Music Maker

The benefits of keeping the beats

Counting Your Music Calories

A move toward intentional listening.

Though I identify myself in many ways through the lens of music, there are times when we all want to escape organized sound entirely.

It is more difficult than it seems, unless we are at home where we can more or less control the sounds we're exposed to. Out in public music occurs on somebody else’s terms. The music that accompanies our daily lives provides a soundtrack to either eating, shopping or waiting. It’s a rare restaurant or shop that doesn’t routinely use music to accompany their customer’s experience. Even as I write these words (in a public space) Dolly Parton is unironically singing about her dead-end job.

In fact, walking into a music-free public space can be a palpable experience. We are conditioned to having a soundtrack accompany our daily routine. I once knew a woman who took her headphones to the Grand Canyon to accompany her experience, because, as she said, all her images of the canyon came from a television experience, and all were accompanied by sweeping sounds and soaring strings. She had forgotten the value of silence. Airports and waiting rooms assault our ears. Being put on hold while listening to some version (never the original, oddly) of light, smooth, inoffensive jazz, or “hits from our lives,” makes us surrender our experience to their sounds.

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Am I overly sensitive? Unapologetically.

Sure, music-as-wallpaper has a place in setting the tenor of a dinner party, or accompanying the making of a spectacular mess in the kitchen, but do I really need to listen to Billy Joel while eating Pho at my favorite Vietnamese dive. For the record, I would prefer to hear Vietnamese folk music with my Pho, or koto with my soba. It’s about context.

I write these words while keeping the adult learner in mind.  Adults bring more experience and expectations in terms of what they expose themselves to.  Therefore, I remind my college/adult students that part of their education is recognizing how music is either created by them, sought out by them, or foisted upon them. Music makers have the opportunity to mold music with their hands in a way that can feel as rewarding as anything they’re likely to encounter. This is a purely intrinsic motivation that allows the practitioner to create, instead of passively consume.

I find few situations as aurally numbing as a constant, unrelenting, manufactured beat. At the risk of offending some of my readers, I would posit that sophisticated music tends to have its own inherent pulse. Even in the strictest moto perpetual movements there needs to be a rhythmic cadence that keeps the listener (and performer) from holding her breath. In this context, beat and pulse are not used interchangeably. Whereas beat often refers to the natural breakdown within a measure, pulse refers to the gesture of music, and its organization. Pulse is how we feel music.

A constant beat has a place of course, as any numbers of nightclub attendees can attest- it allows for dance (functional music).  I would assert that it also takes the responsibility off the listener, as it provides a predictable curtain of sound. One wonders if there is another function, especially when accompanied by heightened decibel levels. Eardrum-shattering music ensures that the listener cannot have meaningful conversations, and for many, sadly, this can be a comfort. The music fills the void of many a teen trapped in a car full of head gasket-cracking thump.

How we choose music in our lives says a lot about what we value. Inasmuch as is possible, I choose music for several reasons. If I want to be challenged, I will turn to a Beethoven or a Bartok quartet. If I want to get lost in the beauty of music, I will choose a Puccini or Verdi opera. For those times when I want to provide a backdrop for a dinner party, I will, as will many, choose something from the American Songbook or jazz. All of these are chosen on my terms, consciously, and with intent.

My challenge for you is to take inventory in the ways in which music enters your life this week, especially music over which you have no control. The question could be, “is this music improving on the silence, or might I prefer another soundtrack, if only my own breath?”

Violinist Rictor Noren teaches at the Boston Conservatory of Music and MIT.

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