Are there different kinds of music listeners?
I had a recent chat with a non-musician friend of mine. We were talking about music, and started comparing two different songs. One song was a commercial, American rap song, and the other, an underground, Australian rap song. I suggested that the reason the underground song was ‘worse’, was because it used a strange juxtaposition of instruments (drums, flute and some sort of mandolin – it didn’t come off that successful), and it used very repetitive, uninteresting chords that didn’t “go anywhere”. The song never really reached an apex, it just stayed flat the whole way through. I suggested that the reason the more commercial song was ‘good’, was because it used a more pleasant-to-the-ear chord sequence, a rising structure that built up towards the end, and more recognizable instrumentation for the genre (synths, a funky bassline, etc).
My non-musician friend had different insights. He didn’t really think about the difference between the music at all (though I suspect that on some level he noticed it). Instead, he liked the more successful song because the lyrics were aspirational. Instead of telling a personal, involved story like the underground song, the lyrics were sort of encouraging, along the lines of ‘my life is awesome, let’s party, throw your hands in the air’. He said the song made him ‘feel good’. Me, I liked the other song’s lyrics better, though. They were more original and personal, and made me ‘think’, whereas I felt the successful song’s lyrics came off pretty braggy, and sounded like a million other rap songs out there.
Therein lies our difference, though. My friend is clearly the sort of listener who considers the ‘surface’ lines of the music. He notices lyrics in a song’s chorus, and catchy melodies, moreso than anything else. I’m not bagging him out, by the way – this is just his approach to music. It made me stop and think, though, because I definitely notice music in a different way. I am pretty sure that I notice the progression of the instrumentation, more than anything, when I first hear a song. That’s why it sometimes takes me a few tries to listen to popular music and ‘get’ why it is popular. A lot of very ‘pop’ music out there at the moment sounds so uniform throughout the song (eg: Katy Perry’s songs). As I listen to the music, I often think “what’s so good about this? It just stays the same nearly the whole song through! Oh there’s the middle 8 – how predictable”. Then after a couple of listens, I will notice that the vocal melody line is insanely catchy, and understand why it’s popular. (Then it will mercilessly get stuck in my head…sigh). Sometimes I do notice the vocal melody over everything else, but only if it is very unique, or if the singer has a special voice.
It’s hard to find any one definitive ‘study’ of different kinds of music listeners/fans. I found a couple of interesting opinions I will outline here, though:
Chase March’s idea: There are 3 different levels of music listeners –
1. The casual listener (“doesn’t pay much attention to the music whatsoever. This listener often doesn’t know the name of the artists or the songs that they listen to. They don’t own much in the way of music. “).
2. The second type of listener (“likes the sound of the music and doesn’t really focus on the lyrics as much. If it has a good beat, they are into it. If it has a catchy chorus, it doesn’t really matter what the song is about, they like it.”)
3. The third type of listener (“really listens to and analyzes lyrics. This listener cares about the whole package. It isn’t just about the lyrics. The song needs to have a good beat too, and the delivery needs to be on point. This listener is often critical of everything they hear.”)
I’m not sure if I entirely agree with Chase’s assessment, because I’d consider my non-musician friend to be a ‘casual’ or ‘2nd-type listener’, but he definitely notices lyrics moreso than the music. I would probably suggest Chase changing his model to have the ‘2nd type listener’ notice lyrics moreso than the music. I’ve definitely found that, in my experience, ‘casual’ music listeners tend to notice the lyrics and melodies, and not really pay attention to the music/instrumentation. On some level I’m sure they are responding to the ‘feel’ or ’emotional key’ of the music, but on the surface they mostly notice catchy melodies and chorus phrases. If I had to categorize myself, I guess I’d be a ‘third-type’ listener, though.
This guy’s idea (found on a rateyourmusic forum) – There are 3 types of music listeners, sitters, seekers and standers:
1. Sitters do not actively seek out new music, they ‘sit back’ and let music come to them – usually through radio, TV and media. Their only exposure to music is through what others present to them. They have a strong preference for chart-topping music.
2. Seekers actively seek out music and are always adding to their collection. They may be into more underground and less popular genres. They may get recommendations from their friends, but often seek out music on their own.
3. Standers can be hostile towards new music. They tend to stick with their own collection of music, and don’t want to add to it. They are often afficionados or fans of ‘classic’ genres. “Standers are big believers in a canon of music that is perfect and unchallengeable as the standard of excellence in the form.”
