Musical Taste and Conversion Therapy

I've long held that virtually all the different types of art are open to anyone, that you can, for instance, come to embrace music you used to hate if you just give it a little effort. I've taken most people's denial of this as evidence of their own self-ignorance or bullheadedness or lack of ability to feel: a willfull blindness (or deafness, in this case) to some area of human experience that they should feel a little embarrassed about at least. I find my attitude especially rare among musicians, who in their own self-editing tend to hone their tastes to a fine point and dismiss anything that violates the rules of their own creations as crap. Admittedly in such cases musicians will often take a looser attitude towards music of a fundamentally different type than that which they create, so that a rocker might not have such strong opinions about opera even if funk or country are roundly dismissed as being inadequate, non-rockin' forms of rock. The more similar in some respects the music is to what they like, the more the violations of their particular aesthetic ideals will be seen as offensive.

Of course this little theory of mine is hardly scientific: it is not falsifiable, for one thing, in that if anyone tries to get into something new and fails, I can just blame them and/or the content of the particular work in question, e.g. Nazi folk songs are just going to be off the table for some people no matter how jaunty the songs may be, and it's hardly a character flaw that someone can't just "get past" the lyrics in such a case.

In our Santayana episode, I got another challenge to my non-theory here: Santayana agrees with me that appreciation of a work is a matter of a matter of a reaction between the spectator and the work (and not just purely a matter of whether the work is any good or the spectator's "taste" where there's nothing more to be said about this), and also agrees with me that the overall quality of a work best determined not by how widely it is appreciated but by the quality of the appreciation of those who love it best, but he doesn't agree with me that people can change what they like and don't. Given how deeply Santayana goes into the mechanics of appreciation, there's a lot more he could have said had he considered this question directly: to what extent is "musical conversion therapy" possible?

I like this new term for getting to like a new band because of its associations with the notoriously misguided conversion therapy for sexual preference. If musical taste is more biological, as Santayana sometimes makes it sound, then no such conversion in taste should be possible, but surely we all have the experience of getting to like something over time (in the area of food too!), even if we don't conclude from that that ANYTHING can be appreciated over time from that experience.

Santayana gives us the tools to address this question in his analysis of a work as involving form, matter, and expression (i.e. associations), even if on a closer look these categories tend to blend together.

"Form" is the part that Santayana most applauds, and is on his account the most open to refinement. If you learn some musical theory, you'll likely appreciate complicated classical music like Stravinsky or Mahler more than otherwise. While these composers do have their visceral side so that such education often isn't needed, it can help one "get it."

"Matter" has to do for music with the quality of the sounds themselves. Orchestral strings playing a full chord sound nice, whereas a weenie synth sound lacks that warmth, with all the overtones, and the complexity that comes out of 20+ violins (or voices) all playing the same thing but with slight variations. So can one "learn" to like the thinner sound? Will it somehow get more lush with repeated listenings? No, but one can adjust one's expectations and learn to ignore some deficiencies of this sort by paying more attention to other aspects, even other aspects of the matter. So if we're talking about cheesy 1981 techno music, maybe it's a matter of focusing on the beat (we were unclear in the discussion whether the beat counts as form or matter, but who cares), the melody, the singer's persona, or the way the different synth lines fit together rather than merely getting turned off by a horrid synth string (or, worse, syntho horn!) sound and/or a cheap drum machine.

"Expression" is everything not covered by the above. So the drum machine may not have a nice sound in itself, but if it evokes the mechanical (Devo, anyone?), then that can be part of its "statement," not just in delivering a satiric or otherwise meaningful message, but in shaping how we feel in reaction to the music. A singer's voice may not evince the quality of tone (matter) that would be ideal, but may sound more "human" (Paul Simon's talk-singing comes to mind) or make be calculated to evoke a character that is interesting in some way.

Expression is the thorniest area when it comes to differing and evolving tastes. If a song relies on its lyrics for its appeal, and I don't speak its language (literally or figuratively, as when I just don't get the appeal of "thug culture" and so can't get into gangsta rap), then I'm not going to like it. Can I get over that by learning? Maybe or maybe not. Satire in particular relies on cultural touchstones to appreciate: if you're not similarly annoyed by the machine that the artist is raging against (say, because you're just not familiar with it or it wasn't rammed in your face when you were growing up), you're not going to sympathize with the work.

