How can I really determine my own taste in music?

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How can I really determine my own taste in music?

Post by Dolmetscher007 »

*WARNING* This post might get a little over-thinky and more than a little "meta". Please try not to fling back some over-simplified response, like... "Dude... you think too much." or "It's only rock n roll man. Relax."

The subject line of this topic probably sounds a little strange. Here is what I mean by it. I'm a 43 year old guy who grew up with music as the center of my life. It started out as a little youngster with things like the Footloose soundtrack and Michael Jackson's Thriller, then I moved into loving Guns n' Roses, and most of the 80's rock bands on Mtv. When I was 15-16 years old, however, my whole world changed when I was introduced to Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins, The Lemonheads, Dinosaur Jr. Juliana Hatfield, Sebadoh, Sugar, Soul Asylum... basically all the stuff that was called Grunge and/or "Alternative." I don't think I had any kind of special or out of the ordinary taste in music for a typical American kid of the 1990s. The problem is... I just still love it all. I love Prince as much as I love Metallica. I could listen to Sunny Day Real Estate all day, and, then pivot to Lady Gaga and be pumped about it. Daft Punk is just as cool to me as The International Noise Conspiracy. And electronic Radiohead sits right alongside James Taylor and Snoop Dodd in my Spotify playlist.

I've been a guitar player since for ~30 years. When I sit down to play, I end up playing everything from ABBA covers, to old Derrick and the Dominos. When I was a teenager all the way up through my 30's I was in a band with guys who were song writers. Since I had such a musical breadth from having such a broad background, I was extremely good at adding licks, or re-arranging some things, or changing a lyric here or there to really bring all their songs together. It was always a kind of joke that I was the best songwriter who never wrote a song.

The truth was I have written songs. I used to write them all the time years ago. But... lately... meaning... in the past 10 years or so... I have not been in a band at all, and I haven't completed a single song. My biggest problem is... I have no idea why kind of music I REALLY REALLY like. It is extremely easy for me to tell you what I do NOT like... but other than soulless cliche modern country music, and garbage pop... I probably like it. I even like a lot of "garbage pop" like Justin Timberlake, Lady Gaga, some Katy Perry, Lorde, etc.

Anyway... does anyone of you guys have any kind of online course, or book, or any other kind of solid resource for helping a guy like me with genre overload, tap into what he really wants to create when it comes to writing songs?
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Re: How can I really determine my own taste in music?

Post by desmond »

I think many musicians will have similar stories. When you fall in love with music, it's an infinite playground of new experiences, and you just find it fascinating - and as a musician, writer, engineer or producer (or all of those things) there is still much to extract even from songs, bands and material that you don't particularly like.

I don't think I could easily sum up in a single sentence what I like. I could go into micro detail about various things I love, and why, and what they mean to me, and what part of my life was happening when that music hit me - and so I'm sure could every person here. I think that's a pretty normal experience everyone has, to various degrees, with music.

However, for people who *make* music, though, there is another, different factor, and that's your "voice". That is something that happens when you merge and blend your influences, your likes, dislikes, tastes, and abilities, and make music, write songs and so on. It's a result of your brain using it's experience and taste to be creative and make something new, while drawing on those influences.

This can take a while to emerge - it something that really only happens over time. And your voice is influenced by the people you work with. Your voice in a band might be different to your voice doing solo material. And a band itself has an emergent property of this voice of the band that will arise when you work together enough.

So maybe the problem you're touching on is not so much what your taste is, and how to categorise what you like to listen to, but whether you've found, or have yet to find, your "voice"...? (Also a common problem with people who have spent a lot of time playing other peoples' music.)

You will only find it by doing it, and if your need to categorise interferes or paralyses with the ability to create, then you're either not in the right mindset, or in the right environment to make music. Changing those things might help.
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Re: How can I really determine my own taste in music?

Post by CS70 »

Dolmetscher007 wrote: The truth was I have written songs. I used to write them all the time years ago. But... lately... meaning... in the past 10 years or so... I have not been in a band at all, and I haven't completed a single song. My biggest problem is... I have no idea why kind of music I REALLY REALLY like. It is extremely easy for me to tell you what I do NOT like... but other than soulless cliche modern country music, and garbage pop... I probably like it. I even like a lot of "garbage pop" like Justin Timberlake, Lady Gaga, some Katy Perry, Lorde, etc.

Anyway... does anyone of you guys have any kind of online course, or book, or any other kind of solid resource for helping a guy like me with genre overload, tap into what he really wants to create when it comes to writing songs?

Join the club my friend. Similar age (you're a little younger), similar path, similar like it all tastes. I happily switch from Bach to Metallica passing by some Italopop and hip hop.

What do you really like? You like it all. Music is like that - everything that has a melody, that strikes an emotion.. it's good music, and it works. It just shows you're alive and receptive. Whether or not a piece stirs something in you depends on both the music and you and that's why cool jazz exists and classical music snobs are simply anal-retentive people.

