Should we listen to less music?

I am a huge lover of music, both as a producer and consumer of it. As a teenager I can recall having love affairs with music compositions; periods where I had to listen to a certain song over and over.

I still love music, but I have to concede that I burn out on it more easily now. I find myself not intrigued with much of what I listen to. I also find myself more and more aware how a certain song sounds quite a bit like some other song (often I find myself humming a melody from song A over song B.) It’s been a long time since I’ve had a real musical “crush.”

Nestled in away David Byrne’s book “How Music Works” is his acknowledgment that he doesn’t listen to a lot of music. I think he mentions listening to music while doing the dishes, and going out to see live music a couple times a week, but that’s about it. And he describes being annoyed — as I am — at the constant onslaught of background music numbing your ears when you go out to a restaurant or coffee shop. (I’ve pretty much sworn off Carl’s Jr. because they now have these video screens that blast awful music videos or incredibly stupid pop-culture shows.)

It seems a little weird for a professional musician to imply that we should be listening to less music. But as I concede that I’m constantly burning out on music, I’m wondering whether I should give this idea a try.

When you think about it, our access and exposure to music has increased dramatically over recent centuries. Imagine living in Europe around 1750; in that world, seeing a symphony or opera was a big deal. You probably spent weeks looking forward to it and, when you went, the music absorbed your attention. Additionally, aside from such events, you wouldn’t hear much music in your life; maybe just people humming, or the playing of musicians in your family. It was probably common for some people to go for months on end without hearing musical instruments.

That lifestyle didn’t change much until the advent of radio. Suddenly music was being pumped into your house. Of course, radio had its limitations. The sound quality could be meager and you had to listen to what the radio played (which wasn’t always what you wanted to hear.)

Now we’re at a point with Spotify, YouTube and music piracy that you can pretty much hear any song you want immediately. There are very few barriers preventing you from scratching your audio itch. And it’s almost impossible to go through a day without hearing some music blaring out of cars, being played in restaurants, in the background of TV shows.

Many people have noted that over the past 10 years the barriers to creating and distributing music have substantially decreased. And as a bedroom music producer myself, I freely concede a lot of good has come from this. But I also think it’s decreased the shelf life of music. It used to be that a genre of music would emerge from the primordial soup, percolate within a certain subculture, eventually break into popular consciousness, and finally become passé. But that process would take years; nowadays, it’s much faster. A couple months ago I became really aware of dubstep music and within a couple weeks heard it being used in something like a Bank of America commercial. It’s now much easier for a song or genre of music to have a thrilling sudden ascent and achieve worldwide popularity, but it’s also much easier for people to burn out on that same product. Music is becoming more faddish, easily consumed and easily disposed of.

I’m thinking the solution — at least for me — is to follow Byrne’s advice and limit how much music I’m exposed to. I’d like to maintain the philosophy that listening to music should be an event, not something occurring in the background of my consciousness. If I can’t give music my attention, then I shouldn’t be listening to it.*

*I’m aware that there are forms of music — ambient electronica or Erik Satie’s furniture music — that are expressly designed to be played in the background.

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