I have often wondered about how other people listen to music, what drives what music people like. As a teenager the top 40 singles seemed important, as was my confusion about how great tracks faired less well that rubbish singles.
There is a considerable amount of research focused on these very questions. I stumbled upon research being conducted by David Greenberg and his theory of musical taste styles here. This theory is that people have a preference for listening in an empathetic music, systemising music or a combination of both. Empathisers focus is on the artists thoughts and emotions, Systemisers focus on patterns and rules, whilst combiners balance these two styles.
My initial thought was combining is how I listen and I kind of assumed everyone did this. On the other hand I listen to music from a wide range of genres and have been described as having eclectic taste in music, most people don’t generally have this broad taste.
This musical preference theory isn’t entirely straight forward as all music contains emotional content and systemic content, great music merges this two facets seamlessly. Music is an amazing, richly complex art form and i would argue very difficult to assign content between these two styles as everyone listens differently.
Having said that, I do get the idea behind this theory. However what perhaps distinguishes the serious music listener from the casual listener is flexibility. Listening to music is cognitively a complex process and one that develops the more music is listened to. Empathetic music, in perhaps it’s purest form, is the singer songwriter, singing about there personal experience of life with a simple chord based guitar accompaniment. This form of music I very much enjoy. In listening to this form, I reduce my focus on looking for systemic patterns and increase my focus on the emotional content of the words, I change how I listen to suit the musical form. On the other hand, a complex piece of instrumental music is perhaps the pure form of systemic music, however it is from listening to the patterns, where rules are broken that the sense of the composers and performers emotional content emerges.
Whilst people listen to music in different ways, simply concentrating 100% on the music in a full open way, is not the only way music is listened to. for example the playing of a church organ before a religious service , some people will be listening intently, for others it will help set there mood in preparation for the service. most of the time, people rarely listen to music fully intently. Music is often the backdrop at a party, sets the mood during a scene in a film, something in the background whilst we are working or driving a car. some music suits these less intense listening moments better, sometimes concentration is expended on expressing the music through dance, where listening is only a part of the enjoyment of the music.
The experience of music is how it is heard, rather than solely the artistic output of it’s creator. The composer is important, it is there musical expression that forms the statement of the music. For some musicians the lyrical content is there main focus, for others it is the structure of the music. It is up to the listener to appreciate where the composers focus lies, to focus on that. I like great songwriters where the musical content is quite simple, here the song is important. I like bands who play with the musical content and have poor lyrics, here the music is important. My point is that listening is an active process, it is flexible to the style of the music, sometimes the quality of an aspect of piece overwhelms any personal preference for musical style.
The question is whether there is actually a preference spectrum here. My music collection in comparison to others may place me somewhere on a spectrum line between emotion and system. However it is more complex than that, i listen to different styles of music depending on the time of day, my mood, what else is going on in my life etc. such lifestyle issues may influence where I appear on such a spectrum, for example, I love classical music, but don’t tend to listen to it whilst driving because the high level of background noise from the engine, means that changes in volume, which form an integral part of the music are lost, so the more time i spend driving changes where on such a spectrum I would be. Another example is that peopel may be pushed towards emotional content due to poor speakers, where gross musical effects are more important than subtle ones.