A sprawling, packed-to-the-brim study of the art and science of music, as monumental and as busy as a Bach fugue.
Why does one person like the Rolling Stones and another like Celine Dion? Why does anyone like the Eagles? Are there human universals at play in musical preferences? Gasser, the polymathic mind behind Pandora Radio’s Music Genome Project, probes the “sources, nature, and implications of our own, personal musical taste,” a taste that cannot always be easily reduced to buy- or listen-next algorithms. Music has features that are essentially invariant among human cultures: It is shaped by rhythm, “the overriding parameter wherein the listener gains an intuitive understanding of the music as a whole,” and it comprises melody, harmony, and other sonic elements. But more individually, our musical taste is shaped by all sorts of factors, socio-economic and psychological, that sometimes anticipate and sometimes follow “our membership in intracultures,” whether goth or mod or lite-classical. Gasser’s overarching aim is not just descriptive. In his forays into all imaginable corners of the musical world, he seeks to soften prejudices and broaden horizons, posing exercises and suggestions such as identifying syncopation in hip-hop tunes and appreciating the power of pre-Islamic chants sung by Saharan women “aimed at bringing the listener into a state of ecstasy.” The author’s body of examples—backed by a vast online site—is fittingly broad-ranging, featuring tunes from “Old MacDonald” to “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" and Leonard Bernstein’s Candide overture, all of which have something to say about why we like what we like. And while there’s no disputing taste, as the old Latin tag has it, there is much to know about how our psyches play in our musicality, what recreational drugs can contribute to the enjoyment of a Grateful Dead song, and the many ways in which music can make us better and happier people.
Like Nathan Myhrvold’s like-minded explorations of cooking, Gasser’s enterprise has a pleasingly mad-scientist feel to it, one that will attract music theory geeks as much as neuroscientists, anthropologists, psychologists, and Skynyrd fans.