Music appreciation

Just some idle thoughts on the practice of music appreciation based on personal experience. I’ve searched briefly, and there is a lot of scholarly work on this subject, but I have not read it. Perhaps in the future I will read about it and learn that I was wrong.

Fast and slow hedonic curves

In music, there is the concept of the hedonic curve. At first, when you listen to a piece of music, you may not get it. But as you hear more of it, your appreciation may grow and grow. But eventually, the novelty may wear off, and you want to move on to something else.

My anecdotal theory is that different people experience the hedonic curve on different timescales. Some people may go through the hedonic curve very quickly, while others go through it very slowly. If you go through the hedonic curve very quickly, you may frequently seek new things, and eventually learn to love an eclectic list of genres. If you go through the hedonic curve very slowly, you may be the kind of person who mostly sticks to one genre, and finds a handful of things to listen on repeat.

These two classes of music-likers tend to be associated with different genres of music. People with fast hedonic curves are associated with obscure, experimental, or weird genres, while people with slow hedonic curves are associated with big popular genres, such as pop.

I think obscure, experimental, or weird music may be associated with slower hedonic curves. It takes more time to appreciate stuff that’s weird, and longer for the novelty to wear off. In contrast, pop music is associated with faster hedonic curves. Pop is meant to be appreciated immediately, but some people get tired of it too quickly. The cultural saturation of pop also pushes a faster hedonic curve–since most of us grew up with it, we’re granted the tools to quickly appreciate it.

Essentially, people with fast hedonic curves tend to seek out music with slow hedonic curves, and people with slow hedonic curves tend to prefer to music with fast hedonic curves. In a way, the experimental music-likers of the world are simply seeking a musical experience that other people have already just by listening to pop.

The barrier of musical genre

I’m speaking from the perspective of someone who really goes for experimental and obscure music. So it’s no surprise that I occasionally try to learn and appreciate new genres.

Most attempts are unsuccessful. For example, I have had some passing interest in learning to appreciate Gamelan music. I’ve heard recordings and thought, “This is great, I really like this.” But then I hear another recording and think “Oh, this is just the same as the first one”. At first, this may appear to contradict the hedonic curve theory–my obstacle to appreciating Gamelan appears to be that the hedonic curve is way too fast. But I think I’m only appreciating the broad-stroke differences between Gamelan and western music, while most of the finer details are going way over my head. On the most basic level, there are two distinct traditions of Gamelan (Javanese and Balinese), but so deep is my ignorance that I do not know the difference in sound.

It is difficult to learn what to listen for in a genre that is so distant from our own musical traditions, and I am humbled by my inability to appreciate it.

Some musical genres, I suspect, are very difficult to appreciate because they’re built for different listening practices. I’m thoroughly embedded in the practice of listening to recorded music. I purchase musical recordings, and I listen to those same recordings over and over. I come to appreciate things that are not apparent on the first listen, and which may be specific to that particular recording.

But there are a lot of other ways of listening to music–live performances, streaming, dancing, and so on. Even within a single format, there are many variations–for example listening to albums is different from listening to singles, and listening attentively is different from listening while working is different from listening while commuting.

These different listening practices have implications on the hedonic curves. For example, attentive listening is more likely to burn through the hedonic curve (so I learned to listen attentively at first, and then listen in the background later). For another example, if you’re listening to radio, or streaming random music, it’s okay if the hedonic curve is very fast because you’re just moving on to the next thing.

And then there’s classical music, which predates musical recordings entirely. I don’t think I will ever appreciate classical music in the classical way, because I do not go to concerts. And even when I have gone to classical concerts, I can always find recordings of the music on demand, and have been reliant on those recordings in order to better understand the music. And oddly enough, today’s lovers of classical tend to listen to recordings of the same pieces over and over–I’m sure they are appreciating it in a very different way than contemporary listeners would have appreciated it.

Perhaps that speaks to the flexibility of music, and how we can appreciate the same music under diverse listening contexts. But more often than not, I find differences in listening practices to be a huge barrier. I’m willing to listen to music over and over until I “get” it, but I suspect that for a lot of music, listening to it over and over simply isn’t the correct approach. It certainly doesn’t work for pop music.

Among “sophisticated” music listeners like me, there is definitely an elitist instinct to look down upon popular genres as too simple or boring. My thoughts may be speculative, but my hope is to dissolve the elitist instinct. Though it comes easily to other people, for me it is *challenging* to appreciate genres like pop, hip hop, country, and classical, due to differences in listening practices and hedonic curves.


  1. Katydid says

    I think “popular” music is a cover term for a lot of genres. For every performer who can actually sing and has interesting and varied melodies, there are 10 like Britney Spears who caterwaul and marble-mouth off-key, or simple-minded, misogynist, and off-key autotuned hell like Taylor Swift. I can’t make it through their songs even once.

  2. says

    Indeed, when I say “popular” music, I’m using that consciously to describe more than just “pop”. Pop is a genre that emphasizes professional production and singable tunes–and that’s what you’re thinking about when you refer to Britney Spears or Taylor Swift. But according to some industry reports, the most popular genre isn’t even pop, it’s hip-hop/R&B.

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