Music Is An Emotional Conversation
Linguist Noam Chomsky says that all humans are biologically programmed to gain knowledge. This programming leads us to exhaustively continue conversations until we thoroughly understand the subjects that interest us. Brian Eno once said, "what's exciting about art is you’re hearing the latest sentence in a conversation you've been having all your life." This is a great way of looking at why music is more or less resonant to us. When we think of musicians as emotional communicators that inspire conversations about an emotion within our minds, you can gain a deeper understanding of why you enjoy music.
To explore this idea, let’s think of genres of music as broad emotional categories where each type of emotion is a genre of music. I think of the musicians we love as teachers of a certain subject that are conversing with your emotions. If you change out the word “conversation” for “music” in this analogy, it probably reflects the music listening experience you've had throughout your life.
When you're young, you’re thrilled with most conversations that talk about a subject you're interested in that you can comprehend, whether it's the best explanation of the subject or not. The first time you have a conversation that's emotionally resonant, the person explaining the idea doesn't need to be the person who first thought of the idea as long as they communicate it in a way that's stimulating to you. It's so exciting; you're thrilled by those who communicate this emotion, even if they don't do it best. Later on, you may find those who do it better and think less of who first communicated this emotion. Similarly, the innovators of a genre of music aren't necessarily the ones you enjoy the most; someone may come along and communicate the emotion of the genre in a way that's more resonant to you than others. They just seem to speak your language better. The originators of this emotion didn't find the way to make it most resonant to your emotions, so we may enjoy those who explored the emotion after the originator. This can stem from sharing a common region, age or emotional disposition that's more akin to you than those who are widely celebrated in the genre.
When you have a conversation, it may touch on other subjects and defy easy categorization, just as our emotions are nuanced and cannot be simply described with a single word. There are parts of songs that resonate with us and others that fall flat since they’re not emotions we connect with, just as you won’t identify with every song on an album. If an emotion is expressed that you don’t feel resonance with, it can leave you feeling apathetic, just as when someone talks about how they feel and you’ve never experienced that emotion.
Occasionally, you'll have a conversation that changes the way you think. You'll hear such a great expression of what you feel, it inspires epiphanies for years to come. Other times, you'll be having a conversation just to pass the time. You may have had this conversation many times and know every source of it and find it to be boring, since you prefer those you’ve originally had this conversation with.
There are countless reasons a conversation may not be resonant with you. As we have this conversation with different communicators, again and again, we'll grow bored if it doesn't bring forth new ways of talking about the subject and will crave new ways of discussing it. If you have a conversation too many times, it becomes less resonant and you no longer wish to have it, just as a song can be highly resonant at first and then become annoying after repeated listens. If it's done in too complex a way that you can’t understand it won’t be resonant. Some musicians may only be good at certain conversations. You may only enjoy their ballads or their bangers since, when they communicate those emotions, they align with what's resonant within you.
The Maturation Of Your Emotions In Music
As our emotions change from the angst and immaturity of our teenage years, we gain the experience of having heard different resonances of emotion throughout the songs we've heard in our lives. We also build a tolerance to inauthentic, less resonant acts. When we're teenagers, we don't care that songs are similar, shallow and less authentic since the bar to emotionally resonate within us is so low that we can enjoy the same emotional note hit over and over again. Our brains are continuously growing callous to the emotions we hear in music. We want to hear new ways for music to be expressed. While older fans may grow to only enjoy familiar emotions, commonly the older you get, the less time you devote to being open to hearing new music you enjoy. As the common saying goes, "the music you love at eighteen stays with you for your whole life."
As a listener, we may be stimulated by the first song we hear that has a small amount of emotional resonance, but in time as we hear other groups we grow less impressed by them. These acts hit an emotional resonance for us that we're desperate to comfort as the pains of overly wrought emotion from puberty need to be constantly comforted. We then get past this and mature in our emotional needs, and we come to a place where we need more refined emotional stimulation.
Just as a dollhouse or a toy train is interesting to us as a kid, we grow to become more interested in complex interests to hold our attention. Our emotions mature, so we need to express ourselves in more mature ways. This is one of the hardest parts of making music because your fans turn to you to make a certain emotional lexicon as well, but as you age and mature these emotions change and they grow as much as you do. For your career's sake this hopefully happens together, otherwise they abandon you for those expressing emotions more resonant to them.
Sadly, when it comes to record sales, the majority of music is bought by 15- to 24-year-olds. This isn't to say you need to make generic music to appeal to them but more to say that there's a reason you don't see IDM and prog rock on the pop charts. Most listeners never evolve to the level of musical maturity it takes to understand the emotions expressed in these genres. This is also not to say that complex and interesting music isn't always rewarded with record sales ― look to recent hits by Diplo & Skrillex or Queen and Radiohead's success. Even a song like *NSYNC's "Pop" has an extremely complex production, as do countless Timbaland tracks from the aughts.
Even if a song is resonant with you at one time, that doesn't mean you won't change emotionally and forget it. With that said, our nostalgia for who we used to be allows us to appreciate that music we loved back then. But those who communicate this emotion once we've moved past it won't resonate with us, since we're no longer open to hearing their expression.
This is an excerpt of the book Processing Creativity: The Tools, Practices And Habits Used To Make Music You’re Happy With. If you would like to download an excerpt or buy a copy you can do so here.