Comfort Zones

A blog post by Serdar of Genji Press takes issue with a suggestion that deep listening of music within a narrow genre can be more rewarding than being constantly disappointed by music that’s too far from your comfort zone.

This is a strange attitude to take. If I’m in the habit of listening outside my well-worn grooves, nothing is truly disappointing or distasteful. The mere act of listening without prejudice is itself elating, if you can get to it in the first place. Just having open ears is its own reward.

As is typical for me, I can see both sides of the argument here. Over the past couple of years I’ve tried to listen beyond my own comfort zone of progressive rock and metal and explore the worlds of modern folk and jazz, and there is a lot of great music to be found there. But I’m also aware that there are vast swathes of music that simply do nothing for me at all. Most contemporary chart pop, most three-chord indie-rock, or indeed any artists who’s lyrics overshadow anything they have to say musically, however good they are at what they do, are just not for me.

But the converse is true; even within my most loved genres there is much that falls well below the Sturgeon threshold. As a reviewer I get sent many, many promos for rock and metal acts. Many of them don’t even get listened to, and a proportion of those that get past my “Does their PR blurb make it sound interesting enough to warrant a listen?” filter still end up going in one ear and out the other without making much of an impression. I tend not to write reviews of such albums, because expanding “meh” to the required word-count is more work than it’s worth.

I sometimes feel that I spend too much time listening to mediocre new releases and not nearly enough revisiting old favourites. I can’t even remember when I last listened to a Mostly Autumn studio album all the way through.

There’s an old saying “Life’s too short to drink bad beer”. The same is surely true of music, and like beer, the difference between “good” and “bad” is far more personal and subjective than some would have you believe.

Over to you. When you seek out and explore new music, do you go broad or deep? Or do you prefer to spend much of your music listening time revisiting the things that made you a music fan in the first place?

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12 Responses to Comfort Zones

  1. The Other Tim Hall says:

    I do both. At different times.

    Familiar is good at times – and that can either mean digging out much-played material, or exploring the same sub-genres deeper.

    And then there are other times when I’ll explore wider, triggered by any one of many different things. Some (many) of these fail don’t go anywhere, others end up being the start of new spheres of music that come to be a key part of my “familiar and comfortable”. e.g. I wasn’t expecting, in 2002, that the whole singer-songwriter field would ever be part of my “home ground”, yet by the end of ’03 that was starting to happen, and here, a decade+ later, that continues to be the case.

    We grow and change.

  2. Tim Hall says:

    I’ve seen a lot of people talking of musical tastes growing and changing in terms of growing out of things, implying that discovery of new artists and genres destroys their love for older things.

    Something that’s never really been the case for me; I find music that made a big impact on me 20, 30, 40 years ago has still lasted.

  3. The Other Tim Hall says:

    Woah! I never said “grow _out_”. My zone has grown (sic) not shrunk. Albums I bought in my teens are in many cases just as (if not more) important to me now as they were then: Back in Back/Iron Maiden/Script for a Jesters Tear. I can’t think of anything from then I’ve truly left behind.

  4. I’ll often put new music on in the background, while I’m working perhaps. Then if it grabs me I’ll give it a closer listen later on. It’s not an ideal situation but at least I can run through an unsatisfactory album without feeling I’ve wasted much time ;)

  5. Tim Hall says:

    @TheOtherTimHall

    Never suggested that you had said or implied that. But I have heard that from others.

  6. Tim Hall says:

    @Chrissie

    That’s what I tend to do with review promos; have them on in the background while working, and the get a proper listen in the evening if they make any sort of impression.

  7. Ade says:

    Like you, I can see both sides. It’s good to be open to (nearly) everything, but arguably more trouble than it’s worth to seek it all out. There’s probably a great Polka record out there, but I’m not gonna spend time looking for it. I might serendipitously hear it tomorrow and thus decide to investigate further, but going searching for it seems a likely wild goose chase when there are plenty of other things I know I’m going to enjoy.
    I think the best fishing expeditions come from following up a tangent to something you already like; it wasn’t a huge step from prog to jazz (or, coming at it from the other direction, from blues). That said, I’m content to enjoy the little jazz I’ve found and sporadically add the odd new discovery, rather than try to sample All The Jazz at once.

    I’ve more or less put away a lot of the albums I loved thirty years ago because I’ve played them to death. They still sound good if I stumble across them accidentally, but they have no surprises left.

  8. Amadan says:

    As usual, I will draw a comparison with books, since I am well-read but know nothing about music.

