Ideas & Issues

You Are What You Hear: What Your Favorite Music Says About You

Why are your musical tastes a reflection of you? i i

hide captionWhy are your musical tastes a reflection of you?

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Why are your musical tastes a reflection of you?

Why are your musical tastes a reflection of you?

iStockphoto.com

Think back over the soundtrack to your life. Those songs you heard in grade school and church, on first dates and at dances, in college dorms and convertibles, at weddings and graduations — it's all part of your musical makeup.

And today, the mysterious power of music seems to be even more personal and pervasive. With help from iPods, downloads, clouds and smartphones, we can literally "soundtrack" our lives any time, anywhere.

But why do we like what we like? What makes us choose Kanye over Coltrane, Mahler over Madonna, or Youssou N'Dour over Yeasayer? And what does it say about us, personally?

These and other questions about why music matters to just about everyone, in every culture, are posed in a recent article in the Guardian by musicologist Eric Clarke. And along with the Oxford professor's theories, which range from scientific to social, the British publication has launched "Six Songs of Me," a project to map as many personal playlists as possible.

They've set up a special site (fueled by Spotify) where you can pick your most meaningful songs in six categories. They're hoping to gather enough data, Clarke says, to "help us think more fruitfully about the 'big questions' that lie behind the sounds of our lives."

The categories, in the form of questions, are:

  • What was the first song you ever bought?
  • What song always gets you dancing?
  • What song takes you back to your childhood?
  • What is your perfect love song?
  • What song would you want at your funeral?
  • Time for an encore. One last song that makes you, you.

I'm particularly intrigued by that last category. Is it possible to pick a single song and say, "This is me?" Our very favorite music, the sounds we connect with most profoundly, can be a very personal thing not easily shared. Still, sometimes we wear our favorites proudly — like our choice of clothing — in a form of self-expression.

Being a romantic at heart (and an English Lit major in college) my "encore" choice is Leonard Cohen's "Suzanne." It's an intoxicating mix of imagistic poetry and softly undulating music that I bonded with the first time I heard it as an impressionable 8-year-old in the late 1960s. It was at Burt Lake State Park in Michigan, where my brother's girlfriend sang it beautifully by the campfire. I can still see her hair, in long waves, draped over her guitar. I learned the song myself, and for years it was my own personal serenade. These days, when I want to spend time with "Suzanne," I go straight to the source (below), Cohen's first album.

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My other "Six Songs of Me" selections include Meet The Beatles, the first album I bought. I still remember the tinny sound emanating from the family's portable turntable. The song that brings me back to my childhood would be "Four Walls" by Jim Reeves, just one of the many country songs my stepfather sang me to sleep with. For dancing, it's got to be salsa, and "Mi Bomba Sono" by salsa's queen, Celia Cruz is an automatic hip-shaker.

The perfect love song? There are many, including long, ecstatic stretches of Act 2 of Tristan und Isolde. But the late jazz singer Shirley Horne surpasses Wagner with a single tune, "A Time for Love," delivered in a style that arouses by way of its languid sensuality. Funerals are for the living, so why not let mourners hear one of the most gorgeous voices to grace our planet in one of the most ravishing songs written for the soprano voice — Jessye Norman with Richard Strauss' "Beim Schlafengehen" (Going to Sleep) from the Four Last Songs.

Here are my colleague Anastasia Tsioulcas' "Six Songs of Me":

  • First bought: Beethoven, Symphonies Nos. 4 & 7 — Karajan conducting the Berlin Philharmonic.
  • Always dancing: "Carolina" — the Bucovina Club vs. Taraf de Haidouks version (the lyrics are rather filthy, but at least they're in Romanian, so free pass there).
  • Childhood: Maria Farantouri singing Mikis Theodorakis' "O Antonis" (the very first record I remember my dad playing).
  • Perfect love song: Peter Gabriel, "In Your Eyes" (what can I say — I'm a child of the '70s and '80s).
  • Funeral music: Purcell, "Dido's Lament" (with Lorraine Hunt Lieberson singing, please).
  • You, you: Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, "Yaadan Vichre Sajan Diyan" (though honestly, I could pick nearly anything out of Khansahib's songbook).
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What about you? Let us know a little about your life's soundtrack in the comments section. Share the music that makes you you — and we'll round up your favorites in a future post.

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