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.