A musicologist explains the science behind your taste in music

Nolan Gasser, musician and musicologist, knows why you can't quit 80s music.
Nolan Gasser says, as we grow, our musical tastes really help us to forge our individual identities — especially distinct from our parents.LightFieldStudios / Getty Images/iStockphoto
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By Vivian Manning-Schaffel

When I was a kid, there didn’t seem to be a rhyme and reason to what music I loved — my tastes spanned from art rock, to show tunes, to hard rock, pop and funk classics and disco deep-dives. As I learned to play music and my music geekery bled into other genres and subgenres, I began to wonder why some songs resonated with me more than others. Did certain key signatures or chord progressions across genres draw me in? Did I have a greater affinity to songs written in certain time signatures? Was it the subject matter or lyrical content? Or some wizardry involving all of the above?

Luckily, musician and musicologist Nolan Gasser wrote “Why You Like It: The Science and Culture of Musical Taste” to answer these kinds of burning questions. A professional pianist since the age of 11, Gasser’s very first gig was playing cover songs at his local mall food court on weekends. “I had people asking me to play a rather eclectic repertoire — everything from Scott Joplin, Mozart, and ‘Stairway to Heaven’ every single day,” says Gasser. “It really got me thinking (maybe not in a conscious way at that point) about how varied people’s tastes are, and how people of the same age group could gravitate to different styles of music.”

Your music library, explained

As composers tend to do, Gasser would dissect various songs to better understand what might appeal to an audience. After earning his Ph.D., Gasser connected with Tim Westergren, one of the three founders of Pandora (the music app) and became head of music operation and architect of The Music Genome Project. “We came up with ‘Music Genome Project’ as a play on The Human Genome Project but I took that metaphor very seriously, aiming to break down the musical universe into different species by examining the factors that are somewhat active or potentially active in every single song,” explains Gasser. “What are the hundreds of factors of rhythm and harmony, melody and form, rhythm and sound, and lyrics and production? How can we objectively break those down? What is the shape or contour of the melody? What are the kinds of chord progressions used?”

As a result of this arduous analysis, Gasser says every song in Pandora has been analyzed by a human being sitting in front of a computer screen, categorizing all of their music into “genes.” Utilizing that imprint, they are able to forge connections between songs by the same artist and also by different artists, and, in turn, connect you with new music based on your previous choices.

In his book, Gasser also acknowledges the tremendous role sociology plays in our musical tastes. “I actually use the term ‘intraculture’ to describe cultures that take place within a culture,” he explains, likening them to subgenres of music. “A lot of it has to do with where you grew up and what kind of musical influences are in the air, but we participate in so many subcultures of affinity, just based on what we like. Intracultures provide us with access to music just because you’re a part of a group, and that group means something to you.”

Music becomes that stake in the ground — ‘this is who I am'.

Nolan Gasser

Another interesting thing about our musical tastes is how early those seeds are planted. “Every baby comes equipped to speak any language, or make any sound for the hundreds of languages that are out there. Through the first year, especially, it gets more limited. The synapses generated in the brain forge certain sounds and exclude others. There’s something similar that takes place with music. It’s known as ‘inculturation.’ In the first six months or so, babies can actually follow the syntax of any musical style — complex rhythms from Turkey or major scales from Europe. If you play something for a baby a few times and make a slight shift, the baby turns its head at that shift. It recognizes the deviation. The power that we have as infants to process and understand music is extraordinary.”

Gasser says, as we grow, our musical tastes really help us to forge our individual identities — especially distinct from our parents. “Music becomes that stake in the ground — ‘this is who I am,’” says Gasser. “But at the same time, the music people listened to at an early age becomes their native home comfort music. When they grow up, that music will be part of who they are, tied in with memories and growing up. All of these powers are why music is so important to us.”

The way we experience music is always evolving

Noting the difference between how I discovered music as a teen (albums, in my room, reading liner notes) and how I discover music now (Shazam, listening to anything á la carte, on demand, via any device I own), I asked Gasser if young people still took the time to really get into bands, or artists, or if technology had affected that aspect of musical discovery. “Technology always has an influence on how we listen to music and how we interact to music,” he says. “The whole notion that people would have to buy an album made musicians think about their music from a theatrical standpoint, creating an hour-long musical experience as opposed to a song-by-song experience. When my kids discover an artist they like, and an album has a couple of songs they love, they still do explore the whole album. You just don't need to save up all your allowance to buy one album. You can listen to everything.”

No matter how old we are, Gasser says it’s “on us” to continue to discover new music. “We all come hardwired to be very sophisticated in our musical understanding,” he explains. “Ultimately, there’s no reason why someone who doesn’t play an instrument or compose music can’t be as eclectic and sophisticated and devout in their music listening as someone who is a professional musician. So much of it is confidence and taking barriers down that say, ‘I’m not a musician so I couldn’t possibly like jazz because I don’t get it.’ That’s nonsense. We all have the ability, if we keep our minds open, to explore any music.”

He recalls attending a recent wedding and realizing every 20-something was mouthing every lyric to every song the DJ was playing, yet he found himself unfamiliar. “Every generation has its masterpieces and its schlock,” he says. “I have no doubt this generation will produce music that are their sentimental jewels when they're collecting social security checks.”

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