In order to get to my studio space at Northwestern College, you have to walk through the Visual Arts department. This morning, as I walked through the art space with my first student of the day, there was some blaring music coming from an art student’s boom box. It would be fair to describe the music as “artsy” (which is the kind of music that art students ALWAYS listen to it seems). Once we were past the art department and in my studio, my student commented to me that he thought the music from the other room was really weird. I thought the music was pretty cool, so I asked him what he meant by “weird.” He said that he didn’t really know… he just thought the music was “really different” and he didn’t like it. So, I proceeded to share something with him that I learned from my former teacher

Everybody brings a subconscious “list” to their listening. This list contains the things that you’re looking for in music – the things that you expect the music to have if you’re going to like it. Normally, the items on someone’s list will be broad and far-reaching, like “good groove”… or maybe a little more specific like “lots of guitars.” The specificity of the list items might get out of hand though, and I’ve often heard people say things like “I only listen to stuff that has odd time signatures and lots of double bass.” Well, that’s fine I guess… except those people will normally go on to decide that if a given song doesn’t contain the things on their list, then that song “sucks” or “isn’t cool.”

It’s important to stop at this point and recognize that, in the example I just mentioned, the music in question has been written off simply because it doesn’t match up with the listener’s expectations. This is problematic, because it’s fair to ask if the artist who made the music was ever really aiming to hit the things on odd-time-double-bass-dude’s list. It’s not at all fair for odd-time-double-bass-dude to give a failing grade to a musician who was never intending to do anything that odd-time-double-bass-dude wanted to hear.

What I’m trying to say is this: the fundamental element in appreciating art is understanding what THE  ARTIST was trying to say with a particular work. This means that it’s the artist’s “list” that matters, not yours. It’s very helpful, when encountering new music, to try and wipe your head clear of all your expectations for what you’re about to hear. Try and take the music on IT’S terms. Sometimes it’s helpful to do some homework in that regard – like looking up who the artist is, what genre the artist is known for, and what kind of influences they cite. But even if you can’t do any background work, you can at least give the artist the benefit of the doubt that they are probably not simply trying to cater to your needs as a listener. True musicians make music they want to make, not music that they think others want them to make.

What’s amazing about all this is that if you take the time to understand what the artist was aiming for when they created a particular work of art, you’ll probably like it more. Or at the very least you will appreciate it more, and you’ll be less likely to give it an automatic thumb’s down.

SUMMARY: It’s safe to assume that most musicians aren’t aiming for (or even aware of) the items on your subconscious “list” of expectations. So try to figure out what a musician is trying to do with their music BEFORE you decide if they’re succeeding, and you will probably learn a thing or two in the process. (PS… It’s also helpful to try and trim down your list as much as possible).

UPDATE: “Part 2” of The Subconscious List can be found here.