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23 September, 2007

I'm asking too: is music taste innate?

Writing in the Guardian, Graeme Thomson wonders whether musical taste is innate:

No matter how cosmopolitan and genre-busting our musical tastes, buried deep somewhere in our DNA there's an atavistic default setting that makes us react in a particular way to certain nuts-and-bolts specifics. So yes, we might appreciate, enjoy and even love everyone from Air to ZZ Top but the bottom line is that a handful of old, familiar noises will almost always pick off your defences one by one, over and over again.
To eliminate one factor immediately: I don't think he literally means a genetic pre-programming, just predisposition acquired at a very early age. Music heard in the womb still counts as 'nurture' rather than 'nature', after all.

I can't help thinking the causal aspect is a bit of a distraction from the core point: is one drawn to particular elements in music, irrespective of genre? It's not a matter of hearing 50s crooners or 60s jingly-jangly pop in childhood and therefore liking (or disliking – it follows that aversion could be predetermined too) those genres now. Rather, the suggestion is that one might be drawn to similar sounds, even in radically different contexts. Having acquired a predisposition for, say, resonant baritone voices, one might subsequently enjoy opera and sea shanties without noticing the link.

Disappointingly, it doesn't seem to be a topic of interest to commenters on the Guardian article, who tend to dismiss or misunderstand it. The only person who actually engages with the subject is Tim, whose response is expanded here.

As for common factors in my own taste... hmm, it's not easy, is it?

One is obvious: I seek downbeat, dark music, and am rapidly bored by upbeat, 'happy' music. If one can dance to it or sing along, it's unlikely to grab me. I'd better stress that's not a conscious decision or any form of snobbishness – I'm not denying some secret urge for the sake of appearences – 'dark' music genuinely grabs me, irrespective of whether its fashionable, and 'party' music just leaves me cold.
I was about to say "but I do like some high-energy trance". Ostensibly, that seems contradictory, but it isn't; now I think of it, the specific tracks I like tend to be slightly sinister, with a sense of contained menace. Nothing fluffy!

Beyond that, I'm struggling. Guitar-led music (electric and acoustic)? Strong, complex rhythms? I can think of a consistent dislike: shrill female vocals.

The only other preference I can think of is a little more abstract, being a context rather than a sound.
Putting the 'prog' vs. 'progressive' genre distinction to one side, I'm interested by music (of any genre, whether metal, disco, folk, or even 'prog') which progresses: I'm naturally drawn to the novel and extraordinary. That certainly doesn't mean I chase 'the latest big thing' (on the contrary, fashion is cyclical whereas I want the genuinely different) and I don't actively hunt for new music. It just happens!
Conversely, I have absolutely no interest in nostalgia. I know some people like certain music as a reminder of certain periods in their lives, and also like music which resembles music from those periods. I don't.

This seems to be straying from the central point, but it is relevant. If I hear a piece which resembles another, I'm less likely to enjoy it (I might; I'm just saying it's less likely), even if it contains the fundamental elements I supposedly favour. Maybe it shouldn't, but it does matter to me whether I've heard something before.
I must be a nightmare for marketers, as their tactic of 'if you liked x, you might like y' invariable fails, because 'x' already filled that niche in my taste.

It may be significant that I was brought up in a house without appreciable musical influences, and I had negligible interest in music until into my twenties. A radio rarely featured in my home environment, and even then it was Radio 4 (i.e. speech, not music). There was a gap of about seven years between my buying my first album and buying the second. In both cases, the music stood-out from everyday pop I'd previously experienced; I was drawn to its differentness.

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