A Theory of Music

by Maggie Walsh

Why do you like the music that you like? Why is your taste different from your roommate? Your best friend? Your dog?

These questions have fascinated me since I got into music – that is, when I moved on from my Jonas Brothers phase – in eighth grade. The quest for my own music taste started with me essentially stealing all my dad’s music. The Decemberists, Wilco, and Ryan Adams were three of my favorite artists in 2010. Everyone from my best friend to my next-door neighbor influenced my music taste. This is honestly something I still do; I am a brazen Spotify lurker. Eventually I started discovering genres I love on my own.

One thing has remained constant through all of the Spotify stalking and self-educating: I immediately know what I don’t like. My old roommate is a die-hard country fan. I love her to death, but I don’t like the same music she does. So why does she like it and I find it so unlistenable?

Between these questions and my tendency to over analyze every little thing, I’ve constructed a theory that explains differing music tastes.

My idea first formed when I was in the car with my dad and sister on the New Jersey turnpike, heading home from Newark airport. The sun was orange and sweet in the way only Sunday sunlight feels, the cracks in the road housed yellowing grasses and broken beer bottles. I was looking out the window trying answer my dad’s hilariously earnest question, “What do you like about rap?”

My response was something lame like, “I like the words. They’re either funny or brutally honest or both.” I was trying, and failing, to convince my dad that rap was an incredible genre. My next words were both an attempt to backpedal so as not to lose my dad’s interest and an effort to personalize potential forays into rap. “Well,” I added, “What do you care about? Do you like the lyrics, melodies, rhythms, or vibes?”

As a disclaimer, it’s possible that this idea already exists and I’m unaware, but my theory formed in the car that Sunday afternoon. In terms of music taste, everybody can be separated into the following groups: lyrics, melodies, rhythms, and vibes.

Now, I should make it clear that just because somebody falls into one category doesn’t mean they don’t care for the other categories. It simply indicates the primary reason a person is drawn to a particular song or artist or genre.

The rhythm category is hardest to pinpoint, in my opinion. My best example would be reggaeton. Two of my friends love this genre. The songs are characterized by the repetitive, catchy beats. When my friends listen, they don’t want to sing, they don’t want to understand, they want to dance. Another example is D.R.A.M.’s hit “Broccoli.” I have to admit I dig that song. A good beat can make a song extremely addictive.

It turns out my dad is a melody guy. One of his all-time favorite bands, Oasis, is a great example. They come up with amazing tunes; their songs get stuck in your head. The lyrics are usually easy to remember because of their simplicity. An additional example which happens to be another of my dad’s favorites, is R.E.M. Great band, but have you ever sat down and listened to R.E.M.’s lyrics? Not a lot going on there (in fact, in their first albums, they purposely obscured the lyrics because they really only cared about Michael Stipe’s vocals). My sister Alison also falls into the melody category. She’s going through a classic rock phase: Blondie, ELO, Tom Petty, and Fleetwood Mac are all in her latest playlist. If you listen to these artists, the songs catch you because of their melodies.

I fall into the lyrics category. It’s the reason I love rappers like Kendrick Lamar and Childish Gambino as much as I love rock artists such as Arctic Monkeys, Bob Dylan, and Courtney Barnett. Songs grab me when their lyrics are startlingly clever, beautiful, and relatable. I SoundHound-ed the song “In A Black Out” by Hamilton Leithauser and Rostam Batmanglij because the line “Midnight where we used to dance / Underneath the ugly halogen lamps” stuck with me. Artists like Bon Iver and Fleet Foxes fascinate me because I can’t always understand what they are saying, but when I look up the lyrics, I’m stunned by the poetry. When I was little, I used to create my own lyrics from what I thought I heard. I thought, and I guess I still think, that the listener’s interpretation of a song is just as important as the artist’s.

To return to my earlier point, lyrics are not the only thing that moves me when I hear a song. The fourth category (and coincidentally the second thing that attracts me to a song) is the feeling or vibe. The best example is the genre I am currently obsessed with: dream pop. Dream pop is characterized by a particular atmosphere created in the song, often through gossamer vocals and special guitar effects. Classic examples of dream pop are Cocteau Twins, Mazzy Star, and My Bloody Valentine (some would rightly say they’re Shoegaze, though I’d argue that Shoegaze is a distinct branch of dream pop). More contemporary artists include Beach House, Alvvays, and Real Estate. I couldn’t figure out why I loved these artists; I didn’t find myself pondering their lyrics hours after listening. I realized I craved the atmosphere that this genre exudes; I desire this feeling as I take walks around campus at night or pull books for my job at the library, and I think this is what the vibes category is all about.

This theory I’ve described is becoming one of my favorite questions to ask people. So, reader, what are you? Are you lyrics, melodies, rhythms, or maybe vibes?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s