TRYING TO RESTORe THE VALUE OF SOCIETY’S FAVORITE ART FORM
Do You Listen?: Restoring the Value of Society’s Favorite Art Form
When was the last time you listened to music? Most people would instinctively respond to this question with something like: “I had the radio on in my car an hour ago.” “There was a cool soundtrack in the movie I saw last night.” “Oh I listen to music all the time. While I drive, exercise, clean, study, read…”
But that’s not what I mean. When was the last time you really listened to music: I mean as an activity in and of itself? That question is a little harder to answer. Have you ever just listened? Done nothing else but focus on musical sound?
Hearing music as a background to another activity is not the same as listening. Sure, something may catch our ears once in a while, drawing our attention to a particular sound. In those brief, rare moments, we are truly listening, but usually the distinct, momentary beauty of music goes by, unnoticed, and that is truly unfortunate. We as a society have become so accustomed to passively hearing music that most of us don't even know how to actively listen.
Part of the reason that so few listen to music as a discrete activity is that it is constantly around us. Music is everywhere, so why would we stop everything else we are doing and just listen? Why? Because we are missing out.
Music is the most commonly experienced art form in the world. Not everyone visits museums or purchases art to hang on their walls at home. Nor does everyone read great (or mediocre) forms of literature, but music is inescapable. We hear it in shopping centers as it subtly manipulates our buying habits. It forms our responses to television and film. Just go to a busy outdoor public place – a park, a college campus, a downtown area. Now watch people as they walk by. How many of them have ear buds or headphones on?
But because music is all around us, we think we know it; we take it for granted. Educational programs from kindergarten to colleges close down music programs, seeing them as unnecessary and thinking they offer no valuable skills. Students taking introductory music courses assume they will receive an easy A for just showing up and staying awake. Popular media tells us that we should be perfectly content with the mediocre sound quality of mp3s because “people can’t hear the difference” between a cheap digital download played from a phone and a high-resolution recording heard through a quality sound system. More and more, society seems to view music as a commodity, rather than a vital aspect of our lives.
Yet most people claim that they love music. Just do a quick Google search for "Quotes about music." I did, and I came upon this: http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/topics/topic_music.html. Notice how many of these statements speak of emotions, the improvement of our lives, universal communication, really heady stuff. Now notice how many of those quotes come from non-musicians. Music really is for everyone. Our musical tastes form part of our identity, and make us who we are and how the world sees us. How many people would answer the question, "Do you like music?" with a negative response? Not many. And if we love music as much as we claim to, shouldn't we take the time to truly appreciate all that it has to offer?
My purpose here is not just to complain about society’s neglect of something I happen to love. My true goal is to point out some of the problems that get in the way of people’s true appreciation of music, so that they can be overcome. These problems might be cultural, social, technological, institutional, or issues stemming from the music industry itself. I hope to encourage readers to make music a more active part of their lives, and to that end I will introduce unique listening experiences that you can try on your own.
With any luck, next time someone asks you, "When was the last time you listened to music?", the answer will be, “Why just the other day…”
Molly M. Breckling holds a Ph.D. in Historical Musicology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Her areas of research interest are the songs of Gustav Mahler, popular music, and music history pedagogy. Her goal is to help others listen to music more actively and to develop a greater appreciation for the music that surrounds us every day.