I find this guy’s insights interesting, but I don’t really think everyone can fit into these categories. I do know some people that fit in, but I think a lot of people would be a combination of the few. I know someone who is, I suppose, a ‘stander’ (absolutely loves metal and barely listens to anything else), but he’s always ‘seeking’ new bands and genres within metal to listen to. I guess if I had to choose one for myself, I’d be a ‘stander’.
There was one article I read ages ago that I thought was very interesting, but for the life of me I can’t remember where I read it. I’ve tried to google it, but to no avail. From what I remember, the article also suggested that there are 3 levels of music listeners. It was something like:
3rd level – Loves and pretty much lives for music. Can’t imagine life without music. Sees songs as the soundtrack to their life, and associates memories with music. Can have memories triggered by a certain song. Sees live music a lot. Gives music full attention when listening. (Definitely me!)
2nd level – Likes music, but sees it more as the background to their life. May have favourite songs and artists, but doesn’t take a huge interest in seeing live music. Can have music in the background but doesn’t always pay attention to it. (My non-musician friend would be this type)
1st level – Hates music and barely ever listens to it, unless they don’t have control over the situation. Many of these people are psychopaths or people who find it difficult to empathize with other people.
I found this article really thought-provoking at the time, particularly when I thought about what kinds of people would be in the 1st level. Have you ever met someone who really despises music?! I haven’t – the ‘worst’ music listeners I’ve met have been people who simply don’t listen to much music, unless it’s on their car radio. They aren’t constantly seeking music, and don’t play it at home. But if you ask them about music, they’ll still have a few artists or genres they prefer. To completely hate music, though – are there any people actually like that out there?
YEP, there are. Just check out this comment thread. Some people really don’t like it. There is also a medical condition called amusia that, to put it simply, makes listening to music quite unpleasant. It has to do with a disorder in mental processing of melodies/notes.
The article I read suggested that many psychopaths and mentally ill people would fit into the 1st-level category, mainly because they have trouble empathizing, and music has a lot to do with emotion. This can’t be entirely true, though. Case en pointe: Charles Manson. It’s well documented that he wrote a lot of music, so on some level, he must have liked it. Hitler also had a pretty large music collection, though debates still rage about his mental state. A popular theory is that he had something akin to Asperger’s. I personally know someone with Asperger’s, who is a very talented musician. Jeffrey Saltzman has an interesting blog post about psychopaths in the corporate workplace, that discusses the suggestion of psychopaths hearing ‘the words but not the music’ – ie, they intereact with music on a surface level, but don’t really ‘feel’ it. I don’t know – from trolling around some psychopathic and sociopathic message boards online, the general consensus (from the psychopaths and sociopaths themselves) seems to be that psychopaths do like some kinds of music. They are capable of feeling some emotions, such as anger, but not the emotion we call ’empathy’. But they tend to stick with what they know, and have a particular affinity for ‘highbrow’ music such as classical music. It’s very interesting to think about what a person who truly dislikes all music would be like, though. What sort of hollow robot would they be?!
I’m clearly biased, as a musician and music-lover. But I see music and art as things that define us as ‘human’. It’s really strange to me that there are people who don’t feel that way. However, it takes all kinds to make a world…!
One of the best models I’ve found in my readings has been composer Aaron Copland’s theory of the ‘3 planes of listening’. You can read an article on this here, along with an investigation of listener actions. But I will outline it for you below:
1. The sensuous plane – we hear the music without thinking or analysing it. On this level, we can still be influenced by music, but in a non-conscious way. Eg: by hearing upbeat music playing in a store, we will buy more than if we are listening to slow, sad music.
2. The expressive plane – we hear the ’emotion’ of the music, or ‘feel’ it. This is where listeners give a ‘meaning’ to the music they are listening to. Unless I’m being analytical, I tend to listen to music on this plane.
3. The purely musical plane – this plane requires focused listening. On this plane, the listener notices all the musical aspects – the volume, tone, rhythm, tempo, melodies, harmonies and structure.
I like this model because it doesn’t incorporate any ‘hierachy’ or judgement about the personality of the music listener. It just talks about the level of engagement the listener is having with the music. Perhaps it’s possible to turn a ‘sensous’ listener into an ‘expressive’ or ‘purely musical’ listener, simply through adjusting their level of attention to the music.
I can understand someone disliking, say, a genre of music (there are a couple I’m generally not too fond of). But it’s very difficult for me to imagine hating the entirity of music there is in existence. Surely there is something for everyone out there? Learning and listening to music has been proven to improve cognitive functions such as problem solving, creativity and stress management. Music is successfully used as therapy in many spheres. Maybe the world would be a better place if more people had a creative outlet such as music, or art, to focus on.
This is just my opinion, though – maybe some people would say the same thing about science, math or philosophy!
Until next time,