael Jackson. That's what constituted "good music" in my little social universe, and as much as I wanted to fit in, I really couldn't get into any of it and had a hard time understanding why everyone spent so much energy making sure they liked the "right" music. I decided to stop caring and listen to what moves me.

As for finding new music, you live in an amazing time! I would say, go to and create a station based on a few bands or songs you're familiar with, and see what it throws at you. I've found a lot of artists I'd never heard of that way.

Also: don't limit yourself to pop/rock! If you're watching TV or a movie and there's some jazz or classical piece playing in the background that catches your ear, chase it down... and if you like that piece, chase down some others by the same composer/performer... and if you like those, find out what other composers/performers work in that style. Don't worry about not being familiar with a given genre, if the music grabs you, chase it down the rabbit hole. I'll always have a fond spot in my heart for the movie Get Shorty, because the soundtrack introduced me to Medeski Martin and Wood. Similarly, if you're in a coffee shop/bookstore/record store and heard something that grabs you, go to the counter and ask what's playing.

Sorry for the long-winded response. I get excitable about music.
posted by usonian at 11:35 AM on January 14, 2010

Music can be enjoyed on many different levels in many different ways. People who you might call music snobs are often searching for artistic importance. The same way movie critics look for the next Seven Samurai or Citizen Kane or whatever, music critics look for the next Beatles, Bowie, Springsteen. (There is an interesting distinction between the classical "high art" music world and the popular music world; both strive for artistic importance but in quite different ways. Ignore the classical world for now.)

Artistic importance is a tricky thing to define. The music that stands out over time is the stuff that is so good, so beloved and so influential that the music itself defines the time. When you think of the late 60s you hear Jimi Hendrix and when hear Jimi Hendrix you think of the late 60s. What makes the music important is a combination of factors; technical skill and good songwriting are part of it, certainly, but more important is the statement it makes in response to the traditions that have come before it. Grunge in the 90s was a reaction to the over-the-top self-aggrandizing theatrical bands of the 80s. Grunge could not have existed without this period of time but it signaled its end; it tapped into a collective feeling that it was time to throw that silly shit away and show some anger and frustration. Grunge expressed this feeling and it became this feeling.

What tends to make music rise to the top is this "tapping into a collective feeling", by which I mean it connects with a lot of people and it makes them respond emotionally. It's hard to say if innovative music creates this collective feeling or if the collective feeling creates an environment from which the music will eventually emerge. Probably a bit of both with some feedback going each way.

Your friend is probably judging music based on the statement it is making. A lot of radio music like Miley Cyrus is explicitly commercial and as such is targetted towards demograhics that are most likely to spend, such as teenagers who use pop star fandom as social signifiers, or perhaps people who enjoy listening to music that is relatively accessible and easy to listen to, which is of course perfectly OK. To someone who is looking for a sign of new horizons and new directions, most of what's on the radio is not interesting, because it is simply rehashing old ideas in ways that are designed to appeal to a larger audience. Often this rehashed stuff is based on interesting new musical styles but has some of the edge removed to make it easier to get into for a non-devotee, and without the edge maybe there's not much left to be interested in.

You have to be careful here. Just because something is mainstream or designed for sales, that doesn't mean it can't also be good music. Mass market stuff sometimes hits the target so spot on that it is impossible to ignore - it becomes everywhere and everything. Like Black Eyed Peas or Lady Gaga. This is the difference between Avatar and White Ribbon (this year's Palme d'Or winner). Avatar doesn't push boundaries artistically; the themes we've seen before, the writing and acting are nothing special; unlike White Ribbon which is tremendously subtle and complex, there's little to sink your teeth into. Yet Avatar will stand as a monument in film due its raw size in the public consciousness. I suppose the key difference is that some art is designed to entertain us and some is designed to challenge us. It holds for music as well. We can judge each piece by how well it succeeds at what it is designed to do.

