Accounting for Tastes

This is a bit of a follow-up to my post last fall exploring why I love sad songs (and romantic comedies).

still from dance-practice video by Japanese-Korean hip-hop/R&B group XG

Some of my favourite YouTube channels offer analysis of music, for the purpose of understanding what it is about certain music that we so much appreciate, and hopefully to teach us how to compose ‘better’ music.

Recently, after reading through a bunch of my old blog posts, I was lamenting how ignorant and arrogant I was when I started this blog 20 years ago. I marvel at how much my entire worldview and attitude toward life has been transformed over that time period, yet so slowly that I didn’t even notice it. That change is reflected, for example, in my complete indifference, now, to TV, films, and almost all fiction, which once were a very important part of my life. Though my interest in these “popular entertainment” forms has dramatically waned, my interest in “popular music” has, if anything, increased.

So I went back through my 60 year library of favourite music to see if it showed evidence of a similar evolution. It did not. On the contrary, despite the thousands of hours I have spent looking for enjoyable music (I’m pretty particular), I can honestly say that my musical tastes have not really changed one iota.

There is a largely-unchallenged view that our musical tastes are culturally, rather than biologically, conditioned. A careful and open-minded study of music, we are told, will give us an appreciation of music we would previously have been closed to, just as a thorough study of history and culture can substantially alter our perception of current events.

We are told, for example, that indigenous cultures are not nearly so closed to what we consider “dissonant” music as we are, and that may well be true. A current theory is that music works on the brain in a two-stage recognition/reward process. First, our brain’s inherent propensity for pattern-seeking and pattern-remembering comes into play as we listen, and then our brain starts to ‘predict’ what will come next in a song. A correct prediction will yield a burst of dopamine, while an incorrect prediction will not — there’s no reward for an evolutionarily useless wrong guess. And a dramatic tension in the music before the predicted resolution seems to extend, amplify and reinforce the dopamine reward (perhaps in the same way that sexual edging does).

But we also get a dopamine charge when there is an unexpected (but not catastrophic) ‘surprise’ in the progress of the music, such as a sudden key change, or the introduction, for example, of a minor ninth chord just before the resolution to the major. I’d guess this might be how we ‘learn’ new patterns to extend our brain’s predictive capacity. After hearing the minor ninth, we now start to listen for it again later in the song, and take note of whether it repeats or not.

Too much repetition and predictability, on the other hand, and we essentially stop listening, so there is no dopamine rush. Each person’s min/max threshold for repetition, surprise, and novelty is apparently different.

In my earlier article, I described a popular theory that our love of sad songs is about catharsis and/or the safe, vicarious, ‘pleasurable’ experience of emotions that might be too precarious to feel as a result of a direct, personally sad event. Beyond that, I posited that it’s our body that makes decisions on what music we listen to, and reacts accordingly, and that ‘we’ (with our supposedly discerning musical tastes) really have no say in it whatsoever.

That would suggest that our biological conditioning plays just as important a role in our musical tastes as cultural conditioning. And indeed, the people whose musical tastes are closest to mine (measured by the degree to which our personal music ‘libraries’ overlap) do not correlate at all with those whose cultural conditioning most closely resembles mine. Peers I grew up with, while perhaps liking certain music that was popular when we were doing things together, mostly have very different musical preferences from mine. And people with whom I have almost zero cultural connection, but some biological similarities to (eg a predisposition to depression) seem much more likely to share my musical tastes.

What does our body want, then, if it, rather than our cultural influences, is ‘choosing’ our musical tastes for ‘us’?

Perhaps, just as it ‘chooses’ food for us to compensate for its perceived nutritional deficiencies or to feed its chemical addictions, our body might be ‘choosing’ music for us that restores its chemical balance or feeds its chemical addictions (eg too little or too much dopamine).

The emotions that arise in me listening to Adagio for Strings, for example, are a kind of sadness, but they are a joyful, peaceful kind. Maybe it’s my body’s way of saying “You need to feel sadness about the awful state of the world, but you’re afraid to, so here, try this music”. Several people who suffer from depression have told me they love this piece because it makes them cry, and feel better.

