Can You Learn To Like Music You Don’t?

GH CT_Concert

Can you learn to like music you hate?  Research suggests you can.  But I’m a skeptic.  Country music?  NEVER.  And I’m a country boy (of sorts), having grown up in Arkansas and having spent summers and my college days in rural NW Arkansas.  The truth is, I probably could learn to like music I hate if I tried.   According to a research study, people react negatively to certain kinds of unfamiliar music.  They may not recognize a particular chord structure in the music and simply can’t hear and process it.  Researchers argue that it’s like encountering a foreign language for the first time. In the study, subjects with no musical background took a crash course on music theory and then listened again to music they had previously rejected.  On the balance, the “trained” subjects were better able to process dissonant chords.  Now this doesn’t mean they loved the music, but they apparently understood it better which is the first step toward acceptance.

This brings me to an interesting question:  how does one acquire musical taste?  Need one be a musician to enjoy a diverse palate of music? I submit that it helps, but is not a requirement.  Think of the language acquisition analogy.  Children consistently exposed to rich inputs of multiple languages in the home or school stand a much better chance of acquiring the languages (and without an accent) than children from monolingual backgrounds.

I can trace my own musical tastes to early exposure.  Jazz.  My dad used to come home from work and play jazz records – Miles Davis and Dave Brubeck were two artists I remember.  I didn’t really like the music much as a 6 year old, but I liked my dad.  I wouldn’t begin to listen to jazz in earnest until my late teens, but my dad paved the way.  Same is true of classical music.  I didn’t like it much growing up, but it was around me all the time.  My mother was a musician and music educator – still is.  She sang in church choirs and chamber orchestras. And she played the piano, as did my sister.  They played a lot of classical music.  As a kid, I took piano lessons from a  world class bell choir instructor and arranger and church organist.  This lasted about a year because my older sister, who also took lessons, was a much better keyboardist than I – plus I didn’t like being compared to her, or to practice.  The only thing I can play on the piano today is “Strangers in the Night” (with my right hand) and I learned that by myself before I began taking piano lessons.  I daydreamed and doodled a lot during church services as a kid, but when the church organist played, often Bach, the music dramatically soared out of hundreds of pipes and caught my attention.  I didn’t begin to seriously listen to and buy classical music until my 30’s, which was right around the time the CD was starting to compete with and overtake vinyl.

Commercial radio, the Midnight Special and American Bandstand probably influenced my tastes the most as a kid.  I worked throwing a paper route and mowing lawns to feed my thirst for records – 45’s, and LP’s.  One of my first 45’s was Stevie Wonder’s “You are the Sunshine of My Life” and one of my first albums was his landmark Innervisions, which ranks up there as one of my favorite LPs.   My dad turned me onto Joni Mitchell and Nick Drake in my mid-teens.  I felt some liberation from commercial radio when my sister brought home a Jeff Beck album, Blow by Blow.  And that led to my interest in jazz rock fusion, back to Miles and on to Weather Report and Herbie Hancock.  I discovered a lot of music on my own, often quite randomly; sometimes I bought an album of an unknown (to me) artist for the cover art or photography.  This is how I stumbled across the music of the Pat Metheny Group below:

Pat Metheny_Fayetteville AR 1984

I often joke that I have musical genes but no gift.  I may have an ear for music, but apart from some piano lessons at age 7, no formal training.  I owe my ability to appreciate and understand jazz and classical music to early and constant exposure.  I am proof that an average person can learn to like music that he previously rejected. But this process takes time, in my case, it took years.  Will I ever learn to love country and folk, rap and heavy metal?  Probably not due to the lack of early and consistent exposure; respect yes, love…love is such a strong word.

Here’s another self-indulgent look at the influences on my musical tastes:

  • Rock, Pop and R&B – Commercial radio, the Midnight Special, American Bandstand, Soul Train, friends, record stores and album covers
  • Jazz – my dad, my sister, Guitar Player magazine (the John McGlaughlin edition), KUAF, and a Miles record
  • Alternative and Punk – MTV, KUAF and KRFA DJ M.A.
  • Classical – my mom, ML Thompson, church organists, music appreciation class in college (an easy A),  Menotti’s Amhal and the Night Visitors and Star Trek
  • Blues – Muddy Waters with Eric Clapton one night in Pine Bluff, Arkansas
  • Industrial, Ambient, Minimalist and Odd Sounds – the drone of the industrial strength fan on a hot day in elementary school, church organists, WZBC and the laundry room at home where I used to chill and listen to the washer and dryer.

Sonically Charged CDs

Stereo Console 1965When I was a kid, we had this large stereo console that held my parents’ albums.  The turntable was kind of springy and the stylus tracked along with a tuft of hair as the record spun around; I guess the “brush” collected dust and provided a measure of protection for the stylus.  I was forbidden to touch the stereo, and was captive to my parents’ musical tastes.  We just had LPs – no 45s, until I was older and listening to top 40 on the radio in the 70’s.  I still remember some of those LPs – some of which I liked.  We had a lot of Broadway recordings:  Camelot, Fiddler on the Roof, West Side Story, the South Pacific and Oklahoma.  I also remember Amahl and the Night Visitors, which I despised because my mother and sister played it over and over especially during the weeks leading up to Christmas.  My dad’s music was a little more interesting.  He had a lot of Jazz records and used to come home from work, plop in a chair with a can of Shlitz and a Kool and listen to Stan Getz, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Ella Fitzgerald and Dave Brubeck.  dave-brubeckI used to hang out with him more to watch him blow smoke rings than to listen to the music.  I didn’t care too much for Jazz then, but love it today owing in large part to my early exposure.  Those records sounded good to me, but were they particularly good recordings?

Which brings me to the topic of this post – CDs that sound great.  Back in the 90’s (seems like only yesterday) when we bought our first CD player, I bought the CD version of many of my favorite LPs.  And I also wanted to build a Classical music collection, but could not afford to waste money on a potentially bad recording of say the Well-Tempered Clavier.  I also was looking for bold sonics to challenge our stereo system and turn our living room into Carnegie Hall.  In addition to Classical, I was interested in experimenting with new musics and stuff I knew but had never purchased, provided it sounded good.  I found two excellent guides to help me with this sonic challenge.  Stereophile puts out an annual Records 2 Die 4.  I scoured through the archives and found a handful of recordings I would later purchase, a sampling of which I will list at the end of this post.  I also went to the public library and several bookstores from time to time to thumb through the Penguin Guide to Classical Music and jot down what I thought I might like.  And here’s the sampling:

For pure sonic high fidelity Classical fireworks, these recordings are indispensable:

Mahler – Symphony #1 (Blumine) – James Judd, Florida Philharmonic Orchestra: Harmonia Mundi (Buckle up!)

Moussorgsky – Pictures at an Exhibition – Byron Janis: Mercury Living Presence (Wow!)

Rachmaninoff – Symphony #3; Symphonic Dances – David Zinnman, Baltimore Symphony Orch: Telarc (You’ll jump out of your seat! )

Tchaikovsky – Overture Romeo and Juliet; Symph #6 – Andrew Litton, Bournemouth Symp: Virgin Classics

For Jazz and other genres:


Bill Evans – Waltz for Debby (live – sounds like you’re there – best recorded acoustic bass I’ve ever heard)

Kruder Dorfmeister – The K&D Sessions (extreme bass and ultra chill music for after the party)

Pink Floyd – Dark Side of the Moon (but you knew already)

Steely Dan – Aja (ages like fine wine)

Jobim – Wave (an underrated classic)

Genesis – And Then There Were Three (check out Snowbound)