If I think back to my own journey from a passive to an active listener, I started small, with a few albums that were new and were getting some buzz, and listening to them over and over again. The sounds were at first hard to appreciate but they started growing on me. Eventually I decided that I liked this stuff and started seeking out more like it. The more you listen to and the longer you have been listening, the deeper you will be able to go, away from the mass market stuff and closer to the ground, where the new ideas are emerging.

A lot of the time you'll hear music that people are buzzing about but which you don't like. This happens to me a lot too. Usually there is buzz for a reason and generally the problem is that you can't enjoy something if it's too unfamiliar and strange. You need a gateway - an album that it is not that hard to get into, but has a lot to offer on repeated listenings, and will prepare you to listen to more complex stuff. You'll find that gateway eventually but it's a highly personal thing, I think. For me it was Gillian Welch who got me into bluegrass, Daft Punk who got me into electronic music, Broken Social Scene who got me into indie rock, and so on.

In any case there is no need to limit yourself and no need to force it. Just look for things that you like. Not just music that you are okay listening to on repeat, but which really speaks to you and make you feel. You'll find it eventually. That's where it begins.
posted by PercussivePaul at 11:36 AM on January 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

Some people eat food because they're hungry, wear clothes because they've got to cover up, listen to music because it's there or because they need background noise.

Some people eat food, wear clothes, listen to music because they find it exhilarating, or they're expressing themselves, or they're feeding/responding to their emotions.

Some people, I would argue a lot of people, do these things for a mix.

Why do you like certain foods? Why do you like certain clothes? You don't have to be an expert in food or fashion to answer those questions. It's fine, even admirable, to learn more about what makes music "good", but you probably already know why you like music, if you think about it. And it's okay to be passionless about it.
posted by asciident at 11:41 AM on January 14, 2010

If you're like most people, you can learn to like any kind of music.

Decide what musical acts you really want to like; that might be based on what kind of impression about yourself you want to convey, what kind of music your social group listens to, your ethnic background, whatever. Then buy some records by these acts and play them until you really like them. You can do this with Bowie, you can do this with Lady Gaga, you can do it with Can or Miles Davis or Fela Kuti or death metal. Listen enough and you'll start to appreciate small details of your chosen records, understand how the records are put together, get excited about related records, etc. At this point you will have what is known as musical taste.
posted by escabeche at 11:52 AM on January 14, 2010

To echo what others have said:

There are different things to like about different types of music. I adore Bob Dylan because his lyrics are out of this world and because I think he is a badass who actually changed popular music. I do not really like Miley Cyrus because I find her robotic voice kind of annoying and her public persona even more so.
I'm not sure if this means that ol' Bob is a better musician in some essential way- I know a whole lotta folks who can't stand the man's gravelly voice and have no patience for a song as long as "Hurricane". And these are valid complaints. That's the beauty of artistic expression- you get to have whatever opinion you like.

Don't overthink this too much - the joy of music is that you can let it take you wherever you want to go.
posted by bookgirl18 at 12:03 PM on January 14, 2010

I'm an amateur musician, and am heavily biased toward the music side of the music-lyrics spectrum (it's not a zero-sum thing, but some artists pay more attention to one side than the other; you have prog-rock songs with senseless lyrics and intricate music, and pop songs with profound lyrics and the same old I-V-ii-V).

So if a song makes me want to sit down at the piano and figure out the music, or at least visualize it as it plays, then it's good (to me); on the other hand, if it's full of cliches (e.g. truck driver's gear change), then it's bad (to me).

So prog rock seems to be the center of my musical taste, but it branches out to anything with "interesting music" which becomes related: rock, metal, jazz, '70s pop (joni mitchell, carole king, gerry rafferty), "indie stuff" (self, owsley, failure, pomplamousse), folk music in odd meters, hymns that modulate outside the usual 6 chords; and even symphonic band pieces from Holst or Grainger or Gershwin. Even thought experiments like "how would you perform 'You Really Got Me' in 7/8?" become interesting.

