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What Kind of Music Do You Like?

"What kind of music do you like?"

This always ends up being one of the saddest questions I ever hear. It's not the question itself that is the problem -- it's a perfectly reasonable thing to ask, and it seems like it should be easy to answer. The problem is that people seem to be geared toward not answering accurately, and I'm not really sure where we went wrong as a society that we can't just straight-up give an answer.

People hedge and stall. They say blatantly vapid things like, "I like everything", or even more tellingly, "I like everything except country/hip-hop/electronica". They act puzzled, say "I don't know", or otherwise seem like they almost don't know what you've asked them -- like you asked them what their favorite silent movie actor was or some shit -- and can't begin to fathom an answer.

I think this begins with how truly subjective musical taste is. It is, by my estimation, the most subjective art form. I mean, examine other art, here. Films and TV? We can all pretty much agree on whether someone is a good or bad performer, or if a film or show is done well or poorly, and while our opinions differ, it's rare that they differ wildly outside of hyperbole. Culinary art? While tastes vary, we can all recognize a good meal when we eat it. Dance? Whether it thrills you or leaves you cold, the recognition of beauty is pretty common. We can tell good artwork from bad artwork unless it straight up relies on some esoteric knowledge of art; a good photo is easily distinguished from a bad photo; good craftsmanship is easy to separate from poor craftsmanship.

Now examine music. You can love a band -- quite literally love and worship them, if you choose, and think of them as the pinnacle of performance and talent -- and have someone pick them apart in front of you as talentless hacks, and while you may disagree, it's really hard to form an objective argument about why someone is wrong. Musical tastes vary wildly, and most "popular" music is openly loathed by the critics whose job it is to inform the public of the virtues of music. There are so many variables -- rhythm, melody, harmony, vocals, lyrics, composition, style, choice of instruments, et alia -- that a minor change to a tune can render it unlistenable to those who are otherwise its biggest fans.

And so when we ask people "What kind of music do you like?", it's like we're asking them to tell us what their favorite color is, then somehow explain why in a meaningful fashion. People don't know what to say, so they say very little.

I've taken the question out of my social vernacular and replaced it with, "What are your current top 5 bands?", and I suggest you do the same.

This question cuts out a lot of middlemen. First, it's not asking anyone to define their taste in music in terms of genres, artificial or established; there is very little choice of WHAT, and instead a choice of WHO. Second, it isn't an all-time choice, which prompts people to think really hard about their answer lest they forget someone important -- it's just who they like RIGHT NOW, which should be easy to do if they're at all into music. And third, it sets a soft limit of 5, so people have an idea of about how many bands they can choose, giving them the option to either pick a variety of artists and styles to give depth to their taste OR stack the deck in a particular direction to declare a distinct preference for a certain style of music. Also, since it's just a question and not a mandate, people can go over if they really want to do so. Nobody reasonable is going to hold them to 5 if they want to name 6, or 10, or 20. After all, wasn't the point of the question to talk about what kind of music you like? What better way to explore that than to broaden the search past a short list of bands?


I will say, though, that anyone who puts the Dave Matthews Band in their Top 5 has terrible taste in music. I'm not saying there's anything wrong with liking Dave Matthews, but I am saying that making him one of your favorite artists means that you like fairly bland, non-threatening, unchallenging music, and it means we probably have nothing in common musically.

Any questions? 


Reader Comments (5)

I don't think the premise of this is entirely true. Art is subjective, but people like junk in ALL types of art. I have friends virtually GUARANTEED to love every terrible movie that comes out. They honestly believe they are good. And they are wrong. The same can be said of music. None of it is any different.

I also have to disagree with your last statement which may or may not be mostly a joke concerning Dave Matthews. I realize that will apparently cause you to entirely write me off? But, really I don't understand why you'd list a band that actually does write some rather varied material and has a great deal of musical ability over somebody like, say, Jack Johnson, who while sounding vaguely like Dave Matthews manages to be dynamically flat most of the time and is much closer to what you describe. Or Nickelback, a band with songs that seem like they'd be written by an angst-ridden high school kid (that doesn't do well in English class). Or maybe Puddle of Mudd, a Nirvana cover band that plays worse versions of Nirvana songs. I could go on, but you get the idea.

As a musician I intentionally seek out music that I find challenging and try to understand what makes it good- it's rare I can't find some redeeming quality in something, but sometimes that isn't enough and I write things off. The aforementioned acts are mostly in that category. Anyway, it's a long way of saying the conclusion you draw in your last sentence is factually wrong. The rest I somewhat disagree with, but that part is just opinion.

I do think it's easier to name favorite bands/artists "of the moment" as opposed to all-time favorites, though.

March 31, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterGodzilla

With ya', until the DMB comments. I agree that lyrically, they're safe and unchallenging...but ask any bass player if they could play like that when they were 16 (the age at which he joined the band...can you imagine, that is the only job he's ever had), and I think any drummer out there would agree that Carter Beauford's beats are far from unchallenging. There is more to music, composing, and orchestration than what the band talks about. When master's are at work, they make it look easy, but don't mistake mastery for simplicity.

May 23, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterCDub

I would just like to say...if you honestly think that Dave Matthews Band is stupid to have in a top five favorite bands list then you can kindly fuck off. No other band has any kind of instrumentals that come close to being nearly as talented as the men he has playing with him. The kind of music they play is far beyond challenging and if you are going to sit there and argue that point then you have honestly never listened to half of the songs that band has played.

January 9, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterSJM

Wow... People leap to the defense of Mr. Mathews.
The music I listen to, most people find grating or confusing. When people ask me what kind of music I like I say, "anything that makes me smile and/or think." That's about as deep as I can get in a short answer. Ask me my top 5 bands and that can change every month, although The Bled and The Megas have a pretty safe seats on the list.

March 21, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterevi1r0n

Brilliant closer. You perfectly illustrated your point, and the case you built for just how crazy subjective musical taste is. Whether that's your genuine opinion, or an opinion exaggerated for the sake of argument, it doesn't matter--real people will have that actual opinion. And they might have good reasons for hating DMB, or they might not--but you have to ask them, or engage in a dialog. You can't leap to assumptions about them.

A common misconception is that "if only they knew what I knew, of course they'd feel the same way!" That's not necessarily true however. It's entirely possible that they do know as much as you, or maybe they know something different, or maybe they know more. But even then, it ultimately doesn't matter, because music is all about how it sounds and feels, and some people just don't vibe with DMB. Or with Michael Jackson, or the Beatles, or ICP, or any musician ever, whether they're legendary or terrible.

In closing, lmao at the DMB fans leaping to his defense. Was this posted on r/dmb or something?

May 8, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterVolvo Realtor

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