How do we choose the music we like?


Photo credit: Andrea Nebhut

Illustration by Andrea Nebhut

The other day, my sister asked me, “Why do you like Tom Misch so much?” I replied that I like his blend of modern jazz and cord based indie, yet an equally valid response could have been, “Because I like the way he sounds.”

I began to wonder about that answer. What makes me like him? And beyond that, what makes me like the music I like?

One could make the argument that it depends on where you were raised and who you were raised by.

I was raised in the heart of the arts district in Albuquerque, New Mexico. I imagine my preference of music would be vastly different if I grew up in the suburbs of Topeka, Kansas, or the apartments of Manchester, England. Geography could have had a profound affect on what music I like, but I believe there is more to it.

My parents both have unique music tastes; my mom even moonlighted as a radio DJ for most of her time in college. My father played the French horn and piano up until college and has always had a love of making playlists of new music he discovers.

So, maybe their joint love of music is what has guided me to my music tastes and is the source of my gravitation toward Chance the Rapper and Tab Benoit.

Yet, a case can be made that my liking of both of those artists, among others, is a result of societal preference, of what is popular now or what has been popular for decades.

The reason I like The Jackson 5 may not be just because my mother loves them, but more of a result of their seemingly undying popularity through the ages.

Additionally, what is popular in music shifts from one generation to the next due to the evolution of modern society. I like 1920s music as much as the next Great Gatsby, but I don’t think I’m gonna listen to Django Reinhardt over Huron John just because he used to be popular.

I might be inclined to listen to what Lil Nas X is making because he is incredibly popular and my sister won’t stop telling me to listen to “Panini.”

Following what is popular also has a sway on what you listen to and what you like. This can be construed as good, bad or something in between.

While it’s nice to stray from the path of popular record label-created hits to the more localized, individual artists, there is nothing wrong with liking Sam Smith or Justin Timberlake. They are popular for a reason, and as a result, their ability to enter one’s musical library is higher than an indie band from Asheville, North Carolina. Because of popularity, I know that my liking of Jay-Z started because one of his music videos trended on YouTube. I know that my liking of Mac Miller stemmed from similar circumstances.

My taste for music has been curved by the sway of popular culture, just as my taste for books and movies I want to watch.

Inherent in all of these ideas on what makes one like what music they like is a degree of free will and our ability to choose what we like and do.

In this case, it’s our choice to choose what music we like or not, what artist we have as a wallpaper on our phone or what concert we buy tickets for.

Cardi B is one of the biggest music stars at the moment, and my mother isn’t the biggest fan of her work, citing a generational difference and her preference for 80s music. She isn’t swayed by the modern tide of musical approval, but either by the one she was caught up in at first or the one her parents pushed her towards.

Her musical preference is controlled more by her own constructed idea of what she looks for in music and what music she wants to listen to at the time.

In this way, music is more of an extension of our personality and a representation of our emotions.

I listen to Leon Bridges when I travel, the Peanuts Christmas Album when I study, Earth, Wind & Fire when I want to dance and Hozier when I’m sad.

Each preference stems from a different purpose and a different state of mind.

What we like in terms of music is a combination of so many variables and ideals that it would be exhaustive to sit through a sermon whenever someone asks why you like what you like.

But maybe knowing that there is more to someones answer than just “I like the way he or she sounds” is all we really need.