Tag Archives: Musical Taste

Songs of House and Home

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

A special issue of Rolling Stone published in December of 2004 touted “The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.” Aside from pandering to its list-obsessed readers—and feeding its own list obsession—the article provided a window into the imprecision of musical taste. For starters, it made no mention of criteria used to evaluate the songs (if there were any), nor did it explain what kinds of songs were up for consideration. A breakdown of selections shows some glaring biases: 94% of the songs came from North America and the United Kingdom, 69% of the songs were from the 1960s and 70s, “La Bamba” was the only song not in English, one instrumental was included (technically not a song), and only one was recorded before 1950 (sorry, Irving Berlin).

It is easy to quibble about the contents of the list: how it differs from “greatest songs” lists published elsewhere, how “all time” really means 1950s to the present, how commercial success skewed the selection process, how certain bands were overrepresented (the Beatles have twenty-three songs), how Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” made it to number one (after all, that song helped inspire the magazine’s name). Issues like these expose the arbitrariness of “greatness” and challenge the very pursuit of a pop culture canon. However, despite—or perhaps because of—its flaws, the list tells us much about the human relationship with song.

It is clear that the 500 songs had personal importance for those who selected them. Each song was a radio hit, meaning that they were “in the air” during the selectors’ teen and early adult yearsa period of tremendous physical and emotional change when surging hormones make everything seem monumental. Music heard at that time is both a comfort and an identity marker, and its significance is sealed for life. Thus, the abundance of songs from the 1960s and 70s suggests that most of the selectors were baby boomers. There were also a few older voters (seventy-two songs were from the 1950s), and a smattering of younger voters (eighty-two songs spanned the 1980s to early 2000s).

From this perspective, what constitutes the “best” arguably has more to do with ownership than with the music itself. To use a domestic analogy, it is the difference between a house and a home. A house is a building designed for human habitation. It can be attractive to our eyes and suitable to our needs; but because it is not our dwelling place, it is of minor consequence. Yet, if we were to move into that house and fill it with our furniture, knick-knacks, routines, and memories, it would become our home. Like the songs we cherish, our affection for it would make it the “best.”

This subjectivity is implied in the Rolling Stone article, which makes no attempt at outlining objective measurements. Although its title suggests definitiveness, it is basically a glorified opinion poll. No reader would agree with all of its contents or the order in which they appear. This is not a criticism. Rather, it is an acknowledgement that songs are important to everyone, and that we are all curators of our own lists.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

Five Notes

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Cultural evolution greatly outpaces biological evolution. The excruciatingly slow pace of natural selection is eclipsed by the rapid and localized intellectual, behavioral, and technological transformations that take place within human societies. Moreover, whereas the mutations and adaptations of genetic evolution typically lead in a single direction, cultural changes can be linear, cyclical, conservative, progressive, or all of these at once. Such variety is a result of human-directedness. Unlike the non-sentient forces of nature, which spawn diversity through gradual descent with modification, cultural advancements and retrenchments are conscious choices, and thus prone to splinter off in multiple directions.

In this sense, the use of the term “evolution” in discussions of culture, while commonplace, is somewhat misleading. Rather than progressing unidirectionally, human culture is the fickle and multidimensional product of a capricious species. This is obvious when examining music. If musical styles were placed on an evolutionary continuum organized from simple to complex, actual timelines would be demolished. Minimalism would predate Romanticism, blues would precede madrigals, and the Beatles would come before Bach. The absurdity is exacerbated when world musics are thrown into the mix.

Beneath the false premise that fewer notes indicates an earlier period is a bias regarding what constitutes complexity. Just as each style has its own history, each style is complex in its own way. Where harmonic density is lacking, rhythms may be more intricate. Where counterpoint is highly cultivated, modal choices may be limited. Where orchestration is refined, emotional content may be restricted. More often than not, these scenarios are the product of preferences: the relative absence or abundance of a musical element is dictated by taste, not chronology.

A good example is the Chinese predilection for the pentatonic (a five-note non-semitone scale). Chinese musicians are aware of “bigger and better” scales, but five is a sacred and symbolic number. The five notes of the scale—gong, shang, jue, zhi, and yu (usually equated with do, re, mi, sol, and la)—correspond with a variety of other fives. Among these are the cardinal directions (center, west, east, south, north), elements (wood, fire, earth, metal, water), colors (yellow, white, blue, red, black), tastes (sweet, pungent, sour, bitter, salty), and political structure (king, minister, people, national affairs, natural world). Far from being a “primitive” stage in musical development, the Chinese pentatonic is a conscious conservation of socio-historical meaning.

What’s more, while the pentatonic may exclude notes present in the Western heptatonic (not to mention chromatic and microtonal scales), it is similarly capable of generating endless melodies. This point is made in The Art of War, which observes that the five colors combine to “produce more hues than can ever be seen,” the five tastes “yield more flavors than can ever be tasted,” and the five notes “give rise to more melodies than can ever be heard.” Indeed, the value ascribed to discovering new combinations has ensured the preservation of the scale, despite many cultural changes that could have swept it away. This, in itself, goes against any hypothetical theory of musical evolution.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

Music of Mine

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

The complaint is heard in every age, “How can anyone listen to that awful music?” The bewilderment is usually generational: the older generation cannot relate to the music of the youth, and the younger generation cannot tolerate the music of their elders. When the youngsters become parents themselves, their objections will mirror those that were once directed at them, and they will face the same opposition they exerted in their earlier years. The drama is repeated whenever two or more generations coexist on the planet. That is to say, it happens all the time.

The disagreement can be framed as rebellion and counter-rebellion. Adolescents push away from their parents, attach themselves to their peers, and assert their youthfulness through music of their own choosing. Meanwhile, the parents become more aggressive in their listening habits, turning their music louder to ensure that their offspring hear it (especially in closed confines like an automobile). Of course, this scenario is not an absolute given. Some families manage to exist in reasonable musical harmony. But disagreement is the norm.

Why is this so? Part of it has to do with the general dynamics of the parent-child relationship. However, there is a deeper reason. Neuroscientist Daniel J. Levitin explains that musical preferences are essentially fixed by age fourteen, setting the stage for a lifetime of stubborn listening.

Adolescence is a period of tremendous physical and emotional change, and pubertal growth hormones coursing through the body make every experience seem important. This perceived importance does not fade away as we get older, but stays with us in the sanctified form of nostalgia. Musical experiences have a particularly lasting effect, mainly because adolescents are drawn to music as a source of comfort, guidance and identity-formation. And though our tastes can fluctuate as our attitudes shift and we encounter different sounds, the music we liked at age fourteen is favored throughout our lives.

This leads to unavoidable conflict. Whatever music one grew up with is cherished above the music of previous and subsequent eras. As a result, the preferences of youths and adults are never in alignment, no matter who occupies the role of child or adult at a given moment.

A manifestation of this can be seen in houses of worship, where melody choice is an especially heated topic. In that sacred environment, the term “traditional” is often affixed to the music of one’s upbringing. Prayer settings heard or sung around age fourteen are judged to be correct and definitive—not necessarily because of any musical qualities, but because they are part of the soundtrack of that impressionable period. What tends to be forgotten is that those beloved melodies—however well established—were themselves once offensive to an older generation, just as the prayer-songs of today’s youth disturb the ears of many elders.

What seems to be lacking here is empathy. Musical taste is shaped around the same time in everybody’s life. However, because that time is relative to the year a person was born, the sounds adopted differ from those embraced by older and younger people (and those of the same age in different parts of the world). Thus, while we might not like or understand the music others hold dear, we can at least relate to the fondness they have for it.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.