    Until a few years ago, I was almost exclusively a SF/F reader. I would occasionally read a mystery or something non-fiction, but other than that, the only books I was interested in were sci-fi and the occasional fantasy, and I still had the lingering disdain from high school of anything “literary” or “classical.”

    Then on a whim, I started picking random books from Peter Boxall’s “1001 Books to Read Before You Die” list (which is not by any means a perfect list, but it is pretty broad), as well as sometimes listening to books outside my usual range when they were on sale at Audible.

    I discovered I like a lot more genres than I thought I did. I am still a SF/F fan and those genres still make up the majority of my reading, but no longer the overwhelming majority. I also discovered I really like Dickens and Austen, have a taste for Trollope, loved The Hunchback of Notre Dame but could barely get through Les Miserables, and that I just do not get on well with Russian authors.

    Furthermore, broadening my literary and classical reading made me better able to appreciate my genre reading (because the best genre authors are also well-read and stuff allusions and references into their work, if you are able to recognize it).

    So yeah, I think there is definitely something to be said for going outside your comfort zone.

    On the other hand, once you realize what you don’t like, I don’t think there is any need to keep trying to force yourself to appreciate it.

  9. Synthetase says:

    What Amadan said, but with music :)

  10. Synthetase says:

    Quite a few years ago I started listening to classical music. Something I’d previously told myself I’d never do because my father played a lot of stuff to death when I was a kid. However, I soon realised that there is some truly excellent music to be had, but also plenty of dross. Discussing this with my girlfriend years later, we both agreed there’s a reason Mozart and Beethoven are the go-to names. I’ve found a lot of similarities in other ‘expand my horizons’ trips into new musical territory.

    To be honest, I think I’m willing to miss the odd gem in a mine full of tailings because there’s simply so much music out there that I’ll never be able to hear it all, even if it is excellent. So I do a bit of both, I potter around the fringes of different genres, and expand the comfort pile when the feeling takes me.

  11. Tom B says:

    I do almost all of my exploration via YouTube whilst I’m at work, so it tends to be listened to in the background, but if something catches my attention I’ll listen again later in more detail. I tend to go broad rather than deep, I will only investigate an unfamiliar genre deeply if it’s something that the initial exploration makes me go “wow! I had no idea this stuff was out there”.

    I agree with Ade about following-up tangents being the most productive and it probably being better to investigate a new genre slowly rather than to try to sample it all at once.

    Amadan’s last comment about not trying to force yourself to like something is spot on. I think we’re hardwired from birth to like particular types of music. I can remember my earliest memories of music from the late sixties/early seventies listening to the radio always preferring rock to pop and the heavier the better – there was something about that crunching guitar sound. And I was certainly not influenced by what my parents or anybody else was listening to – it just seemed to be something innate.
    Like Tim I know that there are whole swathes of music that I will never like.

    About five years ago I made a conscious decision to revisit every album I had in my collection (the first ones being purchased in the late seventies) and I was surprised by how few of them made me think “This is unplayable. I never want to listen to this again. Why the hell did I buy it?”. Mainly the reaction was pleasure at being reacquainted with old friends, particularly as a large proportion of them hadn’t been played for 25 to 30 years. Why so if they were still good? Well for a long period I didn’t have access to a turntable. Also many of these were from the punk genre and in the interim I discovered prog and realised I preferred it. That doesn’t mean that I now dislike those old punk records, they’re just not my favourites anymore. And in the last three years I’ve discovered symphonic/operatic metal which is now right up there with prog as my favourite genre.
    Who knows what the next few years will bring?

  12. You have to start by questioning whether a “narrow genre” really exists.

    My first love, long before I discovered prog rock, was classical music. Still is. Now imagine I have never discovered prog and was still a “classical music” fan and had spent the last 30 years listening to one genre: classical music.

    Ok. That’s 900 years of music, with more recorded output than you could actually listen to in one lifetime. And despite being one genre, the *breadth* of that genre is undeniable. Bach sounds nothing like Brahms sounds nothing like Boulez.

    Now look at prog. Ok, that’s a narrow genre, right?

    Nope, despite only being around for 50 years (only???), when I look at a random issue of the eponymous magazine that exclusively covers the genre I find reviews of Soft Machine which sound nothing like Steeleye Span which sound nothing like Marillion which sound nothing like Graham Bond.

    You could listen to prog for a lifetime and still find something unexpected at the end of it.

    If anyone ever uses the phrase “narrow genre”, it probably means they don’t know anything about the genre they’re describing.