Talk to Me

I listen to a whole lot of recorded music, in terms of mean hours per day. It’s the kind of thing I do almost without thinking—I just launch iTunes, browse my collection, and hit “play.” Sometimes I find myself listening to music without even remembering that I turned it on. The other day, however, I was listening to recorded speeches, not music, when I experienced a disturbing revelation: It seems that lectures, interviews, and talk radio fulfill many of the same nodes in me that recorded music does, at least in a passive-listening context.

Could this mean that the “music” itself is secondary to the sympathetic effect of hearing a human voice? Most of the “background” music I hear includes conventional vocals of one sort or another; maybe that, and not the characteristics we’d consider strictly “musical,” is what makes it such an agreeable companion. Even though my goal is not to create background music of the sort that fills my day, I wonder what this discovery might indicate about the way I really understand music (as opposed to the way I should).

It may be time to seriously reevaluate my priorities as a composer, in terms of my deployment of “information carriers”—musical and textual. I don’t have many pieces that present a text, but most of my pieces arise from ideas that can be verbally articulated. Moreover, having been a singer for some years, I’m aware of the special status the voice enjoys among instruments—it’s the only instrument that all of us own, after all. Although I’m scandalized to learn that I can be placated by Howard Zinn, Diane Rehm, or Stephen Fry almost as well as by my favorite vernacular musicians, I’m hoping that some previously overlooked compositional avenues might be visible now that the use of my own perceptual apparatus is a bit clearer to me.

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One thought on “Talk to Me

  1. JohnClare

    There’s a really great episode of RadioLab that talks about what is music, and a great demonstration of musical speech.

    It’s led to conversations I’ve had with composers about what is music. There was an especially memorable talk with Roxanna Panufnik, while she had been teaching young people, bringing up the rhythm of speech – from a phrase, “Who turned the lights out?”

    Reply

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