The other day I happened across one of those huge So and So’s Guide to Classical Music, and for the hell of it I paged around to the only modern composers I really know (Philip Glass, Henryk Gorecki, Arvo Pärt, and John Tavener), and they were all pretty much panned as fads.

Ages ago when I first moved away from home into my first apartment, Hans Zimmer’s score for the movie The Thin Red Line pretty much played nonstop for weeks, and it still remains a kind of low humming meditation that could be the background music to any life. On other days, the last three songs from Thomas Newman’s score for The Shawshank Redemption are as moving and meaningful as any music I know.

None of these folks are Beethoven or Bach, but like all great art you only think to make comparisons after the fact. In the moment they hardly matter. I still remember the sense of revelation, back in high school, when I realized that sometimes I was in the mood for Beethoven, other times for Rage Against the Machine; neither impulse cancelled the other out.

.…All of these scattered bits just to say: amid all of my apparently knowledgeable thoughts about poetry, how would what I’ve said about the above composers strike someone who considers themselves knowledgeable about classical music? Like So and So’s Guide, all of my preferences could probably be cut down pretty easily, especially any affection for movie composers.

But so what? The meaning I’ve derived from any of them wouldn’t be lessened by such criticism. In a very real way, we all only have so much time, and the position of knowledgeable experts is actually the oddity; and in their desire to classify and pass judgment, it may even become negligible. So when I said that Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen—even Avril Lavigne—weren’t “poetry”—maybe not, maybe so, but who cares?

I was humbled by this comparison recently: it was said that at one point, for people not that into poetry, the one book of poetry they’d have owned was Edward FitzGerald’s Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyám. I cringed at this; but immediately it was mentioned that Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue was the equivalent for jazz, and I noticed that, despite a real love for jazz, that really was one of the only jazz albums I actually owned.

So that while I might know a bit about some classical or jazz composers, and while I have my preferences, I still know very little about music at all. And can many of us say any different? There’s only so much TV, music, movies and books any one person can possibly experience meaningfully. The sense of being personally offended—or just concerned, as I was, that poetry was being swallowed up by other forms of media—actually seems to come from encountering those who find meaning outside of culture altogether: words, music, the or the visual arts are something to be absorbed in order to relax, not challenge oneself—that’s covered by other things entirely.

As with religious zealots, there’s a sense that other people’s lives are literally worse off by not knowing [whatever it is] that we love. I personally can’t imagine life without the slow movement from Beethoven’s 15th string quartet, but before and after its composition pretty much everyone who has ever lived has gotten along fine without it.

Is this so bad?




13 thoughts on “Do We Just Like What We Like?

  1. There is something to this. I love Zimmerman and Horner, my favorite film score composers. I also love Machaut and Renaissance lute music and Bach and Telemann’s flute works. I loved Gerry Mulligan when I was younger. I still listen to Live, on occasion I’ll dip into Pearl Jam, though Nirvana doesn’t age as well, melodically speaking (if you want to know why some songs are tasty garbage that simply hack our shared inheritance, try and play the melody on a piano…). Gabrielle Aplin and Sara Bareilles are on heavy repeat in my Amazon account, together with U2, Jeff Buckley, and James Bay. Back to Romantic-Classical: I remember reading that Debussy (whom I love) said of Grieg (whom I don’t) that Grieg’s works were “bonbons wrapped in snow”, and I laughed, because I largely concurred. There are reasons for our judgments, but they are usually hidden from us, unless we tease them out. More responsible judgements have reasons.

    There is something to be said for music that not only produces a feeling of pleasure –I mean, people get that eating shit food, so the feeling of pleasure is no guide _per se_, but it’s not worthless– but which enriches one, makes one fuller, as a result: this requires a very different kind of evaluation. One needs to attend to the resulting mood that follows in the wake of music, too, and to listen to music that keeps one on course, so to speak. Music that is rich in texture and which requires a sustained amount of attention to understand it hones my powers of attention, and that is a positive ethical yield.

    Sometimes ya gotta just come down from all that lofty shit, though, crank up the volume a little, and pound out Daughter or Florence and the Machine, until one clears one’s throat, stops singing along at the top of one’s lungs, and puts Renaissance cathedral chant back on.

    My 2 cents.

  2. Over the years, I’ve simply learned to accept that I’ve no taste, class or discernment when it comes to what I like. I like a wide range of music, art, poetry and writing. Some of it is godawful pop, some of it highbrow intellectual work, but all of it adds to my experience of the world. This is why I’ve resisted writing reviews of anything for the most part. What work I loathe may be comfort food for someone else.

  3. Thanks for this, Tim. Beauty and brilliance resonate differently with every human being. It’s our differences that make us so special. I appreciate your candor and willingness to admit that while you know something about something, no one can know everything, even where they specialize. And we should never presume to think that someone is greater or less than us based on their knowledge or proximity to a subject. We can grow through immersion and experience but when it’s all done, we like what we like. Great article! Thanks again.

  4. I guess it boils down once again to the thoughts that were developed in your article & the comments of “To criticize the critic “.
    Speaking of Zimmer, I had the exact same experience with the music he wrote for the HBO mini series The Pacific…

  5. Interesting blog. I also enjoy Hans Zimmer, especially the score to The Dark Knight Rises which is lovely. I found, recently, that my kids like to listen to scores from video games which are likely even less low-brow than movie scores, but I agree with you that irrespective of ‘recognition’ we enjoy what we enjoy and it doesn’t make it lesser. No one except, perhaps, the most dedicated musician has an encyclopaedic knowledge of music, but perhaps some of the artistic judgement is around the craft which only a fellow craftsperson would enjoy or recognise. I guess it’s not the kind of knowledge easily shared, but neither ought it to influence someone else’s enjoyment.

