Judging New Music: Criteria

There are two dangerous extremes one can cling to while judging new music — having a constrained set of values by which one judges music, or having an overly liberal way of judging music.

Constrained Criteria

Those with a constrained set of musical values are the easiest to spot because they are usually the loudest and most visible. They are dedicated to a single genre, or maybe a couple of genres, and they are ready to defend the musical values that make up these genres to the death. Some examples:

  • Classical music elitists
  • Metalheads
  • Ravers
  • Indie enthusiasts
  • Jazz enthusiasts
  • Hipsters of most varieties

Overly Liberal Criteria

Those with overly liberal criteria are trickier to spot. They fall into two subcategories — the apathetic and the repressed. Apathetic listeners simply don’t care about what kind of music they listen to. They claim to “like everything”. I’m allowing for their theoretical existence in this writing, but I have never actually met someone that falls into this category. Repressed listeners are typically found in academia — usually in music or music-related programs. The repressed listener actually loves music intensely. They are usually a devotee of a genre that is frowned upon in their area of study. Due to this peer pressure to conform, and to embrace the types of music supported by the relatively homogenous value system around them, they repress this desire to listen, research, and talk about the genre like like, typically deeming it “non-academic”. The repressed listener then begins to play the “my musical tastes are more egalitarian than yours” game, essentially virtue-signaling to their peers that they have reached some higher plane of musical understanding and thus have no time for mortal things such as passion. The repressed listener is best avoided.

An inquiry into musical values

I propose a middle path between strong taste, and openmindedness instead. How should one go about this process?

What type of listener are you?

Think about the types of music you listen to, and types of music your friends listen to. What listener archetype do you feel you identify with the most? You don’t have to pick one, but try and figure out if you lean more towards having a constrained set of criteria, or an overly liberal one.

What are your “safe genres”?

Take a few minutes and look at the music on your phone, or your recently played tracks on Spotify/Apple Music/etc. What is the predominant genre represented by this music? What are the top three genres?

Value forming and expansion exercises

If you’re overly conservative in your musical values do the following: go back to your list of “safe genres”, and find a tangentially related genre to one of them. Find an event calendar for the nearest large city, and find a concert where this tangentially related genre of music will be featured, i.e. if you are into hip-hop, you might look for a spoken word event. While you’re at this event, have brief conversations with at least three strangers. Getting a vibe for the average person at one of these events could offer powerful insight into the values and criteria by which the music is judged by.

If your musical criteria is overly liberal, do this same exercise. After the event has ended, jot down five things that you enjoyed about the experience, and five things that you did not.

After a few repetitions of these exercises, you’ll start to see trends emerge. Naturally, you will start to gravitate towards certain genres and be repelled by others. When this begins to happen, stay mindful and take note of what values you like about the music that you are being pulled to, and what values you dislike about the music that is repelling you.

Get out there and hear some new music. Happy listening!

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