Why Do We Like that Song?

Musical taste is an inscrutable thing. Some songs are immediately pleasing to the ear, while others demand a lot of work and repeated listens. Some are hailed by critics and spurned by the public, while others are panned by critics as they ascend to the top of the charts. On a much smaller scale, two people could have the same reaction to nine bands, but then diverge greatly on the tenth.

There are a number of bands that I have failed to like, even though I have tried quite hard to like them, and even though the critics adore them—even though my friends whose musical tastes I respect have recommended them. At the risk of disappointing some of my friends (Michael), here are a few of the acclaimed bands and musicians that I want to like but somehow can’t:

  1. The Arcade Fire
  2. Bright Eyes
  3. Elliott Smith
  4. The Rolling Stones
  5. Ryan Adams
  6. Wilco
  7. The White Stripes

It all makes me wonder, can we really recommend music to others with any degree of confidence? Can we say, “if you like this, you’ll love that”? What determines what we like anyway? Certainly cultural forces are at work. Familiarity must help, too, as long as it doesn’t turn into over-saturation. A little peer influence may nudge us in a certain direction, but it can only take us so far. Genetics? Who knows.

Some companies think they have it all figured out. Siren Systems Inc. has a website called Soundflavor that “marries objective (and unbiased) metadata, artificial intelligence, and listener ratings to yield unparalleled accuracy” in recommending songs that match a user’s individual tastes. Polyphonic HMI claims to have “developed proprietary music analysis technologies capable of identifying music preferences of a user or the whole current recorded music market and intelligently selecting music to recommend to the user or to release as a single.”

A few weeks ago on NPR’s Weekend Edition Saturday, Scott Simon interviewed the founder of Savage Beast Technologies. The company has created the Music Genome Project, “an effort to break music down to its most elemental forms, using a computer program that evaluates each song by 400 distinct musical attributes.” Another company, calling itself MusicGenome, apparently has the same idea.

Audioscrobbler is a community-based website that matches users with others who have similar musical interests. It also has a streaming music feature, in collaboration with LastFM, that lets people listen to a personalized online radio station of sorts based on a user’s profile. I use it occasionally at work, and it works quite well.

It’ll be interesting to see how these music recommendation programs develop over the next few years as the demand from music conglomerates for sophisticated analytical tools increases. After all, the chief goal of the record companies is to remove all risk—and spontaneity—from the business of selling music. Makes for happy shareholders.

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8 Responses to Why Do We Like that Song?

  1. Dad says:

    The only one on your list I recognize is Rolling Stones, and the only thing I remember about them is the skinny guy with the huge mouth who repeatedly attempted to swallow a microphone. Pretty difficult to articulate a lyric during that activity. Whatever happened to Nat ‘King’ Cole, Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, Sarah Vaughan, Duke Ellington, Mel Torme, Dave Brubeck, Paul Desmond, Harry Connick, Jr., Stan Getz, and so many others of that ilk who appealed to listeners without resorting to smash-mouth noise? Add the folk singers who had sweet sounds and a clearly-understood message.

  2. michelle says:

    ditto on the Rolling Stones.

  3. Well, since I’ve been namechecked, I suppose I should make the first comment.

    First of all, great topic, Karl! As a musician and overall music geek I find this kind of stuff fascinating.

    be glad to know, by the way, that the only artist on your list who
    interests me is Elliott Smith. And I only like one or two of his
    recordings. That actually brings up an interesting twist…I think it’s
    hard (at least for me) to even make the blanket statement that “I like
    so and so.” It’s pretty rare that an artist or band can sustain my
    interest over multiple CDs, much less the same CD. So I might like
    “Figure 8” by Elliott Smith, a lot, actually. But I really don’t like
    some of his other stuff at all.

    And yes, the same goes for artists who “sound like” artists I like. I heard a song on WYCE
    the other day by a guy who sounded just like one of my favorites, Neil
    Finn. Really sounded exactly like him. But I didn’t like this guy
    (can’t remember his name) at all.

    In any event, I’ll be
    interested to follow these various technologies and see just how well
    they work. Until then, I’ll count on mystery and risk (as well as
    checking out the recommendations of my peers) to carry me through.


    P.S. There are thankfully still a few great places to find new music on the radio (or at least Internet radio). Check out KCRW’s Morning Eclectic
    for an interesting mix of music (with audio and video archives). And
    for that good old fashioned, unabashed, free-form radio, check out Vin
    Scelsa’s Idiot’s Delight. I used to listen to this every Sunday night
    when I lived in New York. Thank God for the person who’s now capturing every week’s show.

