On the surface, few things are as revealing about a person as the sort of music they claim to like. Think, for a moment, about the major genres of music out there and the social and economic stereotypes associated with each. For decades, music has been used as a social tool to figure people out by categorizing them into neat, predictable boxes. Musical stereotyping has always been problematic, but in 2019, it’s also becoming woefully inaccurate about not only music fans, but also musicians. Today, music is bending and shifting into new styles that borrow from a spectrum of all genres and eras like never before. As musicians, we’re doing ourselves a massive disservice when we listen to music we think we like and nothing else.
The baggage of genre
Musical stereotypes can be harmful for musicians, but they can also provide comfortable and lazy identities to hide behind. If you make a certain type of music, the world expects you to act in predictable ways, whether it’s how you dress or the themes and instrumentation you feature in your work. Making the effort to explore work you think you don’t like can expose the drawbacks of the genre you write in by showing you what’s really going on with music you might’ve written off years ago. Once you recognize how powerful stereotype-driven expectation is in music, you can listen with new ears and start hearing an artist’s work for their creative merit and not through the filter of association.
Opportunities to learn, grow, and discern
Listening to music you’re not familiar with or a fan of provides something many musicians are sorely lacking in their lives: newness. In music, it’s easy to decide what we like as teenagers and to write the same sounding songs over and over again. Giving music you think you don’t like another shot is a chance to become exposed to new ideas in music that can inform our own work. Try checking out some of your musical dislikes and you might find a surprising appreciation for the stuff you’ve long thought wasn’t for you––or it might just be plain awful. But even if your original negative impressions still ring true during this exercise, there’s still plenty of good to be gleaned through discernment. If you don’t like something in music, it’s important to get to the bottom of your feelings. Doing this develops your taste and hones your musical approach by not repeating the same mistakes you hear in another artist’s work. It all goes back to the priceless asset of curiosity in music, which gives artists the power to ask why things are the way they are, good or bad.
You might think that listening to music you don’t like is a waste of your time, but it’s an exercise that will probably do more for your creativity than listening to your favorite songs over and over again will. If you’re intent on bringing the most creativity you can to your work, you’ll have to find ways to embrace risk and discomfort in your process. Listening to music you don’t like is a great way to do it.
Patrick McGuire is a writer, musician, and human man. He lives nowhere in particular, creates music under the name Straight White Teeth, and has a great affinity for dogs and putting his hands in his pockets.