Musical Taste at the Turn of the Millenium
All Music Guide - September 2002
(Used by permission - © 2002 All Music Guide)

by Bruno Deschênes

The expression “musical taste” is somewhat an anachronistic one. It is more part of scholars’ jargon than anything else, and refers more to European classical music than any other types of music, and much less so popular forms of music.

We all have musical tastes, no matter the types of music we appreciate. But we do not really talk about it. We will talk about who our stars are, the types of music we enjoy listening the most and the ones we dislike, but we never really ponder about what our “musical tastes” are, why we like particular types of music and dislike others, why some music, songs or artists entrance us while other simply bore us? On which grounds are based our musical taste: musical, aesthetic, social, cultural, or otherwise?

This essay would like to give few possible answers among many to these questions in regards to the situation of music at the turn of the Millennium.

Some Background

The current literature on aesthetic of music and musical taste largely refers to European classical music, although for the past 20 years or so, few authors have been considering non-classical types of music. In the 19th century, for example, the use of the word “music” by scholars specifically meant European classical music. Other types of music such as folk music and other forms of popular music were not considered music at all. The Viennese composer of the first half of the 20th century, Arnold Schoenberg, went as far as saying “If it is art, it is not for all. If it is for all, it is not art.”

This remnant view from the 19th century has greatly influenced how psychologists and cognitive scientists, historians, musicologists and philosophers have been studying music listening, perception, psychology, hence aesthetic and musical taste. European classical music became (and in many respect still is) the gauge through which all other kinds of music are being studied. The variety of types of music found all around the world is seldom, if never considered when discussing musical taste.

Does jazz have the same aesthetic impact as rap, classical music, country western, Balinese Gamelan, Indian ragas or Japanese Gagaku music? The answer is obviously no. Then, why there has not been any pertinent philosophical, psychological and/or musicological studies of musical taste in regards to today’s situation, in which music lovers can enjoy listening to a large variety of types of music, some from non-Western cultures, and enjoy each one of them, although they may be aesthetically very different?

The beginning of the 20th century brought a major change in the musical landscape with the advent of such modern technologies as radio and recordings. In the 19th century, it was uncommon for someone to hear more than just a few times a Beethoven symphony or a Mozart Opera, for example, except the Viennese waltz that were regularly performed in dance halls. The then growing bourgeoisie was acquiring piano at home to teach music to young girls, but the music they were playing were mainly easy songs composed and published for them. In the 19th century, listening to music was obviously not part of an everyday sonorous landscape as we know it today.

The impact of radio and recordings and their continued development and growing popularity during the entire 20th century has been considerable, an impact which has become much stronger in the last 30 years or so. Today, anyone can listen to all types of music as often as one wishes and when one wishes. We have also been witnessing the proliferation of types of music, either the creation of new types of music, or by getting acquainted with totally unknown styles of music coming from everywhere around the world. Without the shadow of a doubt these developments have a tremendous impact on how one listens to and appreciates music today, as well as what one listens and for which reasons, in other words on one’s musical taste.

Musical Taste

It is uncommon today for music lovers to listen to and/or appreciate only a single type of music; we have a wide selection to choose from. And in public places, we cannot shut our ears off not to hear them. We are witnessing what I would call a democratization of music; music lovers are, so to speak, enlarging their musical taste by being confronted with a large choice. Yet, many of us are still compelled to consider a single type of music as The Music of choice, from which all the others are gauged and criticized.

When talking about music, many of us have the tendency to generalize what music is: the type of music we like to most is “the” music, everything else is not music, or it is not worth paying attention to. For the erudite, Western classical music is “music”, while for teenagers, music means rock, heavy metal or punk, for some black young people music equals rap, etc. We might base our primary musical tastes on one, or few types, of music against which everything else is assessed.

In today’situation, one’s musical tastes are grounded on one’s identification with specific social and cultural representations, beliefs and values with which one identifies as being one’s own. And these representations do not necessarily come from one’s social and/or cultural background (many rock singers comes from rich family, while some opera singers come from low class situations). We do not necessarily enjoy a type of music for music’s sake or for some aesthetic or musical, but more specifically for what this music represents for us psychosocially and psychoculturally, although they may be contrary to the social and cultural in which we are born. The more we individually identify with the values which define and determine a type of music, the more we will appreciate it, and the more we will make it one’s music of choice. Anything that does not fit within this frame will be ignored and denigrated. Some people enjoy many different types of music, being classical music, rock, jazz and others, while some will like solely a unique type of music. Our likes and dislikes in music are dependent on our identification with particular values.

A good example is rap. Similarly to jazz at its beginning, rap is a music that represents a particular rebellious expression of the social situation of black American youth. In order for anyone to appreciate that music, one must identify, even if only slightly, with the values and social representations psychosocially defining this music. We might denigrate it because it may represent something we ignore, we socially deny, or simply because these values are contrary to one’s own.

When someone criticizes the music we enjoy the most, we might be insulted as if this attack was directed at us personally. The British critic Simon Frith gives a good example of this. In the 1980s, he attended a concert in London by Phil Collins. He gave a negative critic of the concert. The following days he received a countless number of letters from fans upset at him: they felt personally insulted by Frith’s negative critics. Frith went as far as suggesting that our identification with our music and our stars is a form of possession: we feel we “possess” them. We do not seem to realize that what we possess is not the music or these stars, but our identification with them, which is a major difference.

This psychosocial identification goes much further than enjoying a type of music. It can be applied to particular artists. The most extreme example is the case of the fans of Elvis Presley who will get plastic surgery to look and dress like him. Their identification with him is so strong that their sense of social self is to a large extent defined by this identification.

Much more can be said on this whole matter. I hardly scratch the surface of today’s situation. Briefly put, our musical taste gives in fact an indication of what we socioculturally identify with, more than anything else.


  • Jacques Attali (2001). Bruits. Paris: Fayard
  • Harris M. Berger (1999). Metal, Rock and Jazz, Perception and thePhenomenology of Musical Experience. Hanover & London: Wesleyan University Press.
  • Richard Leppert (1993). The Sight of Sound, Music, Representation, and the History of the Body. Berkeley: University of California Press.



© 2002-2004 Bruno Deschênes. Tous droits réservés.
Design de Kwok Minh Tran.
Gravures japonaises de Shizuko Matsunaga.
Pour toute information ou renseignement complémentaire, veuillez contacter
Bruno Deschênes à l'adresse électronique suivante :
ou encore au 5
561, rue Clark, Montréal (Québec) H2T 2V5. Tél.: (514) 277-4665.