When it comes to making songs, however, there's two angles: you can make stuff at your heart's content, which will be as diverse as your tastes. Or, you can try to go the commercial way and restrain yourself to something more defined, because you'll be told that's what sells and no radio will want to touch your stuff if it's not clearly defined.

So, first of all you want to decide what's your goal. For myself, after decades of playing all kind of covers and stuff, when I started making my own stuff I decided that I would write whatever I liked. It's closed some doors, but opened others. On the other side, I wouldn't judge: I have other ways to make a good living so it's not so critical for me if a guy at a radio says "you don't have a defined identity".

As Desmond says, even though you're gonna make all kinds of stuff, if you actually do you will have a sound. It's due to your aesthetics, your sensibility, your technical ability as instrumentalist or vocalist, your composition chops, how much you can learn from great songs etc.

The only criteria imho is that whatever you make, must make you excited or sad or happy or wanting to dance or whatever. My experience is that out of 10 noodling things, there's one that gets me go "cool" and makes me want to figure out what I just played. That's the basis of a song.

As of courses, I have never found any better way that to really sit down and look at what makes me love certain pieces I love. Once you figure that out (harmonically, lyrically, whatever) you can incorporate that idea in your work.
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Re: How can I really determine my own taste in music?

Post by MOF »

I wouldn’t try to find out what your style is, it’s obvious that you’re into lots of styles, me too.
I go with what inspiration strikes at the time. If The Beatles could do so many different styles, and arguably created quite a few, then that’s surely good enough recommendation for you. Variety is the spice of life!!
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Re: How can I really determine my own taste in music?

Post by Murray B »

Sometimes approaching things from a new angle can provide a new perspective.

Why not try picking up an instrument you can't already play, start learning it and see what music and styles you really want to put the time into or what inspires you to practise and play more?

If you've been on the guitar for a long time it might freshen things up a bit.
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Re: How can I really determine my own taste in music?

Post by Watchmaker »

Like you I haven't written anything in about a decade. I have a killer studio, tons of killer gear and I spend my time studying others or re-wrapping cable ties and reading SOS forums. Somewhere along the way I got away from writing and I can't seem to find an interesting thing to say. I try every now and again to raise a skeleton from the endless sands but I might just kick the bucket without every finding my voice. It can seem an impossible task.

I know what the truth is in my case however. That is I am afraid of expressing the core truth of my self. It scares the shit out of me in a way that my youthful self did not know. Until I get over that, I ain't gonna write anything worth listening to.

There are no shortcuts. If you want to be an artist you gotta go deep, be brutally honest and accept what follows. If you want to be an entertainer, that involves technique and a willingness to engage in emotional manipulation based on the purely animal response to vibration. (*edit: I don't mean that as harshly as it sounds! mad respect for the entertainer) Or you can try to find peace with the compromise of being a pretty decent person who's split among many possibilities. Surely we are no lesser for that.
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Re: How can I really determine my own taste in music?

Post by CS70 »

Watchmaker wrote: I know what the truth is in my case however. That is I am afraid of expressing the core truth of my self. It scares the shit out of me in a way that my youthful self did not know. Until I get over that, I ain't gonna write anything worth listening to.

There are no shortcuts. If you want to be an artist you gotta go deep, be brutally honest and accept what follows. If you want to be an entertainer, that involves technique and a willingness to engage in emotional manipulation based on the purely animal response to vibration. (*edit: I don't mean that as harshly as it sounds! mad respect for the entertainer) Or you can try to find peace with the compromise of being a pretty decent person who's split among many possibilities. Surely we are no lesser for that.

Beautifully said. Hats off.
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Re: How can I really determine my own taste in music?

Post by manwilde »

Count me on that list, too. Very well put.
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Re: How can I really determine my own taste in music?

Post by blinddrew »

I think there are a couple of questions you need to answer for yourself.
1) Are you writing for yourself? In which case write whatever what you want. Or are you writing for someone else? In which case you'll have to do what you're told! :)
2) What do you have to say?

Genre seems to be less of a 'thing' nowadays. Have a look at Ryan Lewis and Macklemore's Downtown for an example: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JGhoLcs ... klemoreLLC and tell me what genre that is! :)
And we're past the era of the album and into the era of the playlist, single tracks of all shapes and sizes slung together by individual or algorithm with the thinnest of superficial themes. Maybe. Or maybe they're the ultimate mix tape that our judgement-free 12 year-old-selves would have loved.
On the positive side that gives us, as creators, a remarkably free rein to do what we want. On the down side that freedom can lead to a lack of direction and stylistic confusion.
Having a band can be both a help and a hindrance as the restrictions of the format can define the direction but can also limit ambition and innovation.

The second question can be much more difficult to answer. If you want commercial success then you're probably stuck with popular arrangements about love and romance. Personally the subject doesn't interest me much as a songwriter, as it's pretty much played out and also puts you up against towering classics, but I like simple music. So I write conventional songs about unconventional subjects, like death, space hardware and monkeys. And nobody listens to my songs. ;)

So what do you want to say? And do you care who wants to listen to it?
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Re: How can I really determine my own taste in music?

