As much as musical taste is a highly personal thing, it’s maybe even more so, a social thing. From what I’ve seen in life, people usually start “seriously” listening to music in high school, and in making their first musical choices, such as which CDs to buy (when I was in high school, buying CDs was still a thing) the strongest influence have their friends. Many people choose to listen to certain types of music simply because it’s popular or cool (or maybe even because it’s unpopular, and listening to such obscure music defines you as a member of some “elite club”), not necessarily because they genuinely like it. However, over time and due to exposure effect and increased familiarity with a certain music genres, they usually start truly loving their chosen genre(s) or band(s).
This is completely normal to be influenced in such a way. I am not criticizing people for being influenced by friends. Why? Because when we start to explore music we have no clue. How is anyone supposed to know what they like, when they have had very little exposure to various genres? So it is completely logical to follow your peers and try listening to the same things they do.
I’ve also noticed that there are two main types of peer groups when it comes to music: the ones that don’t care much about music (and generally don’t exert much influence either), and the ones that are quite serious about music – they can exert a lot of influence on their members and the quality of such influence depends of how tolerant and open minded these groups are. Usually they are at least somewhat tolerant and open minded and want to explore quite a broad range of styles within certain genres, but they can also be very closed minded and impose rigid judgments and value assessments of certain genres and bands, and if you internalize such assessments they can become your own, even if you never rationally developed them.
In my personal case, I belonged to a group of friends that didn’t care that much about music. We’ve been simply friends and our musical preferences weren’t important for our friendship, and it wasn’t our defining characteristic. Yes, sometimes we talked about music, went to concerts together, etc… but it was in a very casual and relaxed way. So each of us, pretty much had their own tastes, independent of the group.
In such a situation the greatest musical influences on me were more personal, in sense of coming from a certain person directly, rather than from my peer group. The earliest influences were those of my uncle. He taught me that turbo-folk music is kitsch and to be avoided, and he also taught me to like 1980s music, mostly New Wave bands such as Simple Minds, Duran Duran, Depeche Mode, and some hard rock bands such as Guns N’ Roses. Some of his influence took root, so I still love Guns N’ Roses and there’s one Simple Minds song that I really love: Belfast Child.
Some other influences include my best friend who introduced me to music of Azra and Hladno Pivo (very famous Croatian rock bands, and very good too), and my musical education teacher in primary school who introduced me to classical music. That’s pretty much all when it comes to social influences on my music tastes.
Other ways of shaping our tastes are random discoveries, the media and the internet. When it comes to random discoveries, in the 1990s it was very popular in countries of Ex-Yugoslavia to buy pirated CDs and cassettes in the streets. Being a kid without much knowledge, I’ve bought some cassettes by pretty much random choice. One of them was The Best of Eros Ramazzotti, a compilation album by a famous Italian pop singer. I liked this music a lot, and who knows, maybe this early influence was, at least subconsciously, one of the factors that lead me to start learning Italian later in life.
When it comes to the influence of media, I think it was more important in the past than today, because now people often find music on the Internet, and on the Internet you have more choice, you don’t have to listen to the songs that are on air. Though, it might also be an illusion of choice, something that I will explain later. Anyway, around 2002, I was quite addicted to MTV. At that time, their programming still included a decent amount of music videos. I was 15 at that time. The only band I developed a lasting fondness for in that period was Red Hot Chili Peppers. In 2002 they released their album By The Way, and the leading single of the same name, included a very interesting video:
Other media influences include movies. For example in the movie Sivi Kamion Crvene Boje (Red Colored Grey Truck) there is a scene in which a female character that seemed rather cool to me sings the song “Paradise City” by Guns N’ Roses. This reminded me of the earlier exposure to that band with my uncle, and I decided to research them further. Only then I started really liking them.