Expression is in most cases purposefully complex, such that it may be really hard to figure out, when you don't get a work, what it is exactly that you're not getting. I think a lot of it really can't even be put into words: through repeated listenings, you have to feel your way around to gain comfort in this new environment and try to find connections to things you do appreciate, even if these were not connections intended by the artist. There are often lots of "ways in" to a musical genre or particular artist or work. I tend to glom onto particular artists, such that once I get a paradigm model of how great their work can be by really connecting with one album or even a song, then I can listen to other things and try to see them as children born within the same family, such that if one seems especially ugly, I can try to figure out why: what was different about that album, that song? Was it the token contribution by the guitarist who doesn't usually write songs, and so coming from a completely different place than the rest of the album? Was it a failed experiment whose intentions, at least, one can appreciate? Was it drawing on some arguably goofy musical influence that the songwriter usually doesn't let surface so overtly?

With expression involved, music appreciation becomes sociology: Is the music baudy? Geeky? Down home? Is it real, it it authentic according to some model of authenticity you can understand and related to? And again, it's one thing to step back and respect different musical goals and forms in the way you'd "appreciate" different cultures, but it's another to actually jump in and surrender (at least temporarily) to the aesthetic itself, which, again, may involve building ways of relating to the material that even run counter to the attitudes of the creators themselves.

Beyond being interesting in itself, thinking about music appreciation in these terms can help inform the question of why people embrace or reject philosophies, apart from rational grounds whereby arguments are impartially dissected, as if "impartiality" in this sense were any more than an empty ideal and a lot of the work weren't being done on a pre-rational level, as discussed in our Deleuze episode.

We're currently in discussions about a potential music-oriented episode whereby we'd subject ourselves to this kind of conversion therapy (OK, whether the other guys will tolerate me pushing far-out music onto them). Given that it's a wholly different mode of taking in new material than reading difficult texts, it'll be interesting to see whether I can get the other guys to jump into it with both feet.

-Mark Linsenmayer


  1. Randall Miron says

    Sometimes music conversion can happen with no effort, accidentally. You here a song without knowing who’s doing it and when you find out you say “I thought I didn’t like them”.

    Something similar happened to me with the comic Louis C.K. For whatever reason, I initially took a dislike to this guy. One day I was not looking at the TV but I found myself laughing at some of this comic’s jokes, not recognizing L. C. K.’s voice. When I entered the room and saw him, I was surprised and concluded that my dislike probably hadn’t been based on his act but on …? Didn’t like his beard? Don’t know. But after that I was able to take a more open attitude and actually listen with a different ear. Not that he became a fave, but I could get some laughs where I couldn’t (or wouldn’t?) before.

    • Profile photo of Seth Paskin says

      I’ve totally had this experience. I generally try to be generous when approaching philosophy and people but can be very opinionated about food, movies, etc.

      Particularly when my blood sugar is low.

  2. Profile photo of Leland Gregory says

    Sometimes an insightful person with a different perspective can convert me. This happened with the film “The Fountain.” I absolutely hated it until one of my friends was so excited about it. I took the principle of charity (if my intelligent, film-loving friend loves it, there might be something there) and adopted his perspective of it. After seeing it through that lens, something clicked and it’s one of my favorite films ever.

    In the same vein, I remember reading recently (on the blog here probably) that being exposed to certain artworks even one time gives the viewer a preference for that art over art they have never experienced. This gives a little credence to the idea that art is all in the eye of the beholder, that it can be programmed as it were. And taken a step further, repeated exposure gives way to certain insights and a close appreciation, sometimes you need to get very familiar with all the pieces to appreciate the connections. I liked this line Mark: “you have to feel your way around to gain comfort in this new environment and try to find connections to things you do appreciate.” I find this xkcd explains it extremely well:

    On the other side of the coin, I feel like there’s some aesthetic appreciation that’s completely natural, such as tonal music, the sound of rushing water, the view of a sunrise, etc. It seems hardwired into us to prefer such environments and natural sounding things, and that doesn’t seem too far-fetched to me given the habitats we evolved in.

  3. Profile photo of Evan Gould says

    Man oh man. I love this topic. Attempting conversion therapy with others has been (I can only assume) a pretty annoying obsession of mine in my earlier years. I will still try to selectively evangelize new discoveries with certain people. But I have learned to curtail that tendency. Why do I care so much? I think the driving motivation I have is a desire to communicate intimately with friends and family some of my more visceral emotional experiences. I have wondered if “communication” is a proper term. I have to think that it’s not too naive of me to think that the artists themselves are fairly faithfully communicating some specific types of “Emotional Qualia” that do not regularly manifest themselves by other methods. Just as we can all point to a color and assume a pretty consistent experience between different beholders, and maybe to a lesser extent more complex (but common) emotional states like love, I have a stubborn intuition that if only (IF ONLY) someone would just open up a bit, they might understand what it is that causes in me a much more rare (and maybe somewhat conglomerate?) qualitative experience. And there is one puzzle of many right there. HOW is it the case that many many people seem so indifferent to this mode of inducing emotional experience? I tend to think that they are simply not having analogous experiences at all.

    This may not be profound at all, but I believe there is a certain psychological constitution that may have to do at base with anxiety levels in some way. I feel like I do not generally define myself with a list of negative judgements about most things, whereas others are more contented with different (smaller?) sets of habits and interests. They therefore circumscribe the world with lists of things they “don’t like”. I, however, am not contented in that way. I need ever growing lists of things that I “like”. With regard to music, that means a lot of purposeful listening. And once in a blue moon, I’ll stumble onto something that is actually momentous for me. The last time that happened was when I listened with not much more than curiosity to Joanna Newsom’s Ys album a few times until it hit me and I wore it out over the next six months or more. But no matter how I tried, I could never get anyone to like that album, despite many conversion therapy trials.

    But aside from the Absent Qualia question, and among other questions, I do enjoy trying to put a finger on what it is about different pieces of music that successfully resonates with me and causes those emotional responses.

    Most recent example (and fairly accessible I would think):

    Another recent discovery (and terribly inaccessible): There must be a thousand albums of similar garbage out there. Why did I listen to this repeatedly for a week or so?

    It could be a fun and interesting podcast to attempt converting each other to different music and to try to put into words your responses to different things.

  4. Profile photo of Alexander Johannesen says

    This is one topic I struggle with on a daily basis, because a) I love music few love, and b) hate – absolutely hate and loathe! – pop music, which c) is pumped out everywhere you go (including the office I sit in with someone’s radio on). It drives me mental!

    And I often can’t understand this great divide. What’s not to love in the sublime opera’s of Monteverdi and Handel? Who wouldn’t orgasm in a vesper by Bencini? Who could possibly not be crying during Lamenta della Nimfa? Or get your freak on in the spectacular Battalgia by my hero Biber? ( … and yes, it’s not the Bieber you’re thinking of, which annoys me to no end) Or during that amazing end duet in Poppea? Or, to shift completely, the painfully beautiful music of Arve Henriksen? Or David Sylvian? Or the obscure John Cage or minimalist music in general?

    In short; I hate pop, rock, hip-hop, rap, thump-thump-thump-4-chords-noise, electronica, whatever … that “music” coming from the radio. Can’t stand it. I used to, though, when I was younger, but my journey through the musical landscape just took a strange turn somewhere along the way, and I don’t understand why more didn’t come the same way with me? Surely anyone would prefer the subliminally and wonderful complex/simplex over simplistic and far too cliche hits-over-the-head-with-a-iron-bar?

    I feel the same way about thinking, which is why I’m a PEL citizen, I think. I prefer the complex, and I don’t know if it’s simply that I prefer music that “means” something more than the obvious?

    I do have a theory, though. We’re pattern-seeking mammals, and we reinforce patterns for their familiar nice feeling, which is the way we learn things. If the patterns are too far from current patterns we get a slightly more negative slant on it, and won’t learn it as well. I think the initial patterns (and these are influenced by more than just sounds; emotions, smells, sights, touch, thoughts, the whole shebang) more or less shape the way you prefer new patterns in the future, imprinting your preference over and over until all other patterns you now no longer prefer are but mere ghosts of the past. And I think the more those initial patterns are exposed to variety, the more variety you will have a preference for. I grew up in the 80’s where the variety of music simply exploded, and mixed with some smatterings from what I heard from my father (a musician, although jazz, fusion and funk) I just landed where I am thanks to a few coincidences I can think of (medieval re-enactment, playing percussion, and Norwegian folk music choir and theater) where new impressions had a positive impact and I never looked back.

    As to some things being innate or naturally aesthetic … I’m pretty sure it’s a cultural thing. I’m sure the first time you heard Indian music you didn’t “get it”. Unless you’re Indian, but then the first time you heard Joik? Unless you’re Sami, but then the first time you heard Bulgarian trad? And so on.

