Developing Taste and Value

What we enjoy, what we appreciate and what we choose to consume constitutes our taste. The journey to developing taste mirrors the larger process of how curiosity can shape our deeper values.

I grew up in a family where music was an afterthought at best. My parents seemed to have little interest in music from their or any generation, and the only radio we had on in the house was NPR programming. It was up to my brother, a worldly two years older than I, to pave the way into pop culture and introduce me to what he thought was good music.

From those early days, especially post-access to a car, radio and time to drive and listen, I was painfully aware that opinions about what music to listen to were strong and somewhat influential. My perceptions, however, of what other people enjoyed was extremely tenuous. My ideas about why they liked what they did were completely absent. The first goal for me was to listen to something that other people wouldn’t find uncool.

That, of course, went sideways as soon as I was exposed to Andrew Lloyd Weber’s The Phantom of the Opera. My group of friends embraced musical soundtracks and provided a buttress against the rest of popular culture, but I was quite aware that this particular taste in music wasn’t mainstream.

Later, after relocating to the east coast out of college, while working in the aisles of a Whole Foods Market, I was surrounded by individuals who were musicians at heart. I thought that I had learned enough to keep me out of trouble, but alas I found myself completely out of my depth. Not only had I not heard of their favorite musicians, I found myself in the awkward position of not actually enjoying the music they purported to be “good”. It perhaps didn’t help that they were into things which I think were spoken of as “noise rock” and “industrial”. I know that one of my colleagues played an electric saw on stage, and another one was known for spitting on fans who stood close enough to the stage while screaming at the top of his lungs. Still, they were musicians and supposedly knew what they were talking about. What was my opinion compared to theirs? I mean, I thought top 40 was just fine.

Bokeh experiments, March 2020

There are two was in which taste is misunderstood and treated incorrectly in our culture. First, taste is used as a means to categorize people into different camps and tribes. Second, taste is thought of as being an established factual truth that, once set, does not significantly change. These two ideas create a negative spiral which works against the very mechanism by which we can grow and develop our own tastes.

Taste is, in fact, a relatively simple matter of exposure and reflection. The more that we encounter something, the more perspectives we have in which to contextualize it and form opinions about it. Without spending time exploring a genre of music there is no way for us to allow ourselves the space to react to it, to see how we resonate with it. Spending the time to broaden our experiences and develop our context for taste is to embrace our inner curiosity and deepen connections to inner qualities which go far beyond what music we enjoy.

Postmodern theory has trickled down to form a bedrock of our cultural paradigm, and it argues against the established “grand narratives” of our past. We are encouraged to be skeptical of any establishment telling us how to think or what to believe. Religion, politics and even truths of science are crumbling around us. In a reality where people try to avoid labels, we struggle with ways to identify and categorize individuals. Taste has become one of the social cues many people use to quickly make determinations about one another.

Aside from being an inaccurate determination of what someone is actually like, categorizing someone by their taste is to falsely assume that taste is a somewhat static element in a person’s character. I don’t think that this is the case. Taste develops, it is a process, and it is a journey.

If someone introduces you to a new genre of music, your appreciation for and understanding of that genre has everything to do with the process of your exposure.

I have been slowly wading into the vast pool of classical music over the last few years. I had been exposed throughout my life in an unstructured way, picking up snippets of famous songs and hearing most of what I thought of as classical through the lens of film soundtracks and loony tunes orchestrations.

Each of us carries with us an internal map of the way we think the world operates. It is necessarily incomplete, but functions to give us a means for formulating plans and predictions. This map is our inner gestalt. It is only as complete as what we have experienced of the world.

Before we take the trip to a new location we are often first piqued by curiosity. It isn’t enough to know that there are other places to explore, there must also be something drawing us in. For someone to thrust their tastes upon us is to be dragged kicking and screaming out of the place we know into unknown territory. If we don’t find something there that sparks our curiosity, it is likely to be an unpleasant, even off-putting, experience.

Encountering classical music was like making an international trip to someplace that I knew existed, but was only listed at the edges of my gestalt map. Like other travelling I have done, landing in a new country instantly shatters any previous sense of understanding. What I thought I knew becomes only a sliver of the reality I begin to encounter.

Being exposed to such a vast new territory is often overwhelming. To think about the storied history of classical music through what is being created by contemporary composers is like diving into all of poetry, or thinking about how to start draining a swimming pool with a tablespoon. Perhaps this is one reason why we think of tastes as static: the effort required to truly branch out and expose oneself to new material can be daunting.

