(This article includes audio examples throughout. You can also download them in a ZIP file).
There are subjective and objective reasons why you might prefer one song over another. Subjective reasons include:
- Tradition: because that is what you heard while growing up. Your preference then arises from habit and identification with your family and culture. You derive pleasure from safety, comfort, and familiarity. Folk and country music feature this prominently.
- Identity: because the song is a token representation of some subculture you have invested your social identity into, whereby the music is more a fashion accessory or emblem displayed before others. You derive satisfaction from the reactions you get from others. Anything associated with a distinctive look such as rap, punk, goth, country, and metal can serve this function.
- Sentiment: because you hear a song during a meaningful or emotional time in your life, and the two become linked together in your mind. The song will then trigger those same emotions when heard again in the future. Like a scent of perfume bringing back fond memories, you derive pleasure from the sentimental effect this brings. Pop songs, especially ballads frequently played on the radio, appeal to this factor.
Alone, these factors have little to do with the intrinsic musicality of the song. They merely project subjective values upon what is heard.
True music is measured by the degree to which its melody, harmony, rhythm, and texture in and of themselves evoke an objective response in us. For example, a minor chord sounds sad without us ever needing to be conditioned to feel that. Infants can distinguish between harmonious and dissonant chords well before their enculturation. A beat can make us clap or tap our foot without having to be taught to do so, as seen in babies who bend their knees and bounce to the music instinctively. Similarly, an odd pattern of strange sounds can make us tilt our heads in curiosity.
Some objective responses stimulate the intellect, some the physical body, and some the emotional and spiritual aspects of our being. So in addition to the aforementioned subjective reasons for musical preference, there are also objective ones:
- Intrigue: your intellect is aroused by the originality, quirkiness, or complexity of a song. You find amusement in being stirred from boredom, apathy, or jadedness by its novelty. Experimental electronica, noise, and math rock focus exclusively on this aspect.
- Groove: the song’s beat and rhythm stimulate the motor and speech areas of your brain, provoking you to dance. You derive pleasure from the endorphins released through physical movement, from the social approval and camaraderie present when dancing with others, and it simply feels good being physically motivated and energized by the sonic equivalent of a stimulant drug.
- Resonance: there is something within a song that stimulates something within you at the emotional, spiritual, archetypal level. It evokes a response according to how much we inwardly resonate with that song’s combination of melody, harmony, rhythm, and texture.
Songs typically represent a mixture of all the above. When a song combines several factors, it has greater impact and wider appeal:
- A bit of emotional resonance goes a long way toward building associative conditioning, which then amplifies the apparent emotional intensity of the song and leads to a strong sentimental effect. This is the basis of sappy ballads played on radio stations throughout the 70s and 80s.
- Groove enhances intellectually fascinating songs by adding some physical energy, making it both interesting and fun, with many examples to be found in electronic music.
- Groove combined with tradition makes for a high dance factor, as can be heard in Eastern European folk dances, samba and salsa, Mexican polka, American hoedowns and country line dancing.
- Identity, groove, intrigue, and resonation of anger may be found in most forms of nu metal, djent, screamo, grindcore, etc.
We know that people differ in the degree to which they respond to a song. Some may not identify with the tradition being represented; some find its intellectual complexity confusing and irritating; some only desire groove and find little appeal in a slow emotional ballad; some do not have within their souls the aspects that a song is aiming to resonate; some never had a meaningful or emotional experience linked with a particular song that, for someone else, has much sentimental value.
So when different people respond differently to the same song, understand that in regard to the objective factors, the difference involves only the degree to which that factor is present in that person. A quirky and complex experimental piece might arouse much interest in one person, little interest in another, and strong disinterest in a third. When a song has groove, one person will dance uncontrollably, another will only tap his or her foot, and another with no sense of rhythm will fold his arms in boredom. When a song resonates the emotion of happiness, one person will have tears in her eyes, another will merely feel uplifted, and another might not care for feeling happy at the moment. It’s about varying degrees on the same scale.