Finally there is the Internet. On the Internet you can find whatever you want, but only if you know what to type in the search box. Still considering myself rather clueless about music, when I started researching music online I wanted to give myself some solid grounding about various genres, history of music, etc. So I typed things like “Greatest Albums Ever”, “Greatest Songs Ever”… that kind of thing. So I discovered certain music lists. Of the lists I encountered, probably the strongest influence on me had The Rolling Stone 500 Greatest Songs of All Time list. Over time I listened to most of the songs on the list. However such format… just a list… is a bit too impersonal… so much fantastic stuff, maybe too much, so that you can’t give your proper attention to individual songs and artists and develop a genuine connection to them. Yet I still like the list, but I consider it just a reference.
In my attempt to gain some solid grounding about music, maybe the greater effect was, again, from finding some music in physical places. In 2006, I bought some albums of The Beatles, Queen and AC/DC. That’s when I was able to give them my full attention. And that’s when I displayed some real personal preferences. For example, I realized that I prefer later albums of The Beatles, which include more psychedelic elements to their early albums. At that time, the more psychedelic the better, that was my main preference. And I also liked songs with developed melodies and rich texture. For example I liked stuff like this:
The following year (2007), I started exploring classical music as well. It started rather randomly… while I was studying in Belgrade, I entered a CD shop that was really well supplied with all sorts of CDs, and some classical music caught my eye. The CDs were rather pricey so I taught, if I am going to pay that much for it, why not buy something that stood the test of time? So I tried to remember some music lessons from school, and I reminded myself that the Baroque was maybe the first “large” and important period in classical music, so I bought some CDs from Bach, Handel and Vivaldi. (The Goldberg Variations, Brandenburg Concertos, Orchestral Suites, Art of Fugue, The Messiah, Four Seasons etc)…At that time I realized that I really like classical music. Later I explored music from other periods as well. But you know what… there is so much to explore, and I just scratched the tip of the iceberg. So I am still rather clueless, but I can say, at least at this point, that Beethoven is probably my favorite composer. I enjoyed all of his symphonies, some string quartets, and some piano sonatas. But it’s maybe just 15% of his total work. So, even when it comes to my favorite composer, I’ve explored quite a little so far.
Being clueless is a good thing actually. It means there’s so much more good stuff to discover. But being clueless also sucks. Having musical tastes is more about knowing yourself, rather than having knowledge about music. Certain song being “the greatest ever” means a little for you if it doesn’t strike a certain chord in your being. Of course you can still appreciate it, but if you don’t truly connect to the song, this appreciation will stay on intellectual, and maybe esthetic level, and it will not reach deep emotional level. If you don’t have defined tastes, you don’t know how to find more music for yourself, and exploration without at least some direction is very difficult, because there are countless oceans of music to discover. How to navigate it without a compass? Building your own compass consists in making certain statements that you think are mostly true for you and which can help you orient in the ocean. In my case that would be:
- I like symphonic classical music, chamber music and piano music
- I don’t like opera
- I like relaxing chill-out music and reggae
- I like high energy, feel-good hard rock music
- But I don’t like extreme metal genres
- I like some types of Electronic Dance Music, but I find most of it too repetitive and soulless.
- Generally I don’t like hip-hop. There are some exceptions.
- I like all sorts of psychedelic music.
- I like progressive rock, long guitar solos etc.
- I like many types of the traditional, folk and ethnic music from around the world, but I despise the term “world music”.
When you have some sort of compass this can help you in further explorations, but it shouldn’t be a limiting factor, some flexibility is always good to have, and also willingness to explore uncharted territories and even the genres that you think you dislike. It might be that you just haven’t given them chance.
However, even with the compass, it’s still very hard to explore music alone, on your own. Here is why. Some songs can become meaningful to you only when listened in a certain company. And when you listen it with certain people, you remember it better. You don’t remember just the music itself, but you associate it with people you listened it with and with your shared experiences. So even a “bad song” can be more meaningful for you than a great symphony, if it reminds you of some precious moments with some people. Also, if you like someone, and they recommend some stuff to you, just because of their recommendation, the music can get additional layers of meaning for you. That’s why those peer groups that are quite serious about music usually have a positive influence, even if they are sometimes dogmatic and closed minded: they create an environment in which exploring music is a social experience. Even if they are limited just to one genre, they dig deeply into it. And in such environment you get deeply connected not just to music, but also to people you share your musical explorations with.