And when I listen to (and watch the remarkable choreography of) a song1 like Left Right, perhaps my body is urging me to listen to it in order to get me to feel, and to appropriately express, a sense of incredible joy and connection with the rest of the world, which is, after all, an astonishingly beautiful place in which we’re all doing our best: “Hey, life is good, get off your ass and enjoy it, laugh, dance, celebrate”. This song, which is only a month old, has already been ‘covered’ by at least 40 dance groups captivated by its infectious vibe and its fun, expressive choreography. Maybe a lot of bodies out there are telling their ‘owners’ to get up, laugh, dance and celebrate.

In my earlier article, I asked:

Does my infatuation with these songs indicate that am I looking to lose myself (lose my self?) in a safe-to-feel world? A world that makes more sense (viscerally, rather than intellectually) and is more emotionally honest and courageous than the one I seem to live in? These songs reach through my fear of feeling and let me feel things I’ve only otherwise ever felt strong enough to feel when I’ve been in love — when the chemicals just overpowered the fear.

So perhaps our taste in music is just one more subtle, ‘unconscious’ way our body does its best to take care of itself (and ‘us’).

A guy who’s written a book about the emotional impact of Adagio analyzed it as follows:

By taking the listener through emotional landscapes of its own creation, on its own terms, at its own speed, music is as close as one can come to actually re-experiencing the process and texture of unfolding emotion. It doesn’t show you a reflected image of the landscape of loss, it takes you through it – a very different notion. And Barber’s Adagio is so moving, so affecting, precisely because as we pass through that territory, we reel with the shock of recognition.

Emotionally, psychologically, we’ve all been here before; we can feel the congruence to our own experiences of grief and desperate hope as it unfolds through time. In a nutshell, it works so very well because he got it so very, very right.

Listen… to the orchestral recording of the Adagio. Hear how we begin in deep mourning and isolation, are lifted into the possibility of redemption by the IV-V in D-flat major, then dropped back into the darkness by iv-V in minor. This is the subtext of the entire piece: a desperate struggle to escape from the reality of grief (B-flat minor) into the consolation of hope (D-flat), only to slide back into an inevitable reality, over and over… [Barber] demonstrated a breathtaking comprehension of both musical and psychological processes, then wrote a piece of music so astonishingly well-matched to the unfolding process of grief that one can hardly help being moved by it.

Well, maybe. Or perhaps Samuel Barber had no choice but to write this piece exactly as it was written, through him and his body, an expression of his own body’s need to reconcile with the possibility of never-ending grief, to adapt to it, to accept it, and to express it, the only way it could.

  1. I think there’s a lot more to this ‘pop’ song than meets the eye. XG consists of seven young Japanese women who spent the last five years in an intense program in Korea learning advanced singing, dancing, composition and other skills, and rehearsing endlessly, before their first song was released a few months ago. The music was written specifically for the group by a team of at least 14 composers, some of whom obviously have classical music training; you can spot a whole suite of international genres and influences in the instrumentation, harmonies, rhythms, and musical overlays going on, mostly unobtrusively, in this ‘simple’ happy song. 
  2. POSTSCRIPT: I’ve been asked a lot about my opinion on the new AI apps, and my response generally has been that it’s not intelligence at all, and, like video games, will mostly turn out to be an amusing new form of entertainment (and, sigh, a military training tool). But I do believe it will have a major effect on the arts, including music. There is no reason why AI couldn’t, for example, parse my library of favourite music, and produce a (plagiarized, derivative, kind of) work that might well become my favourite song. It is capable of sussing out, and replicating, the ‘ingredients’ inherent and present in art that we love, in novel and potentially exciting ways. It is certainly soon likely to outperform the current music ‘recommendation engines’, whose algorithms are essentially not up to the task.
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1 Response to Accounting for Tastes

  1. Ray says:

    Great article!
    Couldn’t agree more about the emotional impact of Barber’s Adagio.

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