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Commentary: What is “real” music?

Photo courtesy of Jason Burt

“I only listen to real music.” 

I’m sure we’ve all met someone who has said this phrase at least once when talking about their music taste compared to yours. In fact, I’ve been this person in the past when talking to others about my music taste. 

But is there such a thing as “real music”?

Well … it’s complicated. But the short answer is no. 

Like many forms of entertainment, music is a subjective experience where “what sounds good” will depend on the person. Some people think screamo music sounds good. Some people think rap sounds good. Some people think instrumental music sounds good. For every genre there is, someone enjoys it. 

A common complaint I hear nowadays is that “All [insert music genre] sounds the same!” I’ve said that about modern rap music, overusing the same trap beats again and again. I’ve heard that said about punk rock, my personal favorite, where musicians will use the same three or four chords and generic drum beats. I’ve heard people say the same about jazz, metal, and choir music too. And yet, if people like any of these genres of music, they will defend to the death that their music is “real” or, at the very least, good. 

To elaborate further, here are two important ideas that have helped me grapple with the idea of “real music”: 

“I don’t think there’s such a thing as real music, but there is such a thing as creative 


– A musician friend of mine

“When you listen to a song, do you pay more attention to the music or the lyrics?”

– My brother. 

Now, I could get bogged down into the entire philosophy of “what is creativity?” but that would take up the entire newspaper. As mentioned, a common criticism (whether right or wrong) posed against any genre of music is “all [insert music genre] sounds the same!” The idea of sameness implies that something is unoriginal or does not stand out in any way. If you take a song like Bohemian Rhapsody, arguably one of the most creative and popular songs of all time, the instruments, mood and attitude are constantly shifting. This constant changing and being a “different” kind of song has helped Bohemian Rhapsody stand out for decades. Freddy Mercury, the lone writer of the song, is revered as a legend for penciling this Queen anthem and dozens of hits like it. Some people probably think another song like Bohemian Rhapsody will never be written again; the lyrics combined with the amazing sound can never be replicated these days. 

And that leads me into the next idea: Do you pay more attention to the music or the lyrics? 

There are thousands of people out there who would say a song saved their lives. Whether that be the emotional instrumental part of the song, the lyrics or both is for them to elaborate on. Even many people who only passively listen to music have at least one song or a particular song lyric that means a lot to them. There are so many songs across all genres of music that resonate with so many people, whether that be the music and lyrics of Tupac Shakur, Leonard Cohen, Coldplay, Shawn Mendes, Green Day or legitimately any other artist. 

There are plenty of songs out there where I’ll say “I love the song, but the lyrics are terrible” or vice versa. And there are people who will vehemently disagree with me on that regarding a particular song.

Which is why I say there’s no such thing as real music.

At the end of the day, music is a subjective experience where listeners get something out of the song. Whether it be a deep, emotional tune, a funny song or a song to jam out to, music has the power to move us in one way or another. Music I love, other people hate. Music I hate, other people love. And that’s okay. Though there will always be debates over which genre or song is better, the important thing is that someone can enjoy what they are listening to in one way or another. Who cares if it’s repetitive or not creative enough? Of course, everybody gets snobby about their music taste in one way or another, but why trash something someone genuinely enjoys? At the end of the day, that’s my subjective opinion.


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