    Hat tip: Ginastera “Concerto for strings”, full volume. You can thank me later. :)

  5. Profile photo of Jason Durso says

    “Beyond being interesting in itself, thinking about music appreciation in these terms can help inform the question of why people embrace or reject philosophies…”

    I think that this would lead to an extremely interesting episode. Frederic Jameson’s “Reification and Utopia in Mass Culture,” despite being primarily about ideological signifiers in film, briefly touches on the ways in which music is also subject to the same sort of conceptual “inward turn”:
    “The passionate attachment one can form to this or that pop single, the rich personal investment of all kinds of private associations and existential symbolism which is the feature of such attachment, are fully as much a function of our own familiarity as of the work itself; the pop single, by means of repetition, insensibly becomes part of the existential fabric of our own lives, so that what we listen to is ourselves, our own previous auditions” (,%20Reification%20and%20Utopia.pdf p. 138)

    I think that this sort of model can still apply to music outside of the pop single, so long as that music is historically and contextually situated and analyzed not as a set of signifiers which somehow point towards some sort of real “expression,” but rather as significations on the act of signifying itself. Music’s potential power over individuals is, I believe, connected to our own understandings of how we understand musical symbols as they relate to our own experiences. I think that Alexander’s comment about pattern recognition could very well be part of this, but it’s equally possible to come across an almost entirely unfamiliar song and nonetheless draw very deep conclusions about the “meaning” of the song, even a song without lyrics. I also think that even if we don’t “like” music, it’s still due to private associations with symbolic structures, not due to some sort of totalizing unfamiliarity. If the “performance” (be it a concert or an Mp3) is more than simply recognition, and in many ways a new “performance” every time we hear it, then the changing element of musical recognition is clearly not the song itself, nor the overarching society, but rather the individual listener’s understanding of ideological signifiers.

    I think a good text to accompany these songs would be a chapter or two from Eagleton’s “The Ideology of the Aesthetic,” in which the case is made for artistic structures to be understood as signifiers of signifiers, rather than expressions of a Lacanian “Real”. This would tie in well to the Deleuze notion of “immanence,” and shifts music away from being seen as a purely aesthetic experience into the realm of internal representation.

    I’m excited to hear this episode! I hope you can do a few more blog posts leading up to it.

  6. Aldemar Sesmundo says

    Hip hop or rap is significant because it is the culture of society’s unacknowledged. Ronald Reagan’s worst nightmare. Much like punk/grunge scene that sprang up during those times. The point is that it’s anti establishment at its core and in a way, both hopeless and pointless. It was born in places where there is no sense of pulling oneself from one’s own bootstraps (ghettos) and where there is no sense of really escaping ever; like prison outside of prison. Morality itself is turned on its head in such places; the badder, the better. Pimps and drug dealers are lovable hustlers and gangsters are branded survivors; in the eyes of people from the ghettos. Just my thoughts if u want to get turned on to the power of gangsta rap specifically (there’s lots of other kinds of softer, pleasurable rap), listen to NWA straight outa Compton album and listen in the context of the Rodney king police beating riots. It’s a great place to start and it will make you want to punch stuff, really it will. If the things said is offensive to your ears; then you’re listening properly. BTW I really enjoy your guys’ podcast. It’s pure knowledge and entertainment at the same damn time.

    • dmf says

      funny I always thought that NWA was all about making something from scraps and contraband and that there was no exit for any of us as the ghetto is the canary in the coalmine.

      • Aldemar Sesmundo says

        NWA is about that (drug dealing) amongst other terrible subjects and is just one of the many voices that expressed a certain kind of rage. You know, are they supposed to feel good or happy about the bad stuff going on around them? The conditions that existed before they were born. They learned to love/live with it and now its the norm; it’s backwards but what else are they to do? “No one seems to give a shit so why should we” type of attitude; sort of juvenile (I must say). But it’s accurate because really, no one does. Turn on the TV; it’s obvious. Rap is expression of a world that is perpetually worsening. Society will have to deal with this at some point in time. Maybe we will all grow out of it (ignorance/apathy) eventually; it’s all we could hope for. I feel everyone needs to be on the same page in order for everyone to love/live/grow together. It could happen and it most definitely should.

        And now this:

        To not perpetuate the lovable evil that is gangster rap and to gain some perspective on how good/thoughtful rap could be: (this is not gangsta rap)

        • Profile photo of Daniel Cole says

          Pretty much agree with this…I live in Memphis, the land of Grammy award winners Three Six Mafia, whose radio hits are interspersed with over a decade of songs actively promoting rape, violence and mindless self aggrandizement. Their local fame was cemented when the white suburban youth discovered them as a kind of badge of courage, and then slowly spread based on a few radio hits and the general rise of attention to horror core rap. I constantly read crafty intellectual attempts by people trying rescue the music from it’s own subject matter. It’s truly unreal, some of the arguments I’ve seen put forward, for instance, that the whole thing is meant to be ironic (perhaps they’ve all been doing an Andy Kaufman sort of act since 1994?).

          At the same time, we’ve got other local groups and individuals trying to make truly interesting hip hop in an environment where only the scuzziest gangster shock-rap stuff can gain any traction because it’s what’s “real”. Sort of begs the question whether all art is worth appreciating.

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