People speak of "prog moments" which are interesting musical motifs found in non-prog songs... and in some ways it's more interesting to find a 5/4 song by Vienna Teng or Nick Drake than one by Rush (though I'm not sure they're writing those anymore).

tl;dr: you might find one or more themes or motifs that tickle the musical part of your brain, and then be able to follow those into other genres. I agree with other posters that playing an instrument might intensify or clarify those preferences.
posted by kurumi at 12:49 PM on January 14, 2010

For most listeners of music, what they are looking for (whether they admit it or not) mostly has nothing to do with the "music".

Do the contents of the lyrics inspire you? Offend you? How do the other fans of this music dress? Do you like the social performance that is obligatory with this music (be it dancing, defending yourself in a mosh pit, passing a doobie, doing a line, organic potlucks where you talk about leftist causes in South American countries).

But regarding the actual music itself, when I was auditing a friend's graduate seminar in music composition, someone brought in this poem about how to appreciate music when you understand none of the rules by which it is being made and none of the decisions the composer may have been making. It is meant for the non-musical when listening to music, or for anyone, musically knowledgable or not, when listening to something experimental or avant-garde:

Questions to ask a piece of music
, by Mark Sullivan.

Some of the best advice I have ever heard for trying to understand music that is unfamiliar.
posted by idiopath at 1:14 PM on January 14, 2010

I had a music professor who, after spending the entire semester subjecting our class to his favorite classical and world music pieces to analyze, whipped out Iron Maiden's The Trooper on the final. He offered to give an automatic 4.0 to anyone who successfully identified the song, and after the final the entire class stayed to complain... because it turned out that I was the only person in ~100 who could.

The class was loudly upset, because nobody had studied anything near that musical genre -- it was clearly the exact opposite of the tastes he'd been subjecting us to all term. His explanation for this? We'd all assumed the wrong thing about his tastes: he wasn't a lover of traditional music, but a lover of complex music. Genres as most people define them meant nothing to him, because what he found interesting was music with enough going on that he could listen to it many times and keep finding new and interesting parts, emotions and connotations to his life. His method for finding music was to listen to anything he came across once, listen a second time if he didn't immediately hate it, and then put it down... and if he found himself thinking about it later on, he'd go back to it and listen some more until he got bored enough to set it down again, rinse and repeat. The songs/bands that ended up being "his" in the long run didn't always seem sensible because of this, as they were just whatever kept coming up in his head over the years, or what came up into his head during memorable life events.

I've shamelessly copied the method ever since, and after ~20 years of this I find myself with an illogical mix of bands/songs that are my music, too. The internet makes it easy to do this now, just go playlist and radio station crazy for a while... then let your head rest and see what happens!
posted by Pufferish at 1:30 PM on January 14, 2010 [3 favorites]

Best answer: David Bowie's music may be better than Lady Gaga's because it uses more nuanced and complex harmonic relationships and discusses more complex emotions in greater detail, or Lady Gaga's music may be better because it makes you want to dance more. Music is very subjective.

Rhythm and tempo (does the beat make you want to dance or swing or brood), harmony (does it make you feel happy or sad), lyrics (does the song say something to you or makes you glad to shot along to it).

There's a scene in the Pixar film Ratatouille where Remy (a foodie rat) attempt to teach his brother Emile about the concept of taste:
Remy hands Emile another piece of cheese. Emile eats it, this time more carefully.

Chew it slowly... think only about the taste. See?

A vague, grayish BLOB half-forms above his head. It MOVES to undefined MUSIC as Emile struggles to experience the food...

Not really.

Creamy, salty sweet. An oaky nuttiness? You detect that?

Emile opens his eyes (surroundings reappear), looks at Remy.

Oh, I'm detecting nuttiness.

Close your eyes. Now taste this.
(gives him a strawberry)
Whole different thing, right? Sweet, crisp, s light tang on the finish?

The BLOB reappears, but this time with a hint of color.


Now try them together. Uh-huh. See?

Emile eats both together and chews, concentrating. Slowly the weak COLORS become bolder and more complimentary. They begin to dance and intermingle as a little MELODY takes shape...

