On Music Appreciation – I – Taste

By | April 3, 2009

I’ve been thinking a lot about music appreciation. It’s much more complicated than I think the words and concepts we use to talk about it really let on, and I think part of the confusion is that it’s not so much that each of us likes different things so much as that each of us interprets music in different ways and evaluates it using different criteria, and, furthermore, that our preferences are much more malleable than we realize.

I’m not terribly sure where I want to go with this, but it’s something that’s been lurking in the back of my mind for quite some time, so I’m going to try to get some ideas down. I’ve not studied the history or theory of art in any real extent, so I may well be saying things that have been said before, and there’s almost certainly problems that I’m not seeing. I’d welcome both discussion as well as suggestions for further reading on this topic.

I’m going to write this as a series of short posts, as I think there’s more chance of people reading it that way, plus, it makes it easier for me to write. First up, I want to briefly talk about the concept of taste:

Explaining the differences between two people’s preferences by saying that they have different tastes seems to me to be a bit of a cop-out. All this does is attribute the externally visible difference in preference to an internal disposition called taste. This is no better than trying to explain consciousness using the soul – all we’ve done is take a complex phenomena and explain it with another complex phenomena about which we’re not meant to ask questions. This explains nothing, nor does it lead to further discussion.

Taste is generally considered a personal matter, and thus is something that’s not meant to be susceptible to rational argument. By ascribing preferences to taste, there’s an vague implication that further discussion might be considered offensive, so let’s just agree to disagree. This suggests the assumption that wanting to understand why someone likes a particular song is somehow doubting their right to do so. I find this intensely frustrating for reasons I’ll talk about in another post.

In this sense, taste is merely a concept into which we can bundle our reasons for holding a preference. It serves two purposes – it simplifies the messiness of preference by shoving our reasons under the carpet, and it gives us a convenient way of protecting ourselves from others who might, through their questioning, undermine our faith in ourselves or judge us somehow. So, using taste to describe our preferences doesn’t help explain them very well, but it is a completely understandable strategy.

Another interesting aspect is that not all reasons for a preference are explained with taste, only those that are difficult to explain otherwise. You don’t shove under the carpet things that can be neatly placed on the shelf, and likewise, you don’t appeal to taste to describe preferences than can be easily articulated otherwise – nostalgia, for example, can often explain why we like music we couldn’t otherwise explain.

One final idea is that taste might act as a seemingly solid platform on which to base our own internal justifications for our preferences. If we can appeal to taste as an inexplicable yet concrete element of our personality, we can avoid seeing the arbitrariness of our preferences.

Summarizing, then, I think taste is best understood as a cognitive strategy for simplifying our understanding of why we hold certain preferences, as a way of protecting ourselves from the scrutiny of others, as a platform on which to base reasoning about our preferences, and as a way shield ourselves from arbitrariness.