  4. Diane says:

    ditto on wilco — i was just telling a friend that wilco and amy mann (that’s spelled wrong, i believe) are the two i currently feel bad for not liking.  my friends like them, they are acclaimed, and they leave me — well — flat. 

  5. I spent my early college years following the musical advice of peers in order to “broaden my horizons.”  I found myself watching unknown prog-rock bands in the basements of now-defunct local second hand shops.  There were times where the music/situations became too obscure to hide my discontent.  Luckily, we grew out of that and realized that just because something is rare, does not mean it’s good.  (especially when it involves four shirtless men drinking fosters and scrambling old audio equipment housed in early 70’s yellow american tourister suitcases forming a barrage of sounds, but no destinguishable rhythm).   There is a factor of disappointment when it comes to admitting your tastes are different than a friends.  Also, when the advice travels from peers there is an admittance of “squareness.”  A curious note this musical taste.  Why is music the most prominent associative factor in the arts?

    On that note I have to say that I’m disappointed that you can’t bring yourself to like wilco.  Perhaps you should just admit to youself that you do, in fact, enjoy it.  I saw tham at Oakland University last week: an amazing show.  Also, I enjoyed seeing your profile on Audioscrobbler.  I hope you’re not comming down too hard on the new coldplay album, you appear to have listened to it a few times 

  6. Drew MacDougall says:

    Musical exchange has, since high school, played a strong role in our friendship. Looking back I can recall so many times over the years where I was excited about bands that you were nonplussed about and vice versa.  There are too many instances to mention for this posting! I have always been a a sucker for critical praise and I would say at least a third of my music collection is the result of 4 star reviews from Rolling Stone, Uncut, Mojo, etc.

    I agree with you about Bright Eyes (didn’t the lo-fi thing hit it’s peak 10 years ago?), Elliot Smith (nothing subtle about him), Arcade Fire (not original), White Stripes (a very tired routine, and at some point they will add a 3rd member and become Nirvana), Wilco (probably some of the most original American pop music out there but weird and a turn off that so many Grateful Dead fans seem to like their music), and The Rolling Stones (seeing the video for “Start Me Up” as a 12 year old somehow ruined me on liking them-That video still gives me the creeps). However, I do disagree about Ryan Adams.

    Your web posting got me thinking about another interesting song list idea. How about favorite guilty pleasures? In other words, these would be songs that you groove to but are just not cool to like. Here are my current top 5 guilty pleasures in no order:

    1. “Since You’ve Been Gone” by Kelly Clarkson
    2. “Can’t Get You Outta My Head” by Kylie Minogue
    3. “Slither” by Velvet Revolver
    4. “Hey Ya” by Outkast
    5. “99 Problems” by Jay-Z
  7. Tom Conrad says:

    Hi all… I’m the CTO over at Savage Beast. Great post and lots of
    interesting comments.

    It’s particularly interesting that you chose to mention us in
    an article where you’re talking about bands that you’re “supposed” to
    like. One of the unique things about the Music Genome Project is that
    when we analyze a piece of music the only things that we capture are
    musicological “facts” about the song. What key? What style of guitar?
    Is it diatonic? In fact, while there are nearly 400 different
    dimensions that we capture, none of them touch upon the questions of
    “is it cool” or “is it trendy”. When we make recommendations we’re
    getting to the very core of the underlying musical attributes of the
    stuff you tell us that you like. Unlike most of the other systems you
    mention, there’s no aspect of it at all that’s a popularity contest.
    This yields some pretty interesting results: did you know that there
    are several Cindy Lauper cuts that are a perfect match for Nora Jones?
    Can you name the Metallica song that is a great match for an Indigo
    Girls fan? We think that the Music Genome Project is really a great

    Later this month we’re going to kick off a preview release of the first
    consumer product built on top of the Music Genome Project. I’d love to
    invite you to participate in the preview. If you’re interested, just
    drop me an email and I’ll put you on the list.

  8. Tom, thanks a lot for the comment. The Music Genome Project sounds
    fascinating, and I look forward to seeing how it works when it’s
    applied to a consumer product. I’m guessing that Cindy Lauper’s “Time
    after Time” would be one of the songs that match perfectly with Nora
    Jones’s songs, but I don’t know enough about Metallica to guess which
    of their songs match the Indigo Girls. I suppose I’ll have to wait
    until later this month to find out.

    In the interview with Scott Simon, the founder of Savage Beast compared CS&N’s “Helplessly Hoping” to an eerily similar song by Rogue Wave. Another song that uses the same unconventional harmonies and mimics other elements of “Helplessly Hoping” is Nickel Creek’s “Hanging by a Thread.” I’d love to see how closely those two songs match in your program. Maybe I’ll be able to find out later this month.

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