Ryan Dorgan / The New York Times

April 17, 2019

Avoiding Musical Paralysis

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Musical paralysis. If you feel overwhelmed by the surge and variety of new music and listen mainly to music from the last decade, you’re not alone. A poll conducted by music streaming site Deezer revealed that 65 percent of 5,000 participants from various countries only listen to music they already know. Most people reported that musical paralysis sets in by age 28. That’s not long after college graduation. I, for one, love music too much to be paralyzed, and I am committed to discovering new music. Over the past year, I’ve been developing ways to discover “new” music, and I’m here to share my insights on how musical paralysis occurs and how you can prevent it.

Why does musical paralysis occur? Much of it is not under our control. Our brains dictate our music taste from a young age. They respond to stimuli that light up our dopamine receptors and new neuron configurations form to give us the same feeling as the stimuli originally did. These effects can last for years. That’s why we genuinely like and will defend music that we liked during our awkward years despite it probably being not that great. Once someone’s musical taste has been developed, it can be difficult for music from an unfamiliar genre to entice listeners. With that knowledge, it will probably not be effective for a listener to expose themselves immediately to music way outside their comfort zone.

How does an average person discover a new song? They might hear one on the radio, in public or at a party, but those media tend to present an extremely narrow sample of music being created. The Internet is more important than ever when it comes to music discovery. Streaming services such as Spotify and Apple Music have made discovering new artists easy by putting garage bands and stars alike on the same platform. Spotify’s “Discover Weekly” playlist is very effective at introducing listeners to music they are likely to enjoy based on past listening habits. I personally make my own playlist of artists I want to sample and play it in my free time. There are also knowledgeable music critics on YouTube such as Anthony Fantano, Spectrum Pulse and The Rap Critic who I watch weekly to inform myself of new releases and underground artists. Lastly and most importantly, talk to your friends about music. Chances are, a few of your friends share a similar music taste to yours and can introduce you to new artists they know you’ll enjoy. These are all very effective ways to discover new artists within your current taste.

While pop, trap and reggaetón have the most mainstream appeal in popular music at the moment, there is new music of every genre imaginable being made every day. Musicians such as Janelle Monáe and Weyes Blood are pushing hip hop and pop music, respectively, to new places. Vulfpeck and Louis Cole are orchestrating a funk renaissance. Mac Ayres, Bruno Major and Allen Stone are revisiting blue-eyed soul with new musical techniques. This is just a taste of some niche genres that aren’t too far removed from popular music trends.

While challenging, it can also be fun to listen to music in different languages, and I’m not talking about reggaetón. There are incredible artists from Spanish-speaking countries such as Rosalía, who is developing a new genre of flamenco-pop, Natalia Lafourcade, a Mexican singer-songwriter, Juanes, a 2000s Colombian rocker, Buena Vista Social Club, a Cuban project aimed at capturing the music of pre-revolutionary Cuba, and Juan Luis Guerra, a classic merengue artist. I can’t speak widely on music outside of the English- and Spanish-speaking worlds, but each culture has its own distinct musical style that may be radically different to American ears. But this is all the more fascinating and rewarding to explore.

Lastly, in order to tackle a new genre, I would recommend listening to artists that introduce you to elements of a new genre while providing elements of genres that you already enjoy.

While Rap music has become more popular recently, many people refuse to listen to it. Anderson .Paak, Noname and Childish Gambino are artists that can serve an funk-inspired introduction to rap.

Country music is even more contentious at the moment, with the combination of sexist music executives keeping female artists off the Nashville scene and the epidemic of bro-country collectively turning people off to country music. However, there is a burgeoning country music community, including talents such as Eric Church, Christ Stapleton, Jason Isbell, Ruston Kelly and Anderson East. And here are the talented women that Nashville is too scared to promote: Caitlyn Smith, Alice Wallace, Pistol Annies, Courtney Marie Andrews and Emily Scott Robinson. These artists range from southern blues to singer-songwriter country and will please the toughest of country skeptics.

Metal is yet another polarizing genre, but albums such as Master of Puppets by Metallica, a metal classic, Opus Eponymous by Ghost, which pays homage to early heavy metal but uses occult theatrics, and Ordinary Corrupt Human Love by Deafhaven provide a sample of the genre without diving headfirst into the fierce genre.

Jazz and classical music are among genres that have an unfortunate “purist” association, but yet they offer some of the most invigorating music available. While classic artists such as Frank Sinatra and Count Basie’s Orchestra are well-known favorites, dynamic artists such as Jacob Collier and Snarky Puppy are making waves in today’s jazz and classical fusion landscapes. Charlie Parker and Miles Davis are among the jazz greats and are great introductions to jazz as a whole. Similarly, while groups such as Cello Fury and Vitamin String Quartet work to make classical music accessible, Pyotr Tchaikovsky and Claude Debussy are very popular classical composers among the current generation.

While there’s nothing wrong with listening to familiar music to unwind, constantly challenging yourself with new artists and genres will ensure that you will never suffer musical paralysis and enjoy a plethora of artistic expression.


James Robertson is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected].