Why I listen to music

Why I listen to music

I’ve just finished reading Aaron Copland’s brilliant little book, What to Listen for in Music, which breaks down this amorphous, elusive art form into something chewable. It’s essentially a textbook of basic music theory condensed into a very succinct, breezy paperback, with doses of humble commentary by the great American composer. A passage that especially sparked thoughts for me was the following:

Why is it that the typical music lover of our day is seemingly so reluctant to consider a musical composition as, possibly, a challenging experience?…Most people seem to resent the controversial in music; they don’t want their listening habits disturbed. They use music as a couch; they want to be pillowed on it, relaxed and consoled for the stress of daily living. But serious music was never meant to be used as a soporific…It is meant to stir and excite you, to move you—it may even exhaust you.

The two thoughts prompted by this passage were, “I need to use the word soporific in conversation,” and, “Why do I listen to music?” It is the latter that I want to explore.

Copland’s statements are in the context of discussing the “contemporary music” of the 1950s—with its serialism, atonality, and the like. “Serious” concert music that defied the forms and palatable harmonies of times gone by. I admit that I’ve always held a very zealous attitude towards such music that would probably make Copland shake his head in professorial disappointment. I harbor very strong feelings of loathing toward music that wallows in atonality, that rejects traditional melodies, that attempts to redefine music as simply sound. But I’m afraid I’m rather picky, because I also don’t like the very traditional, very musical works of, say, Bach (too stuffy).

The reason I love film music so (though “film music,” as a genre, is quite an amorphous term) is because I love the sensibilities and language of 19th-century symphonic music that so many film scores speak in. I love strong melodies and clever development. I respond to the narrative structure of a good film score; it is a tone poem, an opera, and a symphony all in one. I love how a good film score tells me a story, dazzles my intellect, and gets stuck in my head. I guess those three criteria might, loosely, define why I listen to music. Or at least, why I listen to film music and why I prefer film music to all other forms.

The reasons I listen to “popular” music are different. Catharsis is probably the primary reason; channeling happiness, anger, falling in love, or a broken heart into a 3-minute experience that captures my feelings so well and so hummably. Another reason is the purely visceral, aesthetic pleasure of a catchy song—something to sing along with at my loudest volume or interact with physically (beating the rhythm on the nearest hard object or wailing on my air guitar). I suppose these reasons bleed into my reasons for listening to film music. Perhaps my motives are just as amorphous as everything else.

In the end, though, I don’t think I listen to music to be challenged. I don’t seek out music that forces me to stretch my concept of tonality, or develop new feats of patience. I don’t listen to music in order to overcome aesthetic prejudices. I’d like to think that I’m more intellectually and artistically mature than just to be seeking out a soft couch in my musical choices. I don’t want to let Mr. Copland down. But maybe that’s the best way to put it. I like music that makes me feel good, or that perfectly reflects my less-than-good feelings. I like music that I can hold on to and remember, music that is comfortable to ride in. I like music with just enough tension to reel me in, that then overpowers me with moments of glorious resolution. And yet, despite these seemingly soporific motivations, I completely accept Copland’s ideal contrast with couch music—music meant “to stir and excite you, to move you…even exhaust you.” I think those are the exact reasons why I listen to music. Why do you listen?