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Reflections on a Failed Music Career: Keep It in Context

By Wil Forbis
Read the complete Reflections on a Failed Music Career!

Why Do We Listen to the Music That We Do?

This might sound like an unanswerable question, along the lines of "why do we eat chocolate?" or "why are we attracted to Scarlett Johansson?" We presume desires related to food and sex are not rational, but innate appetites buried deep in our evolutionary programming. Our preference for certain kinds of music would seem the same: we don't think about it, we just like what we like.

If you are a musician, this question has added resonance. If you're playing music no one likes, you've got problems. If you're utterly clueless in predicting the fickle whims of the audience, you've got problems. Yes, I know, writing music with an eye towards audience appreciation or, God forbid, commercial success is "selling out" but get over yourself. Aren't you sick of Ramen noodles for breakfast?

Over at my article "The End of Rock Criticism?" I list some of the criterion that modern neuroscience has determined humans use to judge music. They are consonance/dissonance, familiarity/complexity, and contextualization. For an in-depth discussion of the first two, I recommend Chapter 8 in Daniel J. Levitin's book "This Is Your Brain on Music." In this piece, I'm going to focus on contextualization.

What is contextualization? In the world of computer programming, there is the notion of "metadata" which is essentially "data about data." In the process of using a computer program you might be asked to fill your name into a field. The program might then run a process that notes the date and time that field is saved. That date and time is metadata which captures an aspect of the data containing your name. You can think of contextualization as data describing music.

Let's consider the music of Vivaldi's "The Four Seasons". Most people would describe it as pretty, perhaps fluid music. But they also might term it, "upper-class" or even "snooty." How can this be? Music isn't a living creature that can exhibit the traits of upper-class snootiness. But we are aware that, historically speaking, "The Four Seasons" is often played for people who could be termed upper-class or snooty. It's more likely to be played in a metropolitan Symphony Hall then a punk club. (Of course, there are plenty of snooty punk rockers.) Who listens to a piece of music and where it is played is fundamentally separate from the music itself. Who/where is metadata/contextualization about the raw data/music.

To use a more modern example, let's consider Jimi Hendrix's "Foxy Lady." The music itself could be described as bluesy, or amplified or aggressive, but it also has many disparate, nonmusical associations: the 60s, LSD, hippies, antiestablishmentarianism etc. Those terms define some of the contextualization of "Foxy Lady."

Let's define contextualization as "the application of social/cultural values to music." And let's ask the question, "does the contextualization of music affect whether or not I will listen to it?"

Now, being that you're reading this esteemed website, I can tell that you're not a moron and have likely arrived at the answer on your own. Obviously, yes. But why does contextualization affect our choices in music? The answer has to do with the social aspects of music -- the subcultures associated with a particular form of music for example. This is because music is integrated into our social interaction. We go to concerts/discos/bars/clubs partly to hear music, but also to meet other humans. And even the act of listening to music alone helps us define ourselves ("I am a metalhead!"), which in turn affects who we choose to interact with.

By listening to music defined by certain kinds of contextualization, we are rewarded with various "social benefits." I will list the top three social benefits most people seek when listening to a certain kind of music.

1) Getting laid.
2) Getting laid.
3) Getting laid.

There are other, additional benefits: making friends (humans are social animals), meeting potential partners in commerce, and generally warding off boredom. But, as illustrated by the top three, we're driven to certain kinds of music by the same forces that drive us to do most things we do -- the desire to engage in acts that enable procreation and ensure the survival of our genetic material.

Some might take offense at this. "I'm only listening to music to have sex?!" they bemoan. "What about the intrinsic beauty of the melodies of Mozart, or the raucous call to action of the MC-5? Does not music serve more than just the base instincts, but the soul and the higher mind?"

Well, of course it does. And if we were listening to music only to get laid*, then we would pretty much like every song that came along within the right context, since one would be as good as any other. Obviously we do have emotional and intellectual reactions to music separate from its contextualization.

* Some might argue that if sex drives our desire for music, people too old for sex wouldn't listen to music. Obviously that's a simplification of the nature of genetic programming (it doesn't magically turn itself off once its "goals" have been achieved.) However, it is worth noting that people's taste in music do tend to change as they age, often towards styles of music that provide benefits more intellectual than sexual e.g. classical music or progressive jazz.

But let me ask you this: when was the last time you listened to Pakistani music? Or Hungarian music? Or traditional Japanese music? Unless you happen to be Pakistani or Hungarian or Japanese, the answer is probably somewhere close to "never." Are these cultures so artistically deprived that they are incapable of coming up with their own Mozarts, their own Beatles, their own Led Zeppelins, their own MC-5s? Possibly, but probably not. Our membership in specific cultures and subcultures doesn't completely control our taste in music, but it certainly points us to the pool of music we are likely to drink from. I don't listen to Pakistani music because I'm not likely to receive any social benefit from it --- most of my friends would simply think, "what's gotten into Wil?" For the same reason, a Pakistani man (living in Pakistan) is unlikely to listen to Ozzy Osbourne. (Being that Western music, American music in particular, has spread across the globe more thoroughly than other kinds of music, that previous sentence may not be true but the gist of it holds up.)

Okay, so our choice in music is driven by our culture. What determines our culture (or cultures)? A lot of factors, and they consequently affect the music we listen to as well. Let's examine a few...

Obviously there are exceptions; there are plenty of blacks who love classical music, women who love metal, and upscale liberals who love Toby Keith. And we all have some exceptions in our personal tastes --- we tend to call these "guilty pleasures." Ironically, though we are often ashamed of our guilty pleasures, we listen to them for the purest of reasons: we're not expecting a "social benefit," we simply like the music. (I make it a point to rarely feel guilty for anything, but it might surprise people to know I actually enjoy the Indigo Girls.)

The major musical trend of the 20 century was the decline of sophisticated classical music, and the rise of the pop song. The goal of pop music is obviously to be popular, and this is accomplished by essentially being non-cultural. Pop tends to utilize instruments and melodies and harmonies that avoid any association with a particular nation or group. There is, from the listener's point of view, no barrier to entry. In many ways, pop music has been decontextualized and is often considered un-authentic. But I'm no pop hater; I think pop's break from history and cultures often gives it a clean slate to work from, enabling quite bold experimentation.

On the other hand, "authentic" music --- real hip-hop, bluegrass, Algerian trance, experimental classical etc. --- does require an investment from its listeners before it can be appreciated. This music is loaded with contextualizations which will be lost on people from different cultures. And people who anticipate no social benefit from attempting to decipher such foreign music will rarely venture to explore it.

Some might say that uncovering the cultural forces which guide our musical tastes takes the magic out of music. And I admit there's something slightly uncomfortable about it. But one should always be wary of becoming too comfortable. If you find yourself taking a look at your music collection or the bands you frequent and questioning why you like them (or whether you even like them at all) that might nudge you towards music you really do enjoy. It may point you towards the music of different cultures, cultures filled with completely new and different groups of people you can now attempt to have sex with.

Good luck!

Wil Forbis is a well known international playboy who lives a fast paced life attending chic parties, performing feats of derring-do and making love to the world's most beautiful women. Together with his partner, Scrotum-Boy, he is making the world safe for democracy. Email -

Visit Wil's web log, The Wil Forbis Blog, and receive complete enlightenment.