On “Listening” versus “Hearing” (a repost)

Lynn Sislo had an interesting post about listening to music the other day, which reminded me of something I posted last March. It’s not so much about the “literate listening” that Lynn discusses, but about the very nature of how we listen to music in the first place. I’ve slightly edited it, both for clarity and also trimming out some stuff at the beginning that’s not terribly relevant to the point I want to emphasize.

In another Usenet posting a few months back, someone wrote that the SACD format is unlikely to succeed because people just don’t have the time to properly listen to a CD; thus, the apparently-greater audio characteristics of an SACD recording are unlikely to gain traction. That’s an interesting observation: we don’t have time for music. But we have time for reading books, and watching movies, and painting or wood-working; we have time for TV and football games and March Madness and for all manner of other things. Why have we decided that music, alone of the arts, is something for which we don’t have time? Why has music been relegated to “soundtrack” status — something forever in the background, filling the aural silences in our lives but never really attended to in its own right?

In this, I am as guilty as the next person. When I was a music student, in high school and college, I used to make time purely for music listening — when I would put in a recording of, say, a Mozart violin concerto or a Brahms symphony and listen to the work, trying to follow the development of its themes in accordance with the forms in use in the works; or, I would listen to an opera by Wagner or Verdi or Puccini and try to trace the music’s impact on the dramatic structure. Sometimes I would close my eyes and listen; other times I would follow along in an orchestral score, noting the orchestrations and the notations expressed by the composer. The music was the thing; it was front-and-center. I don’t much do this anymore, though; even when I listen to classical music (which once again forms the bulk of my music listening, after several years in which film music took precedence), it’s usually on the headphones or the stereo while I’m writing. And when that’s the case, the music is taking the secondary position as far as my attention goes: I’m focused on the sentences and paragraphs that I’m generating, and only subconsciously attending to the musical phrases written by Sergei Rachmaninov and being conducted by Vladimir Ashkenazy.

This is not a new problem; Leonard Bernstein noted it years ago, in his book The Infinite Variety of Music. (Speaking of which, that book — and its companion volume, The Joy of Music, are outstanding “introductory” books on classical music.) As he wrote: we hear too much music. Bernstein differentiates between hearing, a passive activity in which one is dully aware of the presence of sound, and listening, an active process where one’s attention is focused on the music or sound and is mentally processing what one is taking in. It’s hard to argue with this. Car stereos, Muzak in the malls, oldies blaring at “Johnny Rockets” as we eat our burgers — we are so constantly surrounded by music, in what I think is an attempt to make the general technological cacophony of our world more palatable, that it can’t help but relegate all music to background-status. Thus, sitting down to read a book or watch a DVD seems a valid activity, while sitting down to listen to a Beethoven string quartet seems an extravagance. Even when we try to do it, we begin to fidget and feel uncomfortable — we should be doing something, dammit, because we’ve been conditioned somehow to believe that listening does not constitute doing something. We now seem to believe that listening to music is not, in itself, a real activity.

And it isn’t only classical music that suffers because of this; popular music and rock suffers as well by our inattention and by our insistence that music should be accompanied — whether by a raucous stage show, or by a video, or by a drive through suburban Syracuse or wherever. And in the case of film music, a genre which I dearly love and which is almost universally ignored, it’s even worse: we bring our downgraded view of music in general to bear on music that is actually supposed to be supportive of some visual element. Thus, where for many the idea of sitting down to listen to the Beethoven quartet is an extravagance, the idea of sitting down to listen to a Jerry Goldsmith filmscore is ludicrous. (A sizable portion of my film music collection, if not an outright majority, consists of scores to films I’ve never seen. This fact is invariably met with incredulity, to which my response is, “It’s music, and if it’s good music, what the hell do I need a movie for to appreciate it?”)

I’m not sure what the remedy is, but one clue I’ve found is that since I went from driving a car with a CD player to a car without one, I listen to music very infrequently while driving. Mainly, when driving I now listen to NPR or, if they’re talking about something uninteresting, ESPN Radio. (If both are talking about something uninteresting, I’ll check out the classical station and then the Oldies station, in that order of preference.) And I try to make some time each day not for music, but for silence. It seems to me that if we’ve made our world too noisy, and if our appreciation of music suffers because we’ve made it part of that noise, then perhaps part of restoring music to the esteem it deserves as an art form is to restore silence. Maybe we can’t get rid of all the noise in our lives, but maybe we can do a better job of choosing what that noise is and what form it should take.

BTW, in the same post linked above, Lynn refers me to a music blog I hadn’t seen before, Symphony X. She’s right: if you have any interest in classical music, you should be reading this one.

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