A musicologist explains the science behind your taste in music

Another interesting thing about our musical tastes is how early those seeds are planted. “Every baby comes equipped to speak any language, or make any sound for the hundreds of languages that are out there. Through the first year, especially, it gets more limited. The synapses generated in the brain forge certain sounds and exclude others. There’s something similar that takes place with music. It’s known as ‘inculturation.’ In the first six months or so, babies can actually follow the syntax of any musical style — complex rhythms from Turkey or major scales from Europe. If you play something for a baby a few times and make a slight shift, the baby turns its head at that shift. It recognizes the deviation. The power that we have as infants to process and understand music is extraordinary.”

Gasser says, as we grow, our musical tastes really help us to forge our individual identities — especially distinct from our parents. “Music becomes that stake in the ground — ‘this is who I am,’” says Gasser. “But at the same time, the music people listened to at an early age becomes their native home comfort music. When they grow up, that music will be part of who they are, tied in with memories and growing up. All of these powers are why music is so important to us.”

The way we experience music is always evolving

Noting the difference between how I discovered music as a teen (albums, in my room, reading liner notes) and how I discover music now (Shazam, listening to anything á la carte, on demand, via any device I own), I asked Gasser if young people still took the time to really get into bands, or artists, or if technology had affected that aspect of musical discovery. “Technology always has an influence on how we listen to music and how we interact to music,” he says. “The whole notion that people would have to buy an album made musicians think about their music from a theatrical standpoint, creating an hour-long musical experience as opposed to a song-by-song experience. When my kids discover an artist they like, and an album has a couple of songs they love, they still do explore the whole album. You just don’t need to save up all your allowance to buy one album. You can listen to everything.”

No matter how old we are, Gasser says it’s “on us” to continue to discover new music. “We all come hardwired to be very sophisticated in our musical understanding,” he explains. “Ultimately, there’s no reason why someone who doesn’t play an instrument or compose music can’t be as eclectic and sophisticated and devout in their music listening as someone who is a professional musician. So much of it is confidence and taking barriers down that say, ‘I’m not a musician so I couldn’t possibly like jazz because I don’t get it.’ That’s nonsense. We all have the ability, if we keep our minds open, to explore any music.”

He recalls attending a recent wedding and realizing every 20-something was mouthing every lyric to every song the DJ was playing, yet he found himself unfamiliar. “Every generation has its masterpieces and its schlock,” he says. “I have no doubt this generation will produce music that are their sentimental jewels when they’re collecting social security checks.”


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