What kind of music do you like?

I’ve noticed that when people are asked what kind of music they like, the usual answer is something along the lines of, “oh, I like all kinds of music.”

You’ve probably said it at some point. Maybe it was just because you couldn’t be bothered at the time to get into an in-depth discussion of what you actually like and why. Maybe you were being merciful and didn’t want to bore the questioner with your fanatical passion for death metal. Or maybe, and I think this is usually the case, you like to think of yourself, and want others to think of you too, as someone who has a broad knowledge of music, and open-minded, liberal tastes. I’ve been guilty of it myself, many times. But I’ve realised it’s bullshit.

Before I explain why, I admit there are exceptions. Plenty of people have a single-minded devotion to a particular musical genre, and will happily tell you without hesitation that they love grindcore, for example – and then proceed to share with you their obsessive level of knowledge within those narrow bounds.

But in my probably-skewed-liberal-middle-class experience, those people are in the minority, and it seems to be a much more fashionable response to try to be eclectic and claim that your tastes are all-inclusive.

Sometimes, the statement will have a caveat. These tend to fall into one of two categories. One motivation is to avoid the stigma of inadvertently endorsing a genre that’s regarded as uncool, eg, “oh, I like all kinds of music, except commercial pop,” from hipsters, or, “oh, I like all kinds of music, except classical,” from young people / idiots.

The other is an attempt to resolve the incompatibility between the desire to be regarded as broad-minded in musical taste, with the speaker’s actual musical tastes, which are in fact much less broad and even contemptuous of many genres. The typical outcome is a statement like, “oh, I like all kinds of music, except rap,” often spoken by older people, and where “rap” (which isn’t actually a genre of music at all, but a vocalisation technique) stands for a whole range of genres, from classic hip hop, through drum and bass, jungle and grime, to any pop music influenced by hip hop elements.

A common alternative is, “oh, I like all kinds of music, except dance,” which has the same issue. Given the proliferation and popularity of hip hop and dance music styles, and their influence on other contemporary music forms, the exceptions probably exclude more from the apparently inclusive statement than they leave in.

So why is the statement bullshit? Because in the vast majority of cases, it simply doesn’t tally with the person’s actual behaviour. If they truly liked all kinds of music, then a brief inspection of their music collection should show it divided equally between all the major musical genres. In a collection of, say, 100 CDs, I’d expect to see at least 20 spanning the variety of classical periods from baroque to modern orchestral, another 20 covering different styles of blues, jazz, soul and motown, and significant representation of metal, electronica, latin, gospel, folk and world, leaving only a small fraction of modern rock and pop. One could go further and argue that 90% of the collection should be “world” and only 10% left for all the rest. But this is never what one actually finds.

So, next time you ask someone what kinds of music they like, what you should actually try to pin them down to is this: what kinds of music do they actually invest their time and money in? Which genres comprise the bulk of their music collection? Which groups and artists have they put the effort into going to see live? Which radio stations and playlists do they spend the majority of their time listening to? Then you’ll get a better idea of what they really like, not just the smug, non-committal, “oh, I like all kinds of music.”

It’s only fair that I apply the same standards to myself. I admit that I’ve claimed, in the past, to like all kinds of music (or at least most kinds – I don’t like commercial pop, hip hop or dance). And I would still claim to love blues, jazz and soul, although they’re woefully underrepresented in my record collection. But what would a statistical analysis of my CDs reveal? It would have to conclude that my favourite genres were: classic rock, including psychedelic, prog and glam; indie rock and pop, with a heavy focus on Britpop; a bit of folk / folk-rock, blues and jazz; and a bit of classical, from baroque to romantic. That’s a much more accurate description than just “all kinds”.

1 thought on “What kind of music do you like?

  1. My friend Dave came up with this idea: whenever you ask someone that question, instead say “What’s in your CD player at the moment?” and when someone asks you that question, start your answer “Well in my CD player at the moment…” It’s more interesting, saves lying and doesn’t make you look too much like a pleb because you might be just listening to S Club 7 for nostalgic reasons and have loads of really deep stuff in your collection, like Chopin or Polanski.

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