Is having “good taste in music” just a case of personal preference? Is it true that taste is just a subjective thing? Does everyone have specific music they like, but no one's preferences are any better than anyone else's? Is there really no such thing as good taste in music?
If you contend there's no such thing as good taste in music then aren’t you also contending that there's no such thing as good music? Because if there was good music, then people who liked that particular kind of music would have better taste in music than people who didn't like it. So take away taste, and you also take away the idea of good music, and by default, you also have to take away the idea of there being musicians that make better music than other musicians.
Somehow, though, I think, music (among other things) is hard to place into the ring of relativism. If you’re trying to make music, taste takes on a more concrete form. The musicians make choices - “Would it make the song better if we added X to the chorus, or changed the ending from Y to Z?” But if no music is necessarily better than other music, why would it matter what the heck a musician decided to do? I mean if no music is better than other music why should anyone bother to become proficient at an instrument or learn music theory, for example? If there’s no such thing as good music and bad music, why does it matter what your music sounds like? If there's no such thing as better, it doesn't matter what you do. Shoot, why even bother to make music at all? We could all just sit around and absorb the ambient sounds of civilization all around us instead. That would be infinitely more complex and at the same time a heck of a lot easier to do anyway.
Of course the missing element in all this is the fact that one of the main goals of creating music is for the product to make it’s way to a listener. That’s the purpose - to be heard and appreciated by a listener. And it’s a plain fact that some music does this job a lot better than other music. Of course the level and type of appreciation varies - some music makes you want to move, some to relax and some to contemplate the universe. But all music has to do one thing in common - it has to resonate at some level with a listener.
And though there are billions of potential listeners, at the same time there are also lots of listeners that have lots of things in common. Like, maybe, an innate understanding of and appreciation for simple melodies. Small toddlers and even some babies react to the hearing of melodies in a favorable way. As if there is something ingrained in their brain chemistry that recognizes and understands rudimentary musical elements. So, for example, we could say that one of the things many potential listeners have in common is a preference for hearing things with some semblance of a melody.
So even though there’s a whole world of people out there each with their own opinion about music, I think we can still say we could pick out some of them and say that they have better taste in music than the others do. How can we do this? Well, if a lot of listeners like a lot of things in common, we wouldn’t be choosing at random then, would we? We would now have groups of listeners that don’t necessarily have good or bad taste, but they have similar tastes.
And each group of listeners is like an individual tree in a rainforest canopy. The trunk representing the musical taste of the group and the individual branches being the members of that group - for example: children, teenagers and adults. And then it gets more diverse and intricate as the branches of the different trees intertwine in the canopy - women, men, Oklahomans, Argentineans, Tanzanians, and on and on.
So how do we get to where we say what good or bad music is? Well we can start with the largest group of listeners - everyone on the planet. We could say that a beginning criterion for good music is music that would appeal, at some level, to any human. There are many elements of music that are potentially pleasing to everybody. And if you boil down the definition of good music to elements that resonate with things that humans have in common, I think you are at a good foundation for saying that good music, and hence, good taste in music, is objective. There is no subjectivity if the reaction is favorable to all. So being good is a property of some kinds of music.
But that doesn’t necessarily mean we can tell which music is good by a taking Gallup poll of listeners to find out what music appeals to the most people, though. Why? Well, because in my opinion, there are two things that usually get in the way of really hearing music for what it is: Biases brought by us, and dishonesty presented to us from the artist. An example of biases would be familiarity with an artist or band being the number one determining factor in the judgment of the music. I would also throw in as bias people deceiving themselves. Some listeners are so caught up in the whole hipster thing, that in trying to figure out what they’re supposed to like, they may actually make themselves like certain music. An example of dishonesty would be an artist or band pandering to an audience that's easily fooled, mimicking a trendy style or purposely making inaccessible music to impress would-be hipsters.
Of course the best thing we can do to try and avoid personal bias and recognize artistic dishonesty is to expose ourselves to a wide-ranging variety of music. While there’s no way we can listen to everything (who would want to anyway) when we run across music that we like, older people like, younger people like, and people in Tanzania and Argentina like, well, there’s probably something special about that music.
But I’m digressing. I didn’t really set out to talk about how to cultivate good taste in music but rather to say that there is such a thing as good taste in music.
Good music is music that resonates with the listener at some level, and since all listeners have many things in common the things in the music that resonate with them are not just random. And since there is such a thing as good music, it logically follows that there is such a thing as good taste. And good taste would be the ability of a listener to recognize good music.
Thanks to Paul Graham and his excellent essay "How Art Can Be Good" (http://www.paulgraham.com/goodart.html) for many of the ideas he expounded on pertaining to art I liberated and applied to music.