Published July 15, 2019 in Warp & Woof
What Does My Music Library Say About Me?
A Rebuttal to the Personality Link
Ever since I can remember, I’ve liked listening to music. My childhood was spent with a father who was a failed violinist in his youth. (He became an engineer.) But, while he never played for me, he was totally dedicated to the classical, mostly 19th century, orchestral catalogue. He took off from Paganini and didn’t stop until Heifetz. Listening to music was very serious business to him. It was clearly emotional. I inherited the emotional content, if not the literature.
For me, dramatic always trumped soothing. Heavy was generally better than light. I adored Beethoven — a love shared with my dad. Schumann, Berlioz, Brahms all get honorable mention. I liked the Russians, too – along with my mother – father not so much (no violinists).
Something happened to me culturally, however, when I got to high school, and obtained a driver’s license. With a little help from my friends, I discovered top 40 radio in the car. It became a social thing. My previous group of friends, intellectually precocious New York Jews, with holocaust survivor parents, had aided and abetted my classical predilections up to that point — although none of us ever played an instrument. Driving around listening to radio in the car became a liberating experience. Independence at last!
Social acceptance changed tone in college. There, the driving force seemed to be “what’s new.” And, then, what would come next. Thus, the avant-garde invaded my mind, with musical, artistic, and theatrical dimensions. Grafted onto that avant-garde sensibility was social awareness of a different world – an underclass world of black people. Blues and avant-garde jazz were, in my mind as a college student, part of the same “movement.” I had already gained an appreciation for the left from my New York Jewish friends in high school – college gave me the chance to integrate all that into an aesthetic that would become my own.
I still listened to classical music in college but replaced the 19th century romantics with baroque and more 20th century artists. I liked Shostakovich and Prokofiev symphonies.
After college, it became clear that the future lay with rock music. It was symbolic of the age, and drew from a fabulous, beautiful history of the great migration from the South to the industrial Midwest. Urban blues became my music. As it transmogrified into Chicago Blues or British Blues, it seemed to be part of an evolving tradition. A working-class artform.
I, too, became a worker. I may have been an intellectual worker, but a worker, nonetheless. Adding to that, I was slow to develop intimate relationships – adolescent “sturm und drang” didn’t disappear from my psyche until my late marriage at 35. By that time, I was dedicated to Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin. The revolution was still coming – in the future.
If there is anything at all to the psychological studies which claim to correlate musical tastes with personality, I might confess being a “systemizer” more than an “empathizer” – like my engineer father. This does tend to support the basic genres of music I like best. I prefer complex melodies and rhythms, and intense music.
One parameter for musical taste which is clearly bogus in my case is age. I’m still discovering new musical genres at age 71. I have only recently become a fan of heavy metal and punk/post-punk. It says something to me which is as valid now as it was when I was 20 or 25. I’ve never rejected my roots. Sadly, I never participated in creating music. But I still appreciate it.
Today the only time I listen intently to music is at the gym. This means I associate my music library with biofeedback (cardio) and may even use it for “productivity enhancement” (makes me pedal harder). This is a departure from my youthful serious listening, although that listening mode is still imprinted in my emotional affect. I still like sad songs (blues), especially when linked to social alienation and emancipation. I continue associating avant-garde with class struggle, opposing the mainstream.
When music stays “underground,” it is better than when it is commercially successful. I’ve never liked “soothing” or “easy listening” music of the pop world. I reject overly sentimental music, as it cheapens my own emotions. And, I steadfastly reject music with a conservative social message. Commercial Nashville usually epitomizes that — although I still enjoy some Rolling Stones anthems like “Ruby Tuesday” or “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” (both examples of Keith Richards lapsing into extolling market capitalism’s virtue).
Blues is good. The purity and depth of its sentiment is real. It’s mostly about struggle, as I see it. The world of rock, whether blues-based or more experimental (like heavy metal), strikes me as great when it features virtuoso musicians – vocalists, guitar players, drummers, especially. Harmonica and tenor sax can often give an extra treat to the ear, as well. They contribute a plaintive tone to a song.
But the beat must remain predominant. Even in experimental electronic forms, there must be an underlying regular, repetitive beat. Sometimes the beat gets lost but is heroically rediscovered in the denouement. Zeppelin were masters of this, especially “In My Time of Dying” and “Dazed and Confused”. “Noise rock,” like Sonic Youth, has tried the same approach – the beat must be at the heart of the song, even if lost in the middle.
Rock anthems continue to have an appeal to me. They seem to be hymns, crying “we shall overcome someday.” Often, they take the form of a personal story, but sometimes they preach. The underlying emotion is hopefulness, with a dash of triumphalism – arrived at mostly through resistance to malevolent forces. Two of my favorite anthems are from the Rolling Stones: “Gimme Shelter” and “Midnight Rambler.” The former is the preaching style, the latter more bluesy.
The singer-songwriter folk tradition also contributes much to my music library. But always a folk-rock beat and instrumental backup is added. Mumford and Sonsmade a big impression on me when they entered the scene about ten years ago. Banjo replaces lead guitar on their first two albums, but it’s unmistakably folk rock.
The main reason I can’t buy the link between personality and musical tastes is that my tastes are way too varied to be pigeonholed. Why would I want to define who I am, anyway? Different studies have come up with different dimensions of personality and music – there is an “extroversion” scale where the most outgoing folks like the music I like, but the introverted folks also like some of the music I like. The “neuroticism” dimension in different studies concludes that people who rank high in neuroticism like totally opposite kinds of music. Go figure.
I think it’s not about musical genres, but more the socio-cultural tradition you live in that determines your musical taste. Mine has been developing for 71 years. There’s quite a history behind it. If I share it with nobody else, I don’t care.