Okay... I think I’m getting a little something there. It might be the nuttiness. Could be the tang.

That's it! Now imagine every great taste in the world being combined into infinite combinations, tastes that no one has tried yet! Discoveries to be made!
Figuring out your visceral reaction to music is very similar: do you like it or not? Does it make you want to dance? Sing along? Brood? If not, try another piece of music and/or mood. How do you know what you like? Listen to music. If it moves you and you want to listen to it again, you like it. THen you can figure out what about it you like and find other music that moves you, too.
posted by andrewraff at 1:44 PM on January 14, 2010 [2 favorites]

Honestly, if you have never had any strong emotional reaction to a piece of music, I'd suggest it would be more interesting, in terms of your character and in the context of social gatherings, to embrace this unusual part of your being than to try to cobble together some half-assed musical taste.
posted by cincinnatus c at 1:56 PM on January 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

The term "Taste" in music is really a metaphor - and the origin of that metaphor is food. So maybe it would help you to think about the world of food to better to understand discernment in music. The trick of making fine food is derived from 3 main tricks as far as I can make out:

1. Choose great ingredients.
2. Develop a great understanding of what goes with what.
3. Sample in a great environment.

Same with great music. Your diners/listeners may disagree on what constitutes "great" for these measures - but not too radically. Great food memories can derive from Michelin starred restaurants, chips in newspaper on the beach or an indifferent pasta cooked by somebody you love. Your food painstakingly assembled over hours by expert chefs or it could be stamped out from dough and deep fried (that stamp, if you are French and talking about printing is a 'cliché' by the way - just a quick way of achieving a standard result). If you hang out only in gourmet restaurants or fast food joints you might be happy - but your horizons will be rather limited.

I've always thought Bowie had a strong tendency to be full of himself by the way - my favourite of his is Letter to Hermione. She dumped him.
posted by rongorongo at 1:59 PM on January 14, 2010

Find music that haunts you.
posted by yaymukund at 2:25 PM on January 14, 2010

take CDs out of the library

I discovered so much music this way in high school. I'd just grab stacks of CDs of bands whose names I'd heard bandied about, but whom I'd never actually heard. The results were good.
posted by limeonaire at 4:18 PM on January 14, 2010

Always trust your intuition.

A piece of Music or Art is functional if it captures your imagination.

Ex-snob (I hope) here. I was one of those music-nerds in High School telling you what should be hip or not (different decade). Later I met some people who really opened my mind away from the false idea that any cultural artifact was supposed to be simply 'good' or 'bad' for you based upon the context.

I'm not saying you should ignore what people say, you should listen to different suggestions and then decide for yourself. There's no rule that everyone should appreciate the same things, despite what some critics might say.

When I was younger I was more influenced by my peers, in the sense that I was negotiating social adaptation and identity, and testing ideas. Now that I am a bit older, I have a somewhat more complex evaluation of what I like, which is not meant to be too perfect.
posted by ovvl at 4:25 PM on January 14, 2010

I have a much more developed sense of music than I did as a teenager or in my 20s, but I can totally identify with you. I like music, but I'm not that "into" it.

Frequently, I have to listen to a song several times before I can decide if I like it or not.

For me "liking" it means: the song provokes a specific feeling, that I don't get from any other song, it can be a positive or negative feeling, also, I prefer to listen to that song instead of another, also, I remember the song or part of the chorus or melody when I'm not listening to music...

Get an mp3 player, listen to music when you are walking or shopping. Click through your song list, pay attention to which song you would prefer to listen to. I often am like this: nah, nah, nah, nah, nah, oh yeah!

I did play an instrument for many years from elementary to high school, so I have a good understanding of music theory, and I think that has helped me appreciate music more, you are on track in that it may help you.

And yes, there are so many music snobs out there, they can really get tiresome - ignore them and just find out what moves you... !
posted by Locochona at 6:04 PM on January 14, 2010

Most of what people here have said is correct - "good" and "bad" music don't really exist, it's more of a "I like" and a "I dislike" kind of thing.

