My Evolution of Musical Tastes

Music is highly subjective. I can like one thing, you can like something else, and that’s perfectly okay. We don’t all need to like the same genres or styles, and even if we do, we can prefer different artists within those genres. You can’t really be wrong when it comes to music.

Unless you like Friday. They you are a terrible person.

I wrote a quick thing about my musical tastes before, and I realized afterwards that I was wrong. Well, more accurately, my tastes had evolved in a more complex way than I had originally thought. All of my music is stored digitally now, like most people, and each song has an ‘acquired date.’ By sorting through these, I can see the literal evolution of my music library over time. It’s quite interesting, actually. Well, maybe not to you, but for me it’s interesting.

I could just list all 2,695 items, including a brief sentence or not on why I like that particular song, but that would take approximately forever to do. Here’s a long summary instead. Note that I have rather different tastes than the average person. Read on and you’ll find out.

I didn’t care about music until about 12 or 13. If I listened to music before then, it was incidental, accidental, not on purpose. My mom had a huge music library, and she had a constant stream of music playing. She loved classic rock, specifically late-70s and 80s. That would be my first exposure to music, but I didn’t really pay attention until I was nearly a teenager.

The catalyst was One Week, by the Barenaked Ladies. It was the hit of the year, and it was the first song I wanted to listen to. I’d go out of my way to to listen to it. In the process, I began to listen to the radio much more often. I suppose I actually bought my first radio that year, and from that point on I had a constant stream of music playing in my room.

Also, being Canadian, I’m culturally expected to support the Barenaked Ladies out of nationalism. It helps they make good music.

I remember liking a number of songs, but I also remember not caring for a large number of them. I suppose that’s just par for the course when it comes to listening to the radio, but it frustrated me. Why did I have to wait 30min to hear a song I actually liked? Why was there so much apparent filler? It wasn’t filler, of course, but simply music I didn’t care about. If I wanted to hear exclusively music I liked, I’d need to purchase it.

Music has many different elements, and I only really liked two parts. Most people, for instance, really care about the beat. They want to listen or dance to music with a good beat. I don’t really care about the beat. I also don’t care about lyrics. Sure, catchy lyrics are nice, but they aren’t essential. This is exactly why I never got into rap or hip hop, as that’s all they are, beat and lyrics.

For me, I cared about melody above all else. I wanted something to hum, that catchy bit. Melody was the driving force. If a song had a good melody, I liked it. Most radio songs, though, have simple or uninspiring melodies. Many songs use similar chord progressions, which limits potential melodic ideas. That’s why generic radio songs can all blend together in the background, at least for me. No melody stood out.

Secondly, I cared about … something hard to define. I suppose it’s the timbre, or the richness of the sound. I want my music to sound full, to have substance. I know, I’m doing a terrible job of describing this, but I don’t really know how. I guess it’s about harmonies and different instruments, different sounds.

For example, listen to American Psycho, a hit back in the early 2000s. It’s catchy, and I do like it … but it sounds very contained, almost dull. There’s no richness of sound. If you take out the drums and the vocals, you’ve got one guitar riff and not much else. By contrast, listen to Elbow’s Grounds for Divorce or Blind Melon’s No Rain or Poison’s Valley of Lost Souls. The sound is so much fuller, richer, brighter. You may not like any of these songs, but can you hear the difference in ‘fullness’?

‘Tone colour’ is a good description, but I think I’m really talking about a combination of this and harmony. Maybe. I’m not a musician. Well, I was, but definitely not with music theory.

In general, I found most contemporary radio music lacking in terms of melody or fullness of sound, and often both. Classic rock, by contrast, generally had both, and I quickly migrated to classic rock radio stations, and within a year I had a nice collection of classic rock CDs. In particular, I enjoyed Supertramp, Styx and Peter Gabriel, both in Genesis and his solo work. Especially his solo work.

And for a long time, that was it. Lots and lots of classic rock. Things didn’t change until high school, where I was part of the school concert band. We played some amazing classical-like music. I suppose, technically, it wasn’t classical music, but to the layperson it sounded classical. I fell in love with Queen’s Park Melody and Oregon, both by Jacob de Haan. I could listen to these songs all day …

… only, at the time, I couldn’t. I couldn’t buy this music if I tried. Who sold it? Napster had come out, but it shut down before I had a chance to download these. I didn’t have enough computer experience to find alternate routes, and so I did the next best thing: movie soundtracks.