Post by Dolmetscher007 »

Watchmaker wrote: I am afraid of expressing the core truth of my self. It scares the shit out of me in a way that my youthful self did not know. Until I get over that, I ain't gonna write anything worth listening to. There are no shortcuts. If you want to be an artist you gotta go deep, be brutally honest and accept what follows.

I think you might be right, or at least on to something @Watchmaker. One thing I have noticed about myself is, I definitely lack the courage to tell other people how much I like something when I know or even assume they do not. For example... when I heard Guns n' Roses for the first time, I was only 10-11 years old, when they played Welcome to the Jungle on the Mtv Music Awards Show. I'll never forget it. I was waiting for my brother to get out of the shower so that I could take one and get ready for bed. I was in my parent's bedroom watching it on their tiny television. I was shocked by how... real it sounded... and looked... and felt. Even at that super-young age, I could tell that these guys were not putting on an act or playing characters. They were real and it sounded real. I eventually was able to get their cassette tape, and I am sure I almost wore the magnets off the tape I listened to it so much.

To this day, when I hear so much as 2-3 notes from that record, I know exactly what song it is, and if I had a guitar tuned down a half-step, I could pick right up and play along. However... as the 90's happened, and that whole genre of music kind of stopped... I moved on. I became just as excited about Nirvana, the Smashing Pumpkins, and a billiion other bands. I didn't just move on musically. The entire zeitgeist of American/World culture moved on. Where Guns n Roses had lyrics like, "Turn around bitch, I've got a use for you." Radiohead was saying things like, "I wish I were special." Almost overnight, the masculine, sexualized, indulgent, escapism of singing about sex and drinking... became all about expressing your inner feelings. It became as common as the air we breathe to hear song after song on the radio where the singer was explaining how scared to death he is all the time, because he's really just a lonely little boy inside, in this cold scary world.

And I don't mean any of that in a sarcastic way. I was right there too. I was home visiting my parents recently and I found my old lyrics notebooks. I got excited, because I thought I might discover some amazing lines I wrote 20 years ago that might jumpstart my songwriting again. What I found, however, was one pitiful cliche after another expressing pain... apathy... nihilism... and to be honest... annoying middle-class melodrama. Not only did I no longer identify with any of that ethos... I am not even sure I ever did.

So... now... here I am in my early 40s... I find myself thinking things I never imagined I would. I thought that Kurt Cobain was the greatest lyricist of my lifetime. He was, in my mind, Bob Dylan, John Lennon, and Woody Guthrie all balled into one 27 year old man. But now... when I hear his music, I still think he had a hell of an ear for melody, but... his lyrics are playfully... funny, almost. I don't get the impression that he even knew what he was writing. Some songs were clearer than others, but... genius? He was a kid. If I really ask myself... I feel much more close to "Turn around bitch, I've got a use for you!" than I do to lyrics like, "Find my nest of salt. Everything is my fault." I'm not woman hater or anything like that. But... yeah... I think I'm afraid to express myself, because any song I'd write right now would be about how sick to death I am of feeling my feelings. I'd rather the world get back to songs that celebrate toughness and resiliency. But you're right... I'm scared to do that, because I'd be thought of as a chauvinist dick who's mean to the weak kids (so to speak).
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Re: How can I really determine my own taste in music?

Post by The Elf »

The one thing I've never concerned myself with is 'genre', insofar as if something touches me in some way I don't care what genre it 'fits'.

And it's the same with the music I write. Of course there are certain patterns and styles that I gravitate towards, and others from which I'll run a mile, but if something sparks a feeling I'll go with it. Be open to anything, but know when something is working and when it isn't. If I feel that spark, then someone else likely will. Trust yourself - at this point you're the audience.

Sometimes I'll go through a drought, and sometimes I'll work in a fever to catch the creativity while it's flowing. If anyone can tell me how to go from one to the other I'd love to know!

You'll know when you've struck gold. It's as if the song is already written, and all *you* have to do is get it down. It becomes a mad rush to catch it all as it falls. Those times are rare. More often it will need work, as if pushing a boulder up a hill, but if you persevere the load will hopefully lessen, and when that same boulder begins to roll on its own, and you're struggling to keep up with it, you know you've cracked it. The song tells you what it needs. Sometimes you'll never reach that point - let it go and try something else.

But genre? Nah. Genres are for music journalists and CD stores. The bigger problems we can give them the better.
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Re: How can I really determine my own taste in music?

Post by desmond »

Sounds like you have plenty of good material for songs among that lot. Working through them might be a form of self-therapy too. The first song you write can be about not being brave enough to write this song, and then see where it goes... :thumbup:

There's ideas and opportunities everywhere. But if you're not motivated, you'll never be disciplined enough to finish anything. And so it goes...
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