Tuesday, April 12, 2011


I should be doing oh-so-many other things right now, but lying in bed listening to some music has been so pleasant that I wanted to write on here about listening. Nick Southall (see his blog here) conducted his Music Diary Project last week. Over 100 people officially took part, blogging each day about everything they listened to (intentional or not). He's collecting surveys from the people who participated and will then release whatever findings come out of those surveys. I did not take part in the Music Diary Project (obviously), and that kills me. I kept telling myself I was too busy, too stressed, not in the mood, etc., etc., but really I could have made the time. I find enough ways to waste an hour here or there that taking some time at the end of the day to reflect on what I listened to throughout the day would not be especially taxing. Why didn't I take part, you ask? Oh, gentle reader, if only I knew the answer to that.

Like Southall, I am in many ways more interested in the things I did not choose to listen to when thinking about the question of “What did I listen to today?” I often complain about Starbucks and their music choices—the Christmas music starting in early November, the faux-Celtic music, the maddening frequency of k.d Lang's “Constant Craving”—but I remember a few months ago Starbucks was blaring “At Last” on their outdoor speakers. Suddenly, I didn't care that this was the place I constantly whine about with regard to its music selection and the volume of said music. “At Last” seems magical any time I hear it, and as I walked past Starbucks on my way to the library, the day grew a little brighter and the weather a little warmer.

I went out with a few friends to a pair of bars this past weekend. Both bars had giant video screens and large speakers. To say the music being played was inescapable is an understatement. There was nothing but the music; it was as much a part of our physical environment as the actual walls of the buildings. I did not choose anything we listened to, and, for the most part, I disliked a great deal of what the bars chose to play. The music in those bars constituted my entire listening experience for last Friday, though. Every piece of music I listened on Friday was a song I do not like.

Perhaps surprisingly, I do not necessarily think that was a bad thing. While it certainly would've been more enjoyable had the music being played been things I like, I can't say that I would have paid attention to the music in that case, beyond maybe commenting that I really liked a particular song. I sometimes worry that all music is becoming ambient music. Now, don't get me wrong, I love ambient music (particularly the early stuff Eno did), but not all the time. I don't want all of my music to act as wallpaper (or wall art), to become a part of the physical spaces in which my day plays out and nothing more. I don't want music to be permanently in the background. Perhaps it's related to what researchers are saying about the loss of our deep attention spans as reflected in our changing reading habits, but it seems to me like we're losing our deep listening habits. I'm as guilty as anyone else in that as long as a place is playing relatively inoffensive (or even good) music, I'm content to let it just exist. I don't need to pay the music any mind.

The music in those bars reminded me that music doesn't work that way. I couldn't stop paying attention to the music there. I wanted to talk about it, dissect it, discuss it, critique it. What I didn't want to do was let it just float into the background and become a part of the space in which I was at that moment. Do we let this move into the background by music happen because it is simply exhausting to always listen and think like this? Are we simply bombarded by so much music (in stores, in restaurants, in elevators, in cars, etc., etc.) that it must be placed in the background for our own sanity? I don't really know for sure, but I imagine that's at least part of it.

If I'd done the Music Diary Project, I wonder how much of what I listed would have been by choice and how much would've been forced upon me. Given that I rarely listen to music while I do work and listen to most of my music on my commute to school each day, I have a sneaking suspicion that music I chose to listen to would make up the minority of my list. What to do with the rest of the music I hear each day? Start paying attention, I guess.

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