Do you remember Napster? It used to be huge. I discovered it about two weeks before it was taken down. Yes, go ahead, blame me.

Soundtracks had the same general flow as classical music, but they were often more melodic. Okay, obviously classical music had melodies, but they weren’t always friendly listening. Themes and variations developed slowly, and you needed to actively listen to get the most out of it. You couldn’t just play it in the background while you studied or did homework, and that’s mostly what I needed from my music.

Music soundtracks, almost be definition, are a type of background music, but they have lots of character, a good melody and excellent fullness in sound. I listened to The Lord of the Rings soundtracks almost to death. I loved the movies, and the soundtracks were the icing on the cake. Other soundtracks included Pirates of the Caribbean and the Lion King, my two favourites.

Almost at the same time, I discovered videogame music. As the name suggests, it’s music from videogames. Similar to movie soundtracks, these songs were all primarily background in nature, but they are different. A good videogame song needs to draw the player in, to create atmosphere, to set the tone. Movies can include dialogue and narration, but early videogames only had music, and that music needed to be powerful enough to stand on its own.

In particular, the Final Fantasy games were my favourite, and Nobuo Uematsu became my most listened-to composer. It certainly helped that I grew up playing videogames, so these songs triggered memories with the melodies, making them that much more potent.

Final Fantasy VIII was a really strange game, but it had unquestionably great music. Eyes On Me and Man with the Machine Gun for the win!

And for a long time, that was it. Classic rock, soundtracks and videogame music, and more and more it was mostly the videogame stuff. I began to phase out vocals entirely. Things then changed, late in 2011, when I finally discovered the name of O Fortuna. This is one of the songs that you know when you listen to, especially the last half, but you never know the name of the song itself.

Well, I had it now, and I loved it. In particular, this song had power. It had a driving force to it, along with obvious richness in sound and a simply melody. Perhaps more than anything, it built into something more. That is, it started simple, grew more complex and ended with a flourish. Amazing. That night, I began searching for more music in this style, and after looking through some classical pieces that were hit or miss, I finally found epic music.

Technically, the music industry prefers ‘trailer music’, but virtually all the fans call it epic music. When you listen to movie trailers, they often have pumped-up, driving classical music … music that you never hear during the movie itself. Indeed, these pieces are not composed by the studio but by separate companies, places that specialize in creating such trailer music.

And it’s amazing. Absolutely amazing.

This image perfectly describes the music, and the music perfectly describes this image.

It contains everything I love. There’s a melody, though often not too pronounced. There’s richness of sound in spades. The whole thing is richness of sound. Most importantly, these songs all have that building quality. Movie trailers are a narrative, and the action on screen builds up the end, trying to get potential customers interested to go see it. The music matches this, and just about every song builds till the end, where there is some big payoff. Oh God, it’s beautiful.

Just as there are different types of movies, there are different types of epic music. Some of it is kind and tranquil, but still driving in its own way.  Others are all-out pulse-pounding excitement.  Others still are just freaking amazing, beyond any classification beyond ‘awesome‘.

And all of those are only from one company, Two Steps From Hell. I haven’t even mentioned Audiomachine. Or Future World Music. Or Immediate Music, plus it’s band version Globus. Or Epic Score. West One Music. Dark Matter Sounds. Gothic Storm. It just keeps going.

If I had to chose a favourite, it would be Thomas Bergersen, a composer for Two Steps From Hell. He has produced two solo albums of sorts, Illusions and Sun, and they are both incredible in their own right. They have become two of my most listened to albums over the years.

Just looking at the album art alone is enough to know that you are in for a treat.

Currently, that’s where I stand. I started with listening to the radio, desiring to hear more melodies and a fuller richness of sound. I then journeyed through classic rock and classical, finding soundtracks and videogame music to ultimate come to my destination, epic music. This stuff is the soundtrack to my life, and I can’t imagine anything superseding it.

If it does, it will have to be epic indeed.

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