Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.
There are two basic modes of musical transmission: direct and indirect. Direct transmission consists of live performers and auditors in relatively close proximity with one another, while indirect transmission involves the emission of prerecorded music through speakers. In the first, performers are visible, identifiable and capable of interacting with listeners. In the second, listeners have no immediate or real-time connection with the music, other than the spontaneity with which sounds are processed in the brain. As populations grow in size and technological sophistication, the main route of musical transmission shifts from direct to indirect. Performances are increasingly replaced by phonograms, and music becomes a commodity.
In small-scale societies, where technology is limited and participation is the norm, senders and receivers of music tend to be the same people. The entire community is involved in all aspects of the musical happening: singing, dancing, playing and listening. In large-scale mechanized societies, where music is given to specialists and indirect transmission is the dominant modality, there exists a separation between producers and listeners. Rather than an integrative and cooperative means of expression, music is packaged as a purchasable item.
Fittingly, those who receive music through indirect transmission are called “consumers.” Like other products in the marketplace, music can be obtained for personal use, and buying trends dictate the sorts of new music that are made available. Because of its collective pocketbook, the general listenership retains an active role in the musical experience. But the part it plays is distant compared to the community-based music-making typical of tribal and other small-scale societies.
Yet, even as cultural observers stress distinctions between direct and indirect modes of transmission, “consumer” is being used more and more to refer to all listeners of music, regardless of the modality. This equal application is partly meant to downplay tendencies to raise one mode above the other (namely, direct above indirect). Both types of musical experience are genuine to the participants, well suited for their social settings and serve the basic needs of the respective listeners. Additionally, the term highlights the reality that everyone consumes music, regardless of the activeness or passiveness of our musical involvement.
Interaction with music goes deeper than simply hearing, a sensory perception localized in the ears. Listening is a holistic activity incorporating a variety of physical, cognitive and emotional processes. We consume music in a way similar to how we consume food. It enters the ears (ingestion) and is distilled into perceptible material (mastication). From there it travels to processing centers (swallowing), where it is further broken down (digestion), and useful substances are extracted from it (absorption).
It is no coincidence that eating-related words are routinely used to depict musical listening. We drink in sounds, chew on musical passages, digest phrases, absorb musical input, and so forth. Plus, we talk about musical preferences in terms of taste. In this elemental sense, music is made for human consumption, and each of us is a musical consumer.
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