Why Do We Like the Music We Do?

by | Mar 5, 2018


I mainly listen to independent alternative music.  A lot of it.  Last year on Spotify alone I listened 30,000 minutes of music, over 3,500 songs from about 1,600 different artists.  Of all that music, much of it new, I really liked about 1/4 of it. I think there is a lot of new, great indie music being produced. What confounds me is that a song/band/album I think is fantastic usually has little or no appeal to most others. I find that Kinda Bonkers . I seriously struggle to understand how a song I love isn’t popular and well-loved by many others. Maybe you’ve experienced the same thing (or maybe I just have poor taste in music)?

Most of us tend to have strong feelings about what music we like and dislike. So, why do we like the music we like? And dislike the music we dislike?

In his fascinating book This is Your Brain on Music: The Science of A Human Obsession neuroscientist (and musician) Dr. Daniel Levitin explains that the formative time for developing our musical tastes are while in high school, ages 14-18. It is during those ages that our brains are forming new neural connections at an explosive rate and also when we have formative experiences that emotionally imprint various types of music on our preferences. Much of what we like and dislike in terms of music can be traced back to ages 14-18 ish.

While our formative years are an important contributor to our musical tastes, there is no official cutoff point for growing, developing or changing  our tastes in music. We can continue to develop changing tastes overtime. But it takes work and effort to retrain our brains to like different music. The type of music we listen to becomes sort of a habit.

Speaking of habit, in the Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do In Life and Business by Charles Duhigg, a radio show host explained that “people listen to Top 40 because they want to hear their favorite songs or songs that sound just like their favorite songs. When something different comes on, they are offended. They don’t want anything unfamiliar.” So, we tend to like music that sounds like music we already like. Why? From Power of Habit: “Our brains crave familiarity in music because familiarity is how we manage to hear without becoming distracted by all the sound.

In addition to liking music that sounds like music we already like, according to Dr. Levitin “the balance between simplicity and complexity in music also informs our preferences.” The music we like tends to fit in our own personal sweet spot of complexity. Too simple and we don’t like it because it seems trivial and predictable; too complex we don’t like it due to it’s noisiness or unpredictably. “Music that involves too many chord changes, or unfamiliar structure, can lead many listeners straight to the nearest exit or the skip button on their music players.” Check out these songs, which do you prefer? One is simpler and the other more complex (one is very catchy, the other less so):

Oh great. Now I can’t get Maroon 5 out of my head.

Each musical genre has its own set of rules. We get used to the chords and complexity of the music we like and that has a big effect on what other music we like. Dr. Levitin also notes that pitch, timbre and whether the experiences we’ve had while listening to particular songs or a genre were positive or negative also have an impact on what music we like.

A related IFOD to this one is on how we categorize: Categorization

FWIW: I listed to the album “My Love is Cool” by Wolf Alice while writing this.

Some mellow Wolf Alice: Blush

1 Comment

  1. What does it say about me that I’d actually listen to any one of those songs, albeit in slightly different settings or moods?


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