Here's what I did. I found one band I really liked (Nirvana.) I did a lot of reading about this band. Kurt Cobain in particular often made a point to tell interviewers what his influences and favorite music were. Many artists with a certain level of fame will do this. Some people think that it is pretentious name dropping, but in Kurt's case I believe he was really just trying to raise awareness of his favorite music, and in many ways, any band he mentioned turned to gold.

So, I would recommend for you to read about a band or artist you like. Listen to the music they like. Chances are you will like at least some of it. Talk to people about music, they will mention other bands similar to bands you like. Listen to what they tell you. Sometimes people will just be name dropping, but sometimes there will be genuine music enthusiasts out there who will joyfully recommend new music to you.

Here's how I would start in your case: you mention The Decemberists. Colin Meloy wrote a book about The Replacements. Also, a member of The Decemberists is also in Boston Spaceships, which is Robert Pollard's new band, formerly of Guided By Voices.

If you keep doing this, you branch out and eventually you'll hear enough music to figure out what it is you like and don't like. This sort of process is a lot easier now with wikipedia and mp3s. It used to be a lot harder.
posted by kpmcguire at 7:30 PM on January 14, 2010

Anybody who tells you what you are supposed to like or dislike is someone you should ignore.

What YOU like is whatever YOU find pleasure in, for whatever reason. Hell, you might not even know why you like or dislike something. And there's nothing wrong with that. Your taste in music is 100% your own.

How do you develop taste in music? The same way you develop taste in anything else, to be honest. You sample lots of it. Over time, you'll find patterns and you'll learn about your taste along the way.

I live in Portland, Oregon. This city is a beer Mecca, but when I first moved here, I had no experience with beer other than typical Bud / Coors / Miller / etc. I thought I didn't like beer because bad beer was the only beer I knew. One evening, I was on a date and she took me to a brewpub. Since I had no clue what kind of beer to try, I ordered the sampler. I started with the pale ale and worked my way to the darker Porter and Stout. As it turns out, I'm a dark beer man.

Music works the same way. Sample it. Listen to whatever piques your curiosity, and if you find you like something that other people don't, who cares?

Your taste is a unique part of your personality. Don't let anyone ever tell you otherwise.
posted by 2oh1 at 7:52 PM on January 14, 2010

If you haven't got an mp3 player yet. Get one. Every week, pick an hour or so to download 10-20 or so tracks. Some might be famous rock tracks, others indie-pop, some hiphop, some jazz, electronic, whatever. Listen to them while doing you're going about your every day business, let them play in the background, don't even take that much notice of them. After a while, you will start gravitating to certain tracks, by the end of the week you could even say, I like these ones, I'm deleting those ones, I'm unsure about these other ones so keeping them for the time being. Anyway, for me it's like a mini competition with a number of candidates, I get to choose which ones become a tapestry of my life! Since I started doing this (late 2007) I have at least 600 tracks from a wide variety of styles which I love to hear and get a great deal of satisfactionf from! Use playlists such as 'checking out', then drag the tracks you like to 'faves', or go as complicated as you like. This commitment to listening to new music, investing as little as an hour or so a week will pay unimaginable dividends.
posted by razzman at 5:56 AM on January 15, 2010

De gustibus non est disputandum

That said, once, I was you. When I was in sixth or seventh grade, about a year after we'd moved to an affluent suburb and I'd made some friends, suddenly I was in a world where people chose music, rather than just singing along with A.M. radio on road trips with their parents (or listened to Shaun Cassidy records that Santa brought me a hundred times in a row because he was cute). And at a birthday party someone gave me a Men at Work record (I'm showing my age...). For a minute, I was mystified - why would someone else give me something that THEY liked? (And a tennis racket, because that's what people did there.) It became part of the rotation, because I had so little in terms of music of my own (a few KISS 8 tracks, some Captain & Tenille...), though because of that FINALLY I realized - I could go into a store and buy what I liked and wanted to hear again and again. Especially if that was "Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves". I had an allowance, and music could be something I invested in to make my time with myself (as an only child) better.

