Why You Like It: the science and culture of musical taste- Nolan Gasser

                The second I saw this book on the shelf I wanted to read it. The question why I like the music I like has always fascinated me and I envisioned getting the answer here. I should have been forewarned. The author helped create the Music Genome Project on Pandora. Back in the pre-social media, pre-app days of the internet, I discovered Pandora using a website called Stumbleupon. I don’t know whether that site still exists, but at the time it was a great way to find cool websites that were related to my interests. I had a dreadfully dull job and needed to kill time.

                I was excited to discover Pandora because at the time it was billed not as a music streaming service alone, but as having a scientific process that would break down your tastes and recommend things based on the attributes of your songs. My first few forays were very disappointing. I was recommended songs that used techniques like ostinato or had major chords. These were true statements about the songs I liked, but what I found was that the entire cultural, personal, and psychological experience of a song was more important than the technical facts about its composition. The recommendations weren’t appealing.

                So, I shouldn’t have been surprised that Why You Like It wasn’t what I had hoped for. The first 300 pages read like a textbook on music theory, a fairly entertaining textbook, but a textbook, nonetheless. The technical terms came fast and furious and as soon as they were introduced, sometimes as many as a dozen on a page, they wormed their way into the text as if I had absorbed every one. This may have been a good explanation of music theory, but it was too dense for the light reading I was planning to do. I brought the book along with me on my trip to Alaska (at 600 pages it wasn’t a good choice for travel), and while I planned to be learning from it, I did not want to pause and take notes as I went. Thus, I was quickly swamped in sentences like “the distinction normally concerns the disposition of eighth notes within a 4/4 or 3/4 meter”. I’m sure many people with a musical background understand what this means, but for me as a reader breezing through a book on music, I began to skip these types of sentences. I wasn’t getting anything out of them. At one point, Gasser says, “in part this is a reflection of my confidence in your ability to process formal schemes.” Considering that I barely know how to parse this as an English sentence, I think that confidence was misplaced. Perhaps a book is a bad place to learn about time in music, or perhaps I could have gleaned more if I had treated the book like a textbook, but that wasn’t what I was there for.

                Which brings up another point. This book is filled with written music, which I can’t read and get almost nothing out of. Again, it’s just not the kind of time I was willing to invest. I would not recommend this book to anyone who doesn’t read music, at least not anyone with my completist mentality. It irks me to just leaf past pages that I can’t understand in much the same way I hate to skip equations in a book on science, but that was my only choice. That was at least, until I started using a Spotify as a companion to the book. When I had the time and the inclination, I played whatever song was being referenced. I still didn’t understand the music theory points being made, but at least I learned a few new pieces while I was reading.

                Halfway in, I began to enjoy the book a great deal more. Once the music theory bit was over, the author began a discussion of genres, why people like them, and gave the kind of information about the artists that I had really been looking for. I thought it was illuminating how honest the author was about the problems of classifying music and defining genres. He discusses pop, rock, classical, jazz, hip-hop, electronica, and world music. I realize now that country music is conspicuously absent, and that highlights the difficulties of classifying any music into any of these genres. What would count as country? Taylor Swift is discussed as pop, which seems correct to me, but she could easily be country as well. Clearly “world” music is the most problematic. What does that even mean? Apparently, it encompasses everything outside the Anglo world, meaning that a singer like Edith Piaf is world music. That seems nonsensical to me. My first thought was that it would mean things like gamelan or classical Indian that have completely different rules from western music. Instead, it seems to be a completely worthless category that captures almost every form of music on planet earth. When Sting has an Algerian singer back him on “Desert Rose” does that suddenly make it “world” music even though the song is completely western in every way? In fairness, Gasser does discuss this, but it really stuck in my craw regardless.

                Honestly, when it comes to musical taste, I think the book would have been much better served to have just talked about popular music. I may be outing myself as a philistine here but are there really non-musicians whose taste extends to things like jazz and classical? I listen to those and get some pleasure out of them, but I mostly do it to edify myself and because those genres are less distracting while I’m working. Don’t most people have those kinds of reasons for listening to non-pop music? I don’t know, but if I have my druthers and the music is the point, that’s all I listen to.

                The final chapters of the book focused on the sorts of things I really came in looking for. Finally, there was a mention of the personal psychological connections we form with music. In my untutored opinion, this is what really determines what we like, and that is the reason why the music genome project felt so lacking to me. How can a computer take a song you like because you listened to it on your first date with your wife and suggest something with a similar emotional valence? It’s impossible. Still, I wish the book had gone into greater detail about the locus of personality and musical taste. Gasser touched on it at the end and left it mostly unexplored. That would have been fascinating even if I don’t put much stock in personality type testing of any kind.

                My overall take on Why You Like it is that there are two ways to approach and enjoy this book. One way, which I think would be rewarding, is to get out a pad and pen, take notes, and treat this like a textbook or a class on music theory. You’ll learn a ton. But if you don’t have that level of investment or time, read it like you would read a particularly wooly popular science book. Don’t expect to understand everything, soak in what you can and don’t stress about what you don’t. While my read was a bit of slog, I did come out with a lot more musical knowledge than I started with. Of course, my baseline was pretty low to begin with so do with that knowledge what you will.