Exploring the subjectivity of music and how it is enjoyed and interpreted by different listeners.
The year was 2016, a wonderful year for music, and the location was a small restaurant in the University of Lagos. The queue I stood in with my friend was too long, so we started discussing music to pass time.
As we got closer to the front of the line, my friend asked me my favourite song at the time, and I replied that it was Mumford and Sons' 'Babel' from their album of the same title. At the song's mention, the person in front of us turned around smiling and said he was impressed by our knowledge of Mumford and Sons, saying we had "good music taste". We shook hands on it, and that was the end of that episode.
Later that day, I asked myself what criteria my music taste had fulfilled to be labelled "good". Was it because he was a fan of the artistes? Was it some inferiority complex that made him see foreign music as good and Nigerian music bad? Was he one of those people who are so invested in lyrics? Was he an instrument guy? Guitars? Drums?
Subsequent conversations have shown me that the "good taste" tag was not an isolated incident. On the contrary, people thinking their music tastes are superior is a common theme; I, too, have succumbed to label music as bad or good depending on my preferences. But what makes music good or bad?
According to the Encyclopedia of Sciences and Religions (2013 Edition), "Aesthetics is a branch of philosophy concerned with two general domains: the philosophy of art and what may be considered the philosophy of aesthetic experiences, especially the experience of beauty and ugliness. In the philosophy of art, philosophers in aesthetics have developed different definitions or analyses of what makes an object or event a work of art, different accounts of the meaning of art, its value, and the relationship of art to other domains."
In other words, aesthetics deals with art appreciation and the factors influencing our views on art or artistic expressions. Aesthetics asks what makes things beautiful and tries to understand why our perceptions of art differ, even on subjects that could be considered similar. Aesthetics prods us to question our opinions on art, in whatever form it comes (literature, paintings, music, etc.), and try to trace the different factors or biases that led to those views.
Different things make us like a song: it could be a featured artiste or the guitar riffs. A study by researchers at the University of Melbourne showed that dissonance is important in music reception and that the more a listener understood a certain pattern in the music — the arrangement of chords, for example — the more they were likely to appreciate the music better. This is why trained musicians can like or dislike a song instantly because they can spot mistakes in the composition.
Apart from training, memories and context are also important factors that affect our music taste. You are more likely to love a particular music genre if it is one you grew up with; a person who grew up with a jazz-loving father who exposes them to Mary Lou Williams, Nat King Cole, and Miles Davis is probably going to listen to jazz all his life. However, if there are some bad memories attached to childhood, they might dislike jazz and gravitate to other genres.
Our friends and partners can also dictate our music choices. The memories attached to these relationships add extra weight to certain songs, positive or negative. In my first year of university, a friend and I played Charlie Puth’s Nine Track Mind ad nauseam, and now, whenever I hear a song from that project, it reminds me of that time; with all the naivety and carefreeness of people who were experiencing fresh independence from watchful parental eyes.
Faith is also a strong determiner of the sort of music we consider ‘good’. In fact, adherents to different religious beliefs probably describe music as “good” or “bad” more than anybody else. A newly converted Christian might regard his taste as elevated or upgraded in line with their faith when introduced to Nathaniel Bassey or Hillsong Worship. The same stance could also be held by a person who decides that religion is not for them and elects to embrace secular music. But what about people who listen to any and everything? Can they honestly have opinions on bad or good music taste?
The point is this: music is too broad and subjective to personal bias to be fairly labelled as good or bad. Also, as a species, humans are too dishonest for anyone to trust their judgement completely. The sensible thing to do is to acknowledge that good music is music that is good to you and you alone. This way, the temptation to get on the high horse of superior music taste is eliminated, and the burden of being the one everyone looks to for playlist suggestions is removed from your shoulders.