Here is where the negative feedback loop of taste sits as insidious gatekeeper. Believing that my taste determined in part who I was, and that what I enjoyed was a marker on my social status, I was anxious about trying to listen to anything other than what I already knew. What if I jumped into classical music and listed to the wrong things? What I found that I only liked the terrible stuff, the material that would get me laughed at by other people who knew more than I did? Opening up new territory on my gestalt map was a liability for me, and I think for many people.

The first step is certainly the most difficult. Purchasing the ticket, boarding the plane, stepping out onto new soil, if we can do those things then we have achieved something magical. We are now outside of the map, charting new territory, and providing the opportunity to develop a stronger sense of who we are and what matters most in our lives.

Curiosity may be a useful entry point, but it doesn’t cease to be important to the process. It is certainly possible to be a dethatched tourist, just visiting the places we have been told about, taking a few pictures and then heading home. Perhaps we enjoyed it, perhaps we thought it was overrated, but if we don’t actively engage then our trip is doomed to be brief and unrepeated.

Developing taste must be a continuing process and an active process. Curiosity continues to drive us, but it asks us to be vulnerable, to have opinions. What did we like? What did we find strange or unique?

I started with some heavy hitters; symphonies of Beethoven, Brahms and Dvorak. I caught the thread of some musical themes and textures that I liked, and shied away from others. Seems there is a romantic streak within me, and as much as I enjoy Beethoven’s rollicking energy, I would rather sink deep into Brahm’s 3rd or 4th.

Finding guides can be useful. We exist in a wonderful time full of diversified podcasts and in depth interest pieces which can provide useful context and hints at where to look next. Learning even a little bit about the history or context of a piece can help us begin to develop a vocabulary.

At each step of the process curiosity will continue to be the guide. Each new piece of music contributes to the whole of our experience, and as long as we continue to follow the questions that arise we will continue to deepen our perspective.

At some point I picked up on themes from folk tunes that had been used by composers to enrich their concepts, and following that thread, I came to realize that those core ideas had more to say to me than the capital “C” classical concertos or symphonies to which they had been adapted. Some of my favorite works now are string quartets performing traditional music from northern Europe and Scandinavia.

I understand the need to find connections with others, and the instinctual reaction to look for members of our own tribe. Taste will always play a role as short-hand, and can certainly point us in the direction of common experiences, but to dismiss someone for their taste is absurd.

If we have done the work of actively developing our own sense of taste, then the opinions of others won’t impact us. To feel threated in one’s opinion based on how someone else feels about it points to shallow taste, which has been developed solely out of the opinions of others and has no roots of its own. To deny someone else a place in our tribe because their taste isn’t deep enough is far more damaging to them. None of us arrive fully formed into a tribe, to deny them access based on their stage in the process is to alienate someone who might truly be interested. Someone who is honestly seeking will surely bring more interesting perspective to a tribe than those who claim attendance but would rather not be scrutinized. Here is where advocating for compassion comes into play. We have the choice to be guides, welcoming newcomers into a world that they want to learn about, providing them context that we ourselves have discovered, and supporting them through the complicated journey of developing their own tastes. It will make our tribes stronger, richer and much more interesting.

Taste is much more than belonging to a tribe.

It is through our experiences with the world that we come to understand who we are. Art in all of its forms and genres, as a manifestation of the human soul, provides a very special mirror for our internal character. The journey of developing taste is linked very closely to the development of our core values.

Seeking taste is a parallel to seeking ourselves.

It is through the same process of embracing, following and analyzing our own curiosity that we come to understand what matters to us most in this world. The more nuanced we can become, the more clearly we will be able to live our lives in accordance with the things that matter.

Each person could be pursuing this journey of self-discovery. We know it is a difficult one. If we can extend a sense of compassion to others it does not cost us our place in the tribe, but it might open us up to new relationships with like minded people who are at different stages and who come from different places. Sharing ideas with others is one of the best ways to refine our tastes and values once they have begun to form. Compassion is a necessary step to fully realize where we ourselves actually stand.

I think that using this model of developing our tastes and values is vitally important in our current landscape. As grand narratives continue to dissolve, and the popular rhetoric takes aim at anyone purporting to advocate broad systems thought, the only place in which we can turn to find bedrock is within ourselves. What might it look like if everyone spent some time thoughtfully considering and developing their own tastes, rather than taking what has been handed to them? What kind of decisions might we begin to take in our daily lives, and therefore for the country as a whole? Hopefully this thought experiment can provide a bit of framework for how this kind of work can begin.