How to Talk About Music Without Sounding Like a Dunce

A 6-step method to staying relevant and interesting

By The Editors
October 18, 2015 9:00 am

If music is the universal language, then why is it that every time someone asks what kind of music you like, it’s impossible to offer more than vague-ish genre labels and their associated acts?

The dilemma is simple: with a question so broad, any answer will suffice. So when a man says “Oh, I listen to a lot of classic rock…” or names one of its practitioners (“…like Skynyrd”), he usually ends up with a conversation that falls flat — or worse — turns into a game of one-upmanship (“Poor man’s Allman Brothers, if you ask me”).

Maybe you’re not sure what to say. Maybe you have too much to say. Or maybe music just becomes a moot point somewhere along the line; a study published this year suggests people stop listening to new music at 33. Still, being able to effectively navigate a conversation about music (or any art, for that matter) is not only an opportunity to show who you are, but a chance to get a read on the other party.

Below, a few practical guidelines for the the next time you’re asked, “So, what kind of music do you listen to?”

1. Go broad, but not too broad. Worst thing you can say: “a little bit of everything.” Or “everything except for…” Be concise with your taste, but not to the point of estrangement. Be accessible, even if your music taste is not. Think genres, eras and decades. “Late ‘60s to early ‘70s rock n’ roll,” for instance, is a good way to kick off the conversation. 

2. Avoid hollow labels like “Indie” and “Classic” Rock. Classic Rock isn’t a genre; it’s a binary FM radio label that signals to listeners that the music they’re about to hear was made before 1990. Similarly, the phrase “indie” just labels a band as having produced their music via an independent label; it does nothing to denote the content of the music itself.

3. Know your history. Pick a band you enjoy, and listen to their influences. A tiny bit of history can go a long way to a more memorable conversation. It’s worth considering, say, the 50 artists who inspired Kurt Cobain. Sometimes the best way to talk about an artist is to talk about everything but them. 

4. Have a go-to “in defense of” argument. You don’t have to have a strong stance. But you should be opinionated. Taste is a universal right, subjectively applied. As long as you can defend your reason for liking a band, no one can deny it.

5. If all else fails, go obscure. Even if you’re a Top 40 guy, keep a wild card in your deck. Most people’s taste in music develops in their teenage years and, unless they’re actively searching for what’s new, stays that way. Lesser-known gems from the past can be a way to talk about new music without being indebted to what’s actually new. 

6. Offer something they’ve never heard of before. Take suggestions. Offer suggestions. Like hey, our monthly Spotify playlist of new music. 
Here’s October. Enjoy.

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