Intravenous listening

I recently wrote about film music overload, and my (rare) need to seek some kind of diversion or palette-cleanser in other musical genres. On a related note, I’ve been musing about how insubstantial and thoughtless so much of my “listening” is lately, regardless of genre. I hear so much music on any given day, any given hour—perhaps more in quantity than any other time of my life—yet I fear that I’m listening to so much less.

We all know the distinction; hearing only implies that the sound waves hit your ear drums (I’m not sure how accurate my anatomy is here, but go with it), while listening implies some purposeful attention given to said sound. One is a simple physical occurrence, the other requires deliberation. It’s the difference between having food fed to you through a tube and setting out to enjoy a fine meal with anxious hands and acute tastebuds.

With earbuds perpetually piping all manner of musical notes into my brain, I’m constantly exposed to great music of varying genre and style. Throughout the mundane work day, there is an unending stream of music washing through my ears. Occasionally there are favorite moments or new revelations that perk up my mind, that I suddenly give all of my attention to. But by and large, through the distraction of work or whatever else I’m doing, most of the music becomes literal “background” music (an oft-used descriptive term that is insulting to the great art of film music).

Part of this is just an inherent detriment of multitasking. You can’t devote all attention to what you’re doing and what you’re simultaneously listening to. And, personally, I would rather have beautiful music accompanying my work than silence. But I fear there is an overall pattern of purposeless hearing that is mushrooming in my life, and it does not bode well.

It seems that this ugly development is culture-wide. Is it simply because of earbuds and iPods—the instant accessibility of music and the cheapness of downloaded (or pirated) MP3s? Has music become just another tradable commodity rather than a transcendental encounter? Does it say something about us as a culture that we’ve lost the ability to be still and submit to great art? Or I am I reading too much into it all?

Aaron Copland once decried the increasing presence of great classical music impotently spilling out of shopping department speakers and elevators, relegating civilization’s greatest masterpieces to a bed of background noise. I dare not imagine what he would think about the ubiquitous music emanating from our iPods and ring tones. Surely it’s not a crime to have great music “on in the background”—I will always prefer a well-sculpted orchestra to silence or the drone of coworker conversations. But it is a crime when we, subconsciously or not, begin to treat this great music as background noise, blighting from our memory that its stormy power comes from an ancient and better place.