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.
You may have noticed, I’ve avoided the word taste throughout this book, despite it being a word that's thrown around in creative circles abundantly. I avoid it since taste is mostly contextual. I regularly joke that I don’t enjoy ska music yet my favorite record of all time, The Clash’s London Calling, has ska on it. While discussions of taste are important, I think the term is commonly misallocated. What's often called distasteful is when someone chooses to paint with a color that conflicts with the way they feel an emotion. A common case of this can be one's enjoyment of both rap and rock. While a listener can enjoy both genres separately, when combined, they find the emotional combination repulsive. Many attribute this to taste, but this is actually an adverse emotional reaction to a combination that emotionally conflicts within them.
Taste is commonly talked about like a border that can't be crossed, yet we see time and time again that someone can bridge that border once the right balance of emotional palates is achieved. While many listeners frown on rap-rock, when Jay Z's "99 Problems" comes on, the combination compels them to bop their head in unconstrained enjoyment. The same can go for huge compressed drums that make songs sound aggressive; if they're in a folk song, that's judged as bad taste. Usually, people who don't enjoy these qualities call it taste, but really the emotion of aggression is one the listener doesn't empathize with. What’s considered taste is most often an emotional choice that diminishes the listener’s resonance with a song. The different attributes we find tasteful are forever malleable and dependent on the emotional reactions we have when we hear music. This is why I avoid talking about them as much as possible and instead focus on what we feel is emotionally resonant.
In my own "tastes," I love twangy guitars in country music, yet when I hear them in heavy rock songs or dance music, I hit stop as fast as possible. The misnomer of taste is that we feel a certain emotional attachment to a sound. A twangy guitar to my ear makes me feel a shade of emotions that when put in contexts outside of those emotions, it declines the resonance of a song to me. I can't stand gospel music, yet when their style of vocals are in the background on The 1975's "The Sound," my taste's context changes as I listen to the song repeatedly. Taste cannot be assigned to specific attributes in music; it will always be contextual depending on how an element is used emotionally. Tastes change when they are emotionally mixed in a way a listener finds pleasing and those borders are ever changing for most open-minded people.
We need to remember that most innovations in music come from adding an element that was thought to be tasteless by the masses, which then becomes highly resonant when used in the right context. Whether this is Dave Davies distorting a guitar for the first time, John Bonham adding room ambience to drum recordings, Justice bringing metal riffs to dance music or whatever evolution of music you can think of, all of these innovations were tried by others and deemed tasteless until they were presented in the proper emotional context.