Can We Account for Musical Tastes?

Sunday, September 23, 2007

By John Sinkevics

The Grand Rapids Press

The singular opening strains of The Beach Boys’ landmark “Good Vibrations,” with those inimitable pop harmonies, filled the dimly lit Calvin College classroom.

     Even as a generally lukewarm fan of the band, I couldn't help but once again marvel at the musical genius behind this so-called “pocket symphony” that reportedly took Brian Wilson six months, four studios, 90 hours of tape and $50,000 to record in 1966.

     But hold the phone and the applause: A few of those (mostly college students and a few instructors) gathered for the opening Monday night session of a series on “music listening” weren't exactly bowled over, especially younger listeners who'd only heard the song once or twice before.

     Their take on a tune that ranks No. 6 on Rolling Stone's 500 greatest songs ever? “Disappointed,” “bizarre,” “fuzzy,” “dated,” “disjointed.”

     So what is it about this song that instantly fires up the neurons in some brains but leaves others flat and unimpressed? And why are some folks inescapably drawn to jazz or classical music while others wallow in head-banging thrash metal?

More to the point: Why do the sugary, silly strains of ABBA leave some normally reasonable and musically discerning experts weak at the knees, while I want to take a sledgehammer to the knees of Bjorn and Anni-Frid?

     This is a mystery for the ages I’ve long hankered to investigate. Maybe there’s no such thing as “just plain awful” music. Maybe musical preferences are to each his own, something pre-wired by our brains and over which we have no control.

     Dr. Daniel Levitin has some answers. The former producer/sound engineer wrote 2006’s “This is Your Brain on Music,” a New York Times bestseller. He’s now a neuroscientist who runs the Laboratory for Music Perception, Cognition and Expertise at Montreal’s McGill University.  Personally, I think this is a fancy title for a place where a guy can spend all day listening to Steely Dan in the name of science, but what the hey.

     The book suggests “we like the music we like” because:

  • To start with, studies show infants tend to respond to music they heard while in the womb. (I recall hearing Latvian folk music, which may explain my fondness for accordions and Baltic beer.) Infants also have “a preference for consonance over dissonance. Appreciating dissonance comes later in life, and people differ in how much dissonance they can tolerate.” My “tolerate dissonance” spectrum must run from just past Barry Manilow to this side of Axl Rose.

  • The teen years are “the turning point for musical preferences,” an emotionally charged time of self-discovery and fitting in socially. So, “most people have formed their tastes by the age of 18 or 20,” which could account for classic rock stations playing the same 45 songs over and over to placate those 40 to 60.

  • Fondness for a piece of music often depends on how simple or complex it is. “Music has to strike the right balance between simplicity and complexity in order for us to like it.” So, why do I like The Ramones and Miles Davis? The White Stripes and King Crimson? Another mystery.

  • Musical preferences “are also influenced by what we’ve experienced before, and whether the outcome of that experience was positive or negative.” So getting violently ill at a 1973 Todd Rundgren concert may explain why a CD collection still contains no Rundgren. Just a theory.

     “What the artist stands for” also shapes preferences, which is why there’s no Snoop Dogg in my CD collection.

Then there’s intelligence: Studies reported by the BBC and others show dementia patients with reduced brain power sometimes switch from liking classical to pop, thus supporting the theory it takes more smarts to appreciate classical music. And losing brain function certainly explains an affection for ABBA.

     Scientific research aside, Calvin’s music exercise proved to me that people, no matter their age, can learn to appreciate stuff they usually choose to avoid or haven’t taken time to explore. The free sessions make participants better listeners, expanding their musical horizons and critical thinking by sharing ideas about what they hear.

     “We all bring different things to the table,” said Rob Vander Giessen-Reitsma, Calvin’s associate for research and program coordination. “People who listen to pop music listen differently than those who listen to classical music. Those with a background in music theory might hear something they didn’t expect and offer pop music fans some insights into that.”

     As music professor David Fuentes put it, examining elements of a song that different listeners hear “helps other people get drawn into it.”

     First-night discussions drew us into “Good Vibrations,” indie-rock artist Regina Spektor’s “Fidelity” and the second movement of Russian classical composer Dmitri Shostakovich’s “Eighth String Quartet.” While I didn’t fathom all the nuances, I honestly came away with a deeper respect, understanding and fondness for all of them, especially the danger- and angst-filled Shostakovich piece, written in a time of heavy-handed Soviet censorship and fear of the KGB.

So, I guess this means I can add some challenging classics to my listening catalog; maybe even embrace a hip-hop tune once in a while.

     “Our desire here is that we take all music seriously,” Calvin student activities director Ken Heffner said at one point.

     Well, my brain still draws the line at ABBA. At least, until dementia sets in.