Useful Boredom

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Conventional wisdom has it that boredom is of two main types. The first occurs when stimuli or circumstances are too simple, as when the gifted child finds herself in a remedial classroom. The second is when sensory input is so complex as to lull the mind into a quasi-vegetative state. This accounts for the general avoidance of subjects like philosophy and math. Musically, these species of boredom are embodied in the overly simplistic pop song on the one hand, and the overly orchestrated concert work on the other. The former is boring because it poses no challenges and offers no surprises. The latter is boring because its multitude of interacting tones and timbres require more concentration than most are willing to dedicate. In this binary view, the culprits reside at the poles: underload and overload.

On the surface, this analysis might seem uncontestable. But there is a sense in which it derives from and supports an elitist view of music appreciation. Pop music is labeled as such because its style, structure and conventions appeal to the general public. Whether a selection is fairly or unfairly painted as “simple” has little impact on the audience’s acceptance of it. In fact, its obviousness can be gratifying, as it satisfies a primal desire for predictability. In contrast, it is not always the case that education or exposure causes one to derive pleasure from a drawn-out classical piece. There are many classically trained musicians who find it difficult to sit through a symphony performance (myself included)—a reality that dispels the assumption that understanding eliminates boredom. The typical abundance of valleys and paucity of peaks make for a tedious experience, regardless of the subtleties and layers aficionados detect and convince themselves to enjoy.

It is fair to blame symphonic fatigue on the music itself and not the listener. If we do so, we can begin to see the value this sort of boredom holds. As Bertrand Russell reminded us in The Conquest of Happiness (1930), the rhythm of nature is slow. The human body has evolved and adapted according to the leisurely pace of the seasons. The ultra-fast speed of modernity and the quest for convenience have numbed our patience and obscured the virtue of stagnancy. The boringness in classical music can help us to retrieve our long-forgotten tolerance for life’s unexciting moments, and discover in those moments opportunities for fruitful contemplation.

Russell made this point with the following illustration. Imagine a modern publisher receiving the Hebrew Bible as a new and never-before seen manuscript. It is not difficult to imagine the response: “My dear sir, this chapter [in Genesis] lacks pep; you can’t expect your reader to be interested in a mere string of proper names of persons about whom you tell him so little. You have begun your story, I will admit, in fine style, and at first I was very favorably impressed, but you have altogether too much wish to tell it all. Pick out the high lights, take out the superfluous matter, and bring me back your manuscript when you have reduced it to a reasonable length.”

In a similar way, classical music exposes the difficulty most of us have engaging in “superfluous matter.” But instead of taking the common path of frustration or the snobbish  approach of elevating musical lulls into something more than they are, we should accept boring passages as boring, and embrace the stillness they can invite within us. After all, if everything were exciting or immediately appealing, nothing would be.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

3 thoughts on “Useful Boredom

  1. Pingback: Useful Boredom | creative process or what inspi...

  2. Pingback: Useful Boredom | Stan Stewart's Blog

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