Are you listening?

The biggest problem with American music right now, is that kids don’t listen. They come by it honestly, Americans don’t listen anyway. When people go to concerts, they say I’m going to see… not, I’m going to hear.”
— Branford Marsalis

IMG_2076OVER THE last couple of weeks I’ve been thinking and writing about listening. I just finished a reported essay about radio and connections over the airwaves. Just as I was putting the last touches on it, I saw another related tangent crawling through in my social media queues: Lots of discussions about listening — primarily the very quality of listening. Much of it circles around what has changed in this transmedia-age where information pelts us from all directions but so often without context and background.

The piece that seemed to kick it off was a repost of a spirited conversation with musician Branford Marsalis from a Jazz Times interview last October with Bill Milkowski. It wanders all over the place in the very best way, but at the core it was about communication — playing and listening and audience.

How do we convince people to listen to this? I never really bought into the whole idea of education as an answer. First of all, this music is not easy to listen to. Most of my regular friends, when they would talk about music, they would recite the lyrics. So they’re not even listening to the music. So how are you going to get a person like that to make a leap from that into pure instrumental music? How are you going to get people to make a leap from pop [music], which is an interactive music, to what jazz has become, which is kind of a passive listening experience? That’s too much of a leap for these people.

The other post that was simultaneously making the rounds — which connects to the thread expressed in Marsalis’ quote above — was a blogpost ostensibly about the shifts in our music listening habits. I posted the link on my Facebook wall and tagged a few friends with whom I either talk about music extensively with or have in the past gone to hear shows or we have formed a habit/pattern of listening.

I was really interested in the range of passionate responses. Even surprised about how emotional many of the comments were. The idea of listening “cut-to-cut” to hear an “album” unfold was something that still held a great sense of import but wasn’t a routine many could create time for anylonger. There was a real sense of longing expressed about losing space in their lives for that sort of surrendered listening. I still do it because I can’t quite focus on very much else when I’m listening to music I have to just let it take over, but I realize I listen less and less like that — also due to time, but format changes have played into that as well. I suppose connected to all of this is a sense of longing — that has to do with the time to take such a journey. That leap that Marsalis speaks of above is crucial in both inhabiting the music and letting the music inhabit you.

Are you listening?

How have your habits changed?

(image: my grandmother’s radio)


5 thoughts on “Are you listening?

  1. Interesting. I used to have a music teacher in secondary school who would make us listen to music without doing anything else. He insisted music could only truly be appreciated in this way. He would never allow music as ‘background noise’. We thought he was crazy at the time, but now I understand what he meant, and it’s one of the few things I remember from my music lessons! Now I find that my mind is pulled in so many directions I very really have the time to sit and listen to music, to hear the lyrics and to let myself become lost in it. When I do it’s a rare treat, but it’s always a treat and always enriching.

    • I love that image of your music teacher commanding full attention. I think some time back in a music appreciation class I had we had to do the same. The teacher really wanted us to understand how all of the instruments in an orchestra worked and what “colors” they added to a symphony. I think about those lessons too. In the online conversation that spun out on my Facebook page, it was *so* interesting to hear people’s comments that were very similar to yours. I have found that like you I really don’t have the time I used to (or the time I used for) listening in that way. There are some musicians I *have* to stop doing everything else to listen, which means I put it off. I used to listen a lot late at night, which I do rarely anymore. Most of my active/connected listening happens during daylight hours unless I have gone to a show and am still under a spell…Thanks so much for visiting and commenting. I really enjoyed your take on this.

  2. there was something new and seductive about digital recordings when they came on the scene, when compact disc players would allow you to program discs to skip songs or play them in a different order. that feel of control, that ability to cleanly edit the listening experience, that became the new norm. mp3 players promised us more and more storage with most people opting to randomize their personally selected playlists…

    what we wound up with was a personal soundtrack to serve as the wallpaper to our lives. we set our preferences for the things we already know we like or are comfortable with and let it run.

    i recently dragged out my current turntable (sadly not my long-gone techniques but a new USB job) and began to listening to the remaining LPs i have and… i couldn’t resist recording them to mp3 files to add to my playlists. some albums i recorded whole — and listened to in real-time — and some i edited. the strange thing was, once i began playing a disk i couldn’t walk away. i mean, i *could* if i wanted to, but i was more interested in hearing the disc all the way through. but if i were listening to a CD or a playlist i wouldn’t have felt the same compunction or dedication to the listening experience. i think these things run deep.

    but something marsalis brings up is interesting. at an easy age i played in the orchestra and was trained, if you will, to hear instrumental music. but i was learning this at the same time i was hearing pop songs on the radio in the car and exploring the music we had at home. in that sense i became bilingual in how i heard music. i have always been terrible at hearing or understanding lyrics, and in many cases i can be more wowed by the vibe of a song overall that what it’s trying to say. but to the question of the “leap” i’d be curious to know if people feel that music minus lyrics is somehow defective or lacking, or if the art of listening to instrumental music is uncomfortable, naked music unashamed of its emotions transcending the word.

    • You bring up two really itneresting points.
      I wonder why that ingrained “cut-to-cut” ritual of listening to vinyl still holds such sway. Was it the sound itself? Or knowing that we must flip it over to get to the rest of it? I wonder what was grabbing you getting you to slow down and sit still. I have been really bad at converting things. I still have piles of so much old media I have “essentials” for when I travel loaded onto playlists or if I find that if I’ve become obsessed with some new/old recording I will quickly load it so I have it for long walks or rides on the train — in other words so that it is always with me.
      As for music without lyrics. I can’t tell you how often over the years I’ve heard people say that they “can’t connect” to something if it doesn’t have lyrics — which I’ve never understood. (It’s like a student I had a couple of years ago who said she couldn’t watch black and white movies — they didn’t hold her attention). Part of the beauty of music for me (and black and white) is what it invites our senses to do — to fill in (or not). The journey it sends us on. There are orchestral works, instrumental jazz compositions that have even changed for me over time — they’ve taken on new textures and meanings as I’ve changed. I have always found that to be truly remarkable.

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