I have a very good friend who likes to think that his musical tastes are catholic. And indeed they are. Although he’s a bit of an ageing punk rocker and the vast majority of his musical preferences reflect this, he also likes Burt Bacharach, the Beach Boys, Stevie Wonder, Neil Young and many others. However, there are lots of people he doesn’t like. These include Queen, Keane, George Michael, Frank Sinatra and most classical music.
Musical taste and how one develops it has long fascinated me. I say this from the standpoint of someone who really does like everyone. Well not quite everyone. But the older I get the more difficult I find it not to spot at least one saving grace when I’m discovering a new piece of music. In my case age has expanded my tastes, which, I suppose, is to be expected.
I do draw the line at a few things. I’m not, for example, a fan of One Direction. This, however, is because I heard them massacre the Undertones’ ‘Teenage Kicks’ and Blondie’s ‘One way or another’ and felt completely disinclined to listen to anything else they had to offer. My ten-year-old daughter, however, who is certainly no one’s fool, seems to think they are pretty damn great. I have similar misgivings about the genre of rap as a whole. I like one or two artists, Eminem, for example, I think is really clever. But the rest of it I simply do not get. I’m pleased actually, because I’m 51 and I shouldn’t ‘get’ this type of music. It’s for young(er) people to get and to enjoy the fact that they possess something that the older generation do not understand. It’s the way it’s always been.
In my dad’s day he had Johnny Ray, whom his father hated. In my day I had punk, which my father despised. Nowadays rap is something that is not for me to like.
But I drift: the question I am asking myself is a simple but complex one. What is it that makes one like a piece of music?
I can attempt to answer this question as a series of bullet points:
• Chord structure
• Cultural significance
• Personal significance
Melody is definitely important. This doesn’t mean to say that a melody should be classically perfect, whatever that might mean. In actual fact, a really bad melody can also be very attractive.
Sometimes the beat of the music can transcend the melody or lyrics. Think Stevie Wonder’s ‘Don’t you worry about a thing’ or the Smiths ‘How soon is now?’. Think Barber’s sublime String Concerto.
Sometimes a song can be neither here nor there but the way that it is performed can raise it up a notch or two. A simple song such as ‘God save the queen’ by the Sex Pistols is a fair example of this. As is ‘Highway Star’ by Deep Purple on ‘Made in Japan’.
Here we step into muso territory because many people simply won’t be interested in chord structure. A good example of how chords can move is something like ‘Mucho Mungo’ by John Lennon. This song is only available on bootlegs and is pretty throwaway. But the descending chord structure (something Lennon did an awful lot) is simply lovely.
Sometimes a song can be pretty ordinary but the context can elevate it. Examples that spring to mind are ‘Free Nelson Mandela’ by the Special AKA, ‘Feed the world’ by Band Aid (a pretty awful song that sold millions) and ‘I am a cider drinker’ by the Wurzels. (That last one is a joke.)
This one’s a biggie because the worst piece of music in the world can become the best if, for example, you happened to have had your first kiss while listening to it. I have a whole list of sentimental favourites that include ‘Claire’ by Gilbert O’Sullivan, ‘Ernie’ by Benny Hill and ‘Europa after the rain’ by John Foxx. All of these songs (and many more) transport me to another time and place. Some even bring a tear to my eye. Sentimental old sod that I am.
On many occasions it’s almost as if lyrics are a bit of an afterthought. On other occasions it’s as if the lyrics came first and a tune was hastily created to accommodate. On the best occasions lyrics and melody share equal billing. Fine examples for me are ’10 x 8′ by Loudon Wainwright, ‘Dinner at eight’ by his talented son, and ‘What a wonderful world’ by the great Louis Armstrong.
So there it is. I’ve asked the question but I don’t think I’ve answered it at all well. Perhaps someone out there can offer some advice?