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Musical Omnivores

Thursday, September 30, 2010 - 11:55 AM

I never understood why people would ask, “how can you like so many different types of music?” when most of them would never think of asking, “how can you like so many different types of food?”

I imagine Alex Ross gets this question quite a lot these days (the music one – I don’t know what kinds of stuff he eats), especially since the publication of his massive meditation on the music of the 20th century called The Rest Is Noise.  In that book and in his new one, Listen To This, he writes about the classical music he grew up with and still loves, but also about Radiohead, Dylan, Björk, Chinese Imperial music, and more. 

Besides the quality of the writing, what I love about Alex’s books and his essays in The New Yorker is the almost visceral reaction he seems to have to so many different types of music.  In his new book he compares the slashing chords in Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony with the ominous guitar noise that leads to the chorus of Radiohead’s “Creep.”  It’s the sort of thing where you slap your forehead and say, “of course!  How could I have missed that before!” 

Most of us are omnivores; you may love Italian food, but occasionally you want something French, or Thai, or a cheeseburger.  And while I’m willing to wait and see what happens to people’s listening habits as digital media continues into its second decade of dominance, one of the neat things I’ve seen in the world of mp3 players is how varied people’s musical tastes have become in an age of shuffle play and easy downloads of multiple genres from a single place.  Increasingly, people’s iPods are becoming omnivorous.  A teenager’s library might include the usual Lady Gaga and Kanye West tracks, but there could be orchestral music from the Avalon soundtrack, or the Bach cello sonata they heard on those American Express commercials. 

It’s becoming evident that what’s important is not what we’re listening to, but how.  Neuroscientists are fascinated by that question; clearly Alex Ross is too.  It’s almost as if the question these days is not “how can you like so many different types of music?” but “how can you not?”

Has digital media made us more omnivorous musically?  Leave a comment



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