And as I grew, I just picked out what I liked because, as was said, I actively wanted to hear it again and again. Maybe through the radio - I like to scan, rather than settle on one station - but often through friends' older brothers, SNL or Letterman or such, and eventually, a circle of friends with VAST record collections. We'd also hang around a few record shops (ah, the old days), and the guys that worked there knew what we liked and would make personalized suggestions. I still like record shops for that reason, even if they can no longer count on me to buy all of the Aztec Camera imports.

So, perhaps what you need is not a friend who says "You SHOULD like this" but, "You might like this." Thankfully, I have friends with varied tastes who love to share. But also, for this reason, I love MOJO and Oxford American mags with sampler CDs, because without them I wouldn't have found Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings or Ritchie Havens. When people write about music well, it inspires me to give it a closer listen. So while I'm not on the Modest Mouse train, I am currently on a very funky bluesy streak. And when my boss found out a year or two ago that I like Sharon Jones, she then mentioned I might like Marie Queenie Lyons and Betty Davis (I DO!). Which made my husband think to go out and find some Mable John for me (and some of which we bought copies of as gifts to his boss, whom we saw at the Sharon Jones show over the summer). It goes around, it comes around - some of it sticks.

Pandora was a good suggestion (though, I can't access it in Canada any more), for that reason. One thing would lead to another, which might be something I wanted to hear again and again.

As well, I read books like "Singers and the Song" by Gene Lees which helped me to understand why certain singers, like Sinatra, are so revered. Later on, Songbook was a great way to explore songs outside of my usual genres. Occasionally we'll grab a copy of Spin, or Rolling Stone (for old time's sake).

For example, take Dolly Parton's Jolene versus the White Stripes version (or Mindy Smith's). There's a quality - a certain richness, depth, nuance, emotionality, under-production and vibe that's present in hers - rather than a take on it or a capital P performance by an musical artist (the latter two). I fully believe that Jolene not only could take her man, but mine, given the chance. And I keep listening to find out who wins, and all these years later I still don't know.
posted by peagood at 2:52 PM on January 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

cincinnatus c: "Honestly, if you have never had any strong emotional reaction to a piece of music, I'd suggest it would be more interesting, in terms of your character and in the context of social gatherings, to embrace this unusual part of your being than to try to cobble together some half-assed musical taste."

I disagree. Most people really don't feel very strongly about music, and have not listened to a wide enough variety of music or thought about the music they listen to enough to be able to have an interesting conversation about it. Ignorance is commonplace, and a pretty boring dead end to a conversation.
posted by idiopath at 4:55 AM on January 18, 2010

This may sound rather clinical but I think there are some ways to actively increase one's appreciation of music. Saying that it is good because it gives you a specific feeling is like saying all ice-cream is good if you like cold and sweet and all chips are good if you like salty. You can learn to appreciate music the way you can learn to identify the herbs and spices that make food tasty. It can really improve your appreciation of music to listen carefully to how it is put together. First, can you tell what is making the music? Is it a typical four piece band: voice, guitar, bass, drums, or is it something else? If it is a four piece band, do all the sounds come from those four parts or have they added sound effects or -- e.g. if listening to an album -- do some tracks include guest musicians? Can you take one instrument, other than the voice, and follow it all the way through the song? Is the bass part repetitive and much the same all the way through, or does it change and on occasion even disapper? What do the drums do? Using your hands and feet can you tap all or even part of the rhythm yourself? If the song begins with instruments and then the voice comes in, can you predict when the voice will comes in? If yes, how? What happens to prepare you for that? Can you guess whether the voice is a natural voice or whether it has been processed? If there is more than one voice part, are there multiple singers or has the same singer recorded various parts and put them over each other in the recording? There are all kinds of fun ways to understand the music and this does actually increase one's appreciation of music, just as being able to pick out certain flavors in foods can also improve one's appreciation of food.
posted by y6t5r4e3w2q1 at 5:41 PM on January 27, 2010

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