Does a taste in music reflect an understanding of that music?
Yes, but rarely a complete understanding.
This is a great question, and personally one of my favorite topics. The typical sense of "music theory" doesn't have much to offer here, but looking more broadly at the different levels of complexity that exist in all kinds of music gives us a lot to talk about. There's also a fair amount of behavioral science at play.
First of all, it is fairly well-known that we can be taught to like music by listening to it over and over again. This is why record companies pay radio stations to play1 the newest "hits" before they actually make a ton of record sales -- the record company knows that if everyone hears the song a dozen times, they're going to want to buy the album (or at least
get the track on iTunes stream it on Spotify).
There are a number of reasons for this: biologically, we are most comfortable when we're not experiencing something for the first time, we like getting our expectations validated when we start to memorize the music and lyrics of a song, and we can't help but draw emotional connections between art and our own lives.
Of course, this presupposes that the listener is familiar enough with the style of music being played that they are not, shall we say, "offended" by it. The breakdown of why this can occur follows in the next section, but let's talk a little about music that isn't offensive to the ear, just unfamiliar. Humans are particularly good at pattern matching, and the brain is so eager to do it that we often create false comparisons or equivalences where there are none. That is to say, in listening to unfamiliar music, you will eventually start to recognize things about it and enjoy the experience just as you do with individual songs you hear over and over again on the radio.
If this sounds ominous and depressing, the bright side is that there's nothing that says you "can't hack your own brain" and do this to yourself! Say there's a style of music that you find intellectually interesting, but not as enjoyable to listen to. Make a conscious effort to do some active and passive listening of that style of music on a regular basis, and see what you think about it a month or two down the road!
The second part of my answer is going to be about "levels of understanding" of art and music, which I'll use interchangeably with "aspects". My thesis here is basically that there are MANY levels of understanding in all styles of music, and as listeners we each experience different aspects at different times. If we aren't capable of grasping a few of the core components of the style at least on an intuitive level, we probably aren't going to find it enjoyable, but we by no means need to understand it on all levels. In fact, when I first heard my favorite piece of music (which remains so after almost a decade), I was fascinated precisely because I couldn't understand it on certain levels.
Music theory in the broad sense can give some of these aspects that I'm talking about. These include:
- Score interpretation
Some extra-musical aspects that come up in certain styles including but not limited to opera and song:
And, some extra-artistic aspects that contribute nonetheless to our interpretation:
- Historical context
- Author intent
- Present-day context of presentation
It's worth noting at this point that "level of understanding" implies a hierarchy of some kind, or at least a sequence or ordering, and this isn't entirely accurate (hence my alternate use of "aspects"). It may be true to the extent that some levels are deeper than others, but different styles of music and art emphasize different things, and this is precisely why people find it difficult to acclimate to unfamiliar styles.
Anyway, to illustrate this, just consider the number of aspects that are equally applicable to a piece of (relatively) obscure percussion ensemble music as they are to a music video for a hip-hop artist. Everything's still there, (with obvious format-related exceptions, such as lyrics for a piece of instrumental music) but with tremendous differences in what is emphasized and given importance to. Part of the reason people dislike unfamiliar music is that they have no idea what to listen for--if all you ever listen to is art songs, of course you're not going to like listening to rap music.
Of particular interest to me is "new music", that is, music being written in the present day, or music considered to be the "avant garde" of the classical tradition. However, I had to teach myself how to enjoy this kind of music, and doing so allowed me to significantly broaden my horizons for art in general. I learned a great analogy from a professor I had in college that I found really useful in acclimating myself to new music--this was originally relayed as advice for young composers:
Imagine you take a four-year-old to a basketball game. You can understand the game at the basic level of what each player's position is, how the game is scored, and the sequence of play. Then you can understand the game at a very high level involving different players' strengths and weaknesses, specific "plays" that are made by the team, and the metagame of how this game relates to other ones played this season or throughout history. Your four-year-old isn't going to understand any of that, but is still going to find it tremendously exciting to see all of the people running around on the court and throwing a ball back and forth.
Then say you take this (very well-behaved) four-year-old to a symphony orchestra concert where they're playing Shostakovich 5. You can enjoy the music at a basic level of distinguishing the various melodies and themes, hearing the interplay between various sections of the orchestra. You can also enjoy an understanding of what the conductor is doing relative to other recordings that you've heard, and think about the pressure from the Soviet government that Shostakovich was under while he was writing the piece. Your four-year-old doesn't have a clue what Shostakovich was thinking, but is going to be amazed by all of the people on stage, all of the interesting and shiny instruments they are playing, the dramatic movements of the conductor, and the amazing sounds created by the various instruments.
As a composer, it's too easy to take the simple stuff for granted and get bogged down writing the most complex music you can think up. Don't forget to be the four-year-old!
To me, this is a great reminder not to forget about all of the various aspects of art that you might not typically pay attention to. If I hear some type of music that I don't immediately enjoy, I take it upon myself to think about what aspects it is meant to emphasize, and beyond that, what about those aspects make it enjoyable for other people. I don't believe any one aspect can be inherently good or bad, so it follows that there are no good or bad genres of music, just good or bad artists -- and you can make that determination for yourself once you've discovered how the style works (ergo, your "taste" in music).
1. It's not quite that direct; in fact "payola" as its known is outlawed. Record companies pay "independent promoters" who work with radio stations to get airplay. http://www.techdirt.com/articles/20110916/03140815978/how-payola-works-today-why-you-only-hear-major-label-songs-radio.shtml