Most people reckon they love music, and that it’s a soundtrack to their lives, but they never actually listen to it.
I’m not talking about that time you got through a whole album while flicking through Facebook posts, or reading about the latest sparring match between Kim Jong-un and Trump; I’m talking about the last time you gave your full attention to music.
My guess is not many, if any. And you call yourself music fans?
Perhaps this explains why people continue to enjoy imbecilic music that’s only a stone’s throw from the simple words and baby melodies of nursery rhymes: because at best, their attention is half-cocked. And perhaps it also explains why so few appreciate the complex performances of the best progressive rock bands, or the intricate layers of an artist like Mark Hollis.
Great music was created with your full attention in mind, not as a background noise. Great music should engage your brain via your ears – literally good vibrations. And the appreciation of great music takes effort from the listener. It’s in itself a creative act, not a passive half-assed wireless-music-in-every-room-of-the-house, where it becomes meaningless background with nothing to express except for half-baked love emotions.
Perhaps because my early experience of music was mostly a lonely one – just me, an LP and a record player – I got the idea that all music fans actually liked, you know, listening to music. This idea was reinforced in my early 20s when I fell in with a small group of friends who loved getting together for music listening sessions. Sure, there was some marijuana involved, and some alcohol, and some talking, but there was also a lot of concentrated silence listening to loud music on hi-fi systems as well.
It was when I started regularly attending concerts that my preconceptions that people loved music were severely challenged. Most of my favourite bands weren’t those that were big enough to perform at seated events in town halls, but instead, pubs and clubs. And always, always, I found myself irritated by the fact that punters would shell out to see bands, then talk all the way through. And because the bands were always loud, that meant everyone screaming at each other at close range.
I probably missed out on getting laid dozens of times by pretending I couldn’t hear what some attractive young woman was screaming in my ear. To me, attending a gig was a serious business, and it was all about the music. Fast forward 35 years and the level of audience attentiveness at gigs is often even worse, with attendees putting most of their attention to filming the event on their smartphones just so they can load their shaky, tinny-sounding edit to YouTube.
The trend now in home so-called ‘listening’ is towards small, wireless speakers, through which people play music from streaming services like Spotify. These speakers are great for background; revolutionary even, because they’re hugely better sounding (and more convenient) than most of the old iPod docks, and having access to streaming services gives the music fan the opportunity to access a huge database of music, and really explore.
It’s tempting here to digress into a grumpy spiel about how, given the world, people almost always deflect to the familiar, so we won’t. My point is that while a small wireless speaker might provide ample musical accompaniment to a pleasant barbecue or dinner date, people are kidding themselves if they really think they’re getting the full picture from these devices. Most of them are single mono speakers, which means the listener never gets an immersive musical picture, and because most people listen to the lowest bit-rate from streaming services, and play them through tiny speakers, they’re simply not getting the 3D picture of a real hi-fi, or many of the things that comprise music: the breadth and width of a soundstage, the timbre and texture of instruments, the clarity and depth of CD-quality or better.
Of course, none of this matters to the average ‘listener’, because they’re not actually listening in the first place, and their so-called love of music isn’t. And by that I mean that their so-called love of music is actually an attachment to the idea of song: a combination of simple lyric and melody that emotionally reinforces the words, all wrapped up in an overly emotive package. Few of us listen past that basic package, and while song can be a wonderful thing when at its zenith, this attachment to song denigrates what music actually is: a naturally complex eco-system of organised vibrations in space, with almost limitless potential.
My distaste for the conservative so-called listening habits of the average human only increases with age, and more and more, I love the challenge of exploring the musical cosmos, and finding immense pleasure in sound itself, whether natural (say, the endlessly evolving sounds of waves on beach) or human-made.
It’s not that I don’t appreciate pop music, but that it has to be aesthetically and musically interesting enough to demand my full attention; and the same is true of any other style of music. In fact, the style has become almost irrelevant to me. I can listen to and enjoy just about anything except the Ku Klux Clan Solid God White Extremist Hits, and as long as there’s enough going on in it to give my brain a workout, I’m happy.
But what I don’t get, and what continues to make me feel at odds with most of my fellow humans, is that most of them claim to be music fans, when in fact, they’ve never given their full attention (or respect) to music in their lives.