If you're like me, the following conversation is probably not something completely foreign to you. Imagine riding with a friend and playing some dance tunes in your car.
Them: Is this the same song that just played? I can't tell the difference.
You: What? Of course it's a different song.
Them: It all sounds the same to me. Just “oonts oonts oonts oonts”. It's not a song, it's just beats!
You: Huh? It's not just beats… there's beats, melodies, harmonies, effects… I love these pads and strings playing in the background. What do you mean it's not a song?
Them: There's not even any words.
You: Why do you need vocals? I just think this song sounds pretty, and it makes me want to dance.
Them: It's just so repetitive! I don't know how you can listen to this stuff over-and-over… I'd rather listen to the radio.
You: I think the stuff on the radio is way more repetitive. Verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus… the same gimmicks, over and over again. I find it boring.
… and so on. Sound somewhat familiar?
Disclaimer: This post makes some sweeping generalizations for the sake of discussion. I don't mean to imply that any one person's tastes are better than another, or that fans of certain genres all think alike, or anything like that. I simply want to discuss what things people might like about certain genres.
Back when I first started getting in to this whole thing that we now refer to as “EDM” (for better or for worse), I used to get frustrated at these sorts of conversations. The younger version of me used to feel like I had to constantly defend my musical tastes towards those who didn't “get it”.
I think that part of the reason I found it so frustrating was that I was able to “get” their music. I have always had a pretty broad palette – listening to anything from hip-hop to metal to trance to ambient to Chopin's Nocturne in E minor. I just love all sorts of music, and I love different types for different reasons.
But, I realize that most people are a little more choosy about their music. So, what is it that causes the techno fan to think differently than the country fan about what music means?
Different people want to get different things out of their music. For me, I tend like music that is pretty and/or hypnotic. I like music on an aesthetic level. I like to give my own interpretation on what the musical selection's melodies, harmonies, dissonance, and rhythms are telling me. To me, whether or not a song has vocals is immaterial to me. I like vocals if they add to the song, and recognize that some songs speak to me without needing them. When I listen to music, various descriptors often come to mind. Terms like: groovy, funky, airy, spacey, raw, dark, melodic, plodding, minimal, aquatic, moody.
How does this differ from someone who prefers, say, rock, country, or blues? Of course, it's not that they don't like “pretty music”. But, I've noticed that to many of them, the meaning of the song matters. The musical instrumentation is something that supports the song's story (told by it's lyrics) by providing it's atmosphere. They might use descriptors like: sad, happy, fun, deep, meaningful, funny, militant, gross, or relatable.
I think I really noticed this difference when I came to the realization that there are so many songs that I am crazy about and have been listening to for years, and yet have no idea what the lyrics are. I came to realize that I often pay much more attention to the music than the lyrics or even the intended meaning of the song. I think of lyrics as a contribution to the song, whereas my girlfriend (primarily a country music fan) probably thinks of the instrumentation as a contribution to the lyrics.
This was a pretty cool realization for me, as it helps me relate to her music much better… and I have a much better idea of what parts of my music collection she might enjoy. And, as you can imagine, I started connecting those same dots as it relates to my DJing. It really helps you as a DJ when you can start to tell not what songs people like, but what it is about songs that they like.
One good way to demonstrate this different way of thinking is by thinking about how we perceive time as it relates to music. Think of a typical techno or trance song. It's not unusual for songs to be 8 or 10 minutes long. Amongst other things, this is because the listener enjoys the music aesthetically… they like hearing the individual sounds, the melodies, the way all these elements interact with each other. Now, if you have a 10 minute country song… you'd better be telling a darn good story. And many of us often listen to this type of music in sets/mixes where 60 minutes is on the short end of the spectrum.
“It really helps you as a DJ when you can start to tell not what songs people like, but what it is about songs that they like.”
Think of it as the difference between watching Disney's Fantasia as opposed to The Lion King. Fantasia is an aesthetic film… it leaves much open for interpretation for the viewer. There isn't one cohesive story throughout the film, but you might like it as a work of art and expression in its own right. The Lion King is an equally praised and beautiful animated film, but it has a very direct story. This story is supported by the artwork, music, and presentation. The story would still be a good one without all of it's aesthetic properties… but it is greatly enhanced by them. These two Disney films can be appreciated for different reasons. Neither is “better” or “more artful” than the other (of course, that's all a matter of opinion anyway). It's just that they might speak to different audiences who are watching for different reasons.
This doesn't just apply to electronic music fans, of course. Take an example of, say, progressive rock. Many of these are 9 or 10 minute songs easily, with lots of instrumentation in between. These fans enjoy the hypnotizing qualities of the music itself… the buildups and breakdowns that lead up to more lyrical content. This may not make sense to the punk-rocker who enjoys going through lots of 2-3 minute energetic tracks in a row. It's not that one has a better attention span than the other… it's that they appreciate different parts of the composition for different reasons.
I believe that, regardless of what type of DJ you are, it's important to understand and appreciate all types of music. Many people like different musical styles for many different reasons. So, rather than think in terms of how “good” or “bad” someone's musical taste is… try to identify what it is about music that they find important or meaningful. You might just learn something!