The Musician’s Burden

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

“Maybe due to my involvement in it, I feel I have to either listen intently or tune it out.” This statement by Talking Heads front man David Byrne speaks for many who make a living in the musical arts. It is an expression of the professional’s burden: an inability to subdue the analytical impulse when confronted with the subject of expertise. Total immersion in a craft or line of work—be it music, medicine, gardening, or child rearing—makes casual experiences in that area hard to achieve. The more time and energy one spends in a field, the less that field invites frolicking. For the musician, this leaves the two polar options Byrne suggests: conscious listening—which invariably involves critical assessment—or conscious distancing—which, in his words, makes music “an annoying sonic layer that just adds to the background noise.”

This might seem counterintuitive. Musicians are obviously music lovers, and their profession is largely a pursuit of that love. But theirs is usually a refined affection rather than a wild passion. As skills are honed and knowledge sharpened, so are opinions deepened and judgments polished. Nuances of performance and details of construction are ever apparent to the learned listener; it is difficult to readjust the ear for “just” listening. True, such a state is more easily attained when listening to music of a type or culture other than one’s own. Yet, because the brain still recognizes those foreign sounds as music, it may instinctively launch into assessment mode, whether or not it is justified in doing so.

This is not to diminish the value of music appreciation courses and other programs of cultural enrichment. The premise of such enterprises is undoubtedly valid, namely, that listening is enhanced through greater understanding of musical styles, materials, and techniques. However, a line tends to be crossed when avocation becomes vocation, when amateur infatuation becomes professional discipline. Enjoyment is no longer the primary goal or foremost outcome. Music—all music—becomes work.

Of course, this condition is not universal. Some musicians have more success than others dividing musical labor from musical play. A rare and enviable few can even derive endless pleasure from listening. But most are more selective and methodical in picking their musical spots. Again quoting Byrne: “I listen to music at very specific times. When I go to hear it live, most obviously. When I’m cooking or doing the dishes I put on music, and sometimes other people are present. When I’m jogging or cycling to and from work down New York’s West Side bike path, or if I’m in a rented car on the rare occasions I have to drive somewhere, I listen alone. And when I’m writing and recording music, I listen to what I’m working on. But that’s it.”

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

9 thoughts on “The Musician’s Burden

  1. muz4now

    Um, Jonathan: did you just look inside my brain? Half kidding.

    When I go to restaurants with friends, I have to be careful not to space off into the “background” music at times. Whenever music is playing (restaurants, clubs, parties, etc.) I have to really tune into the conversation or the music almost seems to white-noise-out the human voices. At the same time, I enjoy listening to music while I work, but have to completely shut it off when I get a phone call. Anyway, you get the idea. And you already knew based on what you posted.

    Thanks, as always, for the fabulous, thought-inducing writing.

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  7. Susan M. Featro

    I enjoyed reading your blog post, Jonathan. I came across it via a link that Stan posted. I should hand your blog post out to family and friends so that they can understand where I’m coming from when I say that I don’t care to listen to music while doing x, y, or z, and why my focus is not always there while being at a restaurant or other location where music is playing, as I’m listening in a different way than they are to the “background” music. 😉

    The majority of my listening is in order to select new pieces for performance and/or to learn a piece that one of my voice/piano students wants to work on. I have never listened to music while jogging…I can’t listen to music and think/clear my head at the same time, so I choose the silence for my jogging outside.

    Thank you again for your writing about the musician’s burden!


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