  6. Yes we do… (Do we just like what we like?) I never think to compare one artist to another and it irritates me when I hear it others do it. In fact, just recently there were a lot of think pieces comparing Beyonce and Adele…and for no good reason. Each singer has a different style, range and voice (in the literary sense). There is no comparison. You either like the singer or you don’t.

    I think we are socialized to respond to art the same way we respond to commercial products … Since we can’t buy we have to find some fault with all but one. But unless the commercial product is harmful to us or the environment, it really all comes down to mood.

    Today, I walked into my room and this jazz composition was playing… I fell right into the groove. When the dee-jay said it was “Miles Davis” I was shocked. Most of the time, his playing grates my nerves… Today it was music to my ears. I wonder if it had anything to do with the fact, that I just returned from walking the shih-tzus in the brisk, cold outdoors? I don’t know, but today I was absolutely in the mood to hear Miles Davis’ masterpiece. And I realized , I couldn’t even compare it to the times when I didn’t.

  7. In university a very good friend of mine came for dinner, we ate drank, was merry. My friend was always very considerate but this day he got voodoo or something in him, became animated on the subject of what makes what we like more important than what we turn our nose up at? He actually took the example of Shakespeare over say a daily Soap Opera. Well it seemed a simple answer:
    “it just is we said”.
    “No no.” my pal bemoaned.
    “How can we intelligently justify our listening, reading, our love of culture with something so belittling?” he continued.
    “Because he is a great poet. Because he shows us society? Because he is Shakespeare?” we replied.
    “No. Soap Operas can fall into Iambic rhythms, it is the natural rhythm of speech. Soap Operas are all about everyday occurrences. I think you know what’s wrong with the last one/”
    Eventually we gave up, By now he was holding his head, repeating “No! No!” & being quite aggressive, which i took for intensity & really enjoyed observing in him.
    “So what is it then?”
    “People caring enough to study something tirelessly, so they can get closer to it. Pop music in the Charts isn’t cared about enough to have experts critiquing or finding meaning in it, same with Soap Opera: once the story ends people want the next one & quickly forget the previous one. But great art, worth our time, that is truly worth experiencing is that which people talk about & talk about over centuries.”

    i thought & still do think this the reason for seeing beauty or value in something. He was talking about academia, but the fact that people cared about it & made livelihoods out of it.
    Now of course, anything new now is not easily explained away like this, but we have to apply something of these standards, we must look at not only its entertainment value, but the skill, the meaning, complexity behind a work. It can make us dance, but it can also be original, it can also be not just a button pressed sample, without any consideration to context.
    It can be a simple, short poem, but does it sound honest, not just raw simple, but honest, are the words suitable or just ticked off without any thought to artifice? There can be popularity, longevity & craft— they are not mutually exclusive.

  8. A few years ago now, I was blind tasting wine with a long experienced wine merchant. Even though it was the first time we had met we got along really well so mush so he joined us for dinner during which we drank a bottle of the wine I had settled on. During our meal he revealed to me that the wine I had chosen was in fact the least expensive amongst all those he offered. “Ah,” I said, “that probably makes me a Philistine in your eyes doesn’t it.” To which he replied, “An awful lot of crap is talked about wine. In my experience, so long as a wine is palatable it’s OK. What makes a wine good and sometimes excellent is often not the grape or the diligence of the vintner or cellar-man, no, it’s the person drinking it and, most importantly, whoever he or she is drinking it with. You may have the most expensive wine on the menu but if the ambiance is not congenial it will taste so-so, on the other hand a mousy little wine can taste like pure nectar if the company is joyful. A good wine depends on the people it is drunk with, nothing more.”

  9. Music, like poetry, is so personal. If you read deeply and listen deeply, then whatever poetry you read and music you listen to is par excellence. There are no so-so’s.

  10. Thomas Newman also composed a fine soundtrack for “Scent of a Woman.” I don’t care if I ever see the movie again, but the score nicely encapsulates youth, in all its tension and optimism and potential.

    I’ve been thinking about this post for several days now, and I’ve concluded that I’m profoundly grateful when people who are smarter than I am recommend music, books, or poetry that challenge me, but I’m disappointed when recommendations come from less experienced readers or listeners who hope I’ll share their more shallow emotional reaction to something they adore. I always think of that Tolkien quote where he’s talking about the extreme reactions of some of his fans: ““Art moves them and they don’t know what they’ve been moved by and they get quite drunk on it.”

    I’m a better thinker and a better human being because teachers in high school got me to stop reading TV tie-in novels and pointed me toward better things. When I was younger, I partook uncritically of whatever was nearby; now that I’m older, I feel a responsibility to champion the better–not to rank all books, movies, poems, music, and art which would be quite impossible, especially since my personal knowledge is such a sliver, but to make much younger people aware of greater possibilities.

  11. “So when I said that Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen—even Avril Lavigne—weren’t “poetry”—maybe not, maybe so, but who cares?”

    That one line holds so much value to the post as a whole. And because of that I enjoyed this read.

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