Too Much Music

It’s been a somewhat quiet time for me in the concert-going department since I’ve returned from the Cabrillo Festival. But for the past three weeks or so, I’ve still been cramming reams of music down my ears via recordings in order to properly prepare for various projects I’ve been working on, all with nearly simultaneous deadlines-articles I’m writing for various publications and a variety of interviews, including the next NewMusicBox Cover (stay tuned!). It’s frequently been music from the moment I wake up, throughout the day whenever I can do something during which listening to music will not be a distraction (all too few things), and then once I’m back home, often late into the night and frequently with score in hand.

But at some point this afternoon, while clocking in some more listening time as I was clearing my email, I suddenly got a massive headache. I decided to take a listening break, even though I don’t really have time for such a luxury right now. But since I stopped listening and started writing this, the headache is receding.

Is it possible that I have been listening to too much music? Is there ultimately a finite mental capacity for processing sonic information? A traditional gamelan performance goes on all night, as did Terry Riley’s night flight concerts back in the ’60s, and there are several composers who have attempted 24-hour-long pieces. The Norwegian composer Arne Nordheim even conceived of an electronic composition that would take hundreds of years to realize, and most folks in the new music community are aware of the performance of John Cage’s organ piece ASLSP (e.g. As SLow aS Possible) in St. Burchardi church in Halberstadt which began on September 5, 2001 and is not scheduled to end until September 5, 2640. But how can a listener even begin to attempt to listen to something like that in a meaningful way? I’ve attended some of Bang on a Can’s 12-hour marathons in years past, but breaks in between pieces and conversations with other attendees provided a crucial frame for the time focused on listening to the music being performed.

I know that there are many people who have headphones on from morning to night, listening to their own personal soundtracks, with nary a moment of silence to reflect on what they’ve just heard. I could never do that. It seems like the musical equivalent of going to an all-you-can-eat buffet and never leaving. How much music can you listen to without getting sonic indigestion?

6 thoughts on “Too Much Music

  1. bvlasak

    … when I went to the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa, I know that I had a massive headache that was so bad that I was unable to drive home and had to rely on a friend of mine to make it for me. Turns out I had a bad case of eyestrain from looking too intensely at the Mondrian. ::: grins :::

    I wonder if one could indeed suffer from a case of earstrain. It would stand to reason that if one sