Is there a Right Way to Listen to Music?

04/01/2014

There’s an interesting debate going on over at Cnet. Two of their writers are discussing how one should listen to music. In this corner, Geoffrey Morrison says listening to music in the background is fine; not just that, but that he listens to music in the background all the time. In the other corner is Steve Guttenberg, who claims that “The problem with background listening is that it leads to more background listening.”

The initial premise for these two articles was, as Morrison says:

One of the prevailing trends in audiophile circles is the notion that, to fully appreciate music, you have to stop doing anything else and just listen. I disagree.

I think there’s a lot that’s wrong in both articles. I have nothing against listening to music in the background. As I write this article I’m listening to Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew; loud. I often put on music to accompany me in my work. I hear some background music, and I listen to some; in other words, in some cases I’m so absorbed in what I’m doing that I barely notice the music. In other cases, I’m so absorbed in the music that it helps set a rhythm to my typing. My foot taps, my body moves, and I’m listening to the music, making it a part of what I’m doing.

Guttenberg says:

Non-listening leads to more non-listening, including live concerts, where a sizable percentage of the audience is either talking or engaged with their devices. The music is over there, while the real focus is over here. So even when folks spend large amounts of cash to see Radiohead, Tom Petty, or Arcade Fire, the band’s music is background, being present for the fleeting experience of a concert is passé.

It seems that Guttenberg isn’t up on his history. It’s only recently that music listening at performances took on the reverence that he would like to see. For centuries, people would talk among themselves when listening to music in churches, and in concerts. Live music was, for a long time, a social event, where people would go to be seen. They would move around from box to box in theaters, or, if music was made at home, many of the people would be talking. Have you ever heard Bill Evans’ live recordings from the Village Vanguard in 1961? Did you notice the voices and sounds of ice cubes in glasses? There was no solemn silence in jazz clubs back then; people took in the music the way they wanted.

Some people want to turn music into religion. I understand that it’s important for many people (as it is to me), but there’s no need to tell people how they have to listen. I listen to music a lot when I walk; often when I read. But I don’t just leave music on like a running faucet to make sure there’s no silence.

On the other hand, I find Morrison’s approach to be a form of escapism. Silence is not just golden, it is part of the mystery of life. Guttenberg is right when he suggests:

So if you’ve never really focused on your favorite music, try this simple experiment: listen for 10 minutes in a quiet room with your eyes closed. Who knows? Perhaps the more you really listen, the more you’ll want to focus on the music.

The problem is that nearly everyone, in such a situation, will be so overwhelmed by their thoughts that they won’t even appreciate the silence. I’d wager that most people who claim to listen to music attentively are also flitting around in their minds, using the music as a soundtrack for caroming thoughts and ideas.

And then, yes indeed, Guttenberg pulls out the vinyl card. He claims that people listening to vinyl “stopped multitasking and listened.” Yep. Vinyl is better, it helps strengthen your mind and gives you firmer muscles. Come on!

No, there’s no one way to listen to music. Listen any way you want, with good headphones or crappy earbuds, with titanium alloy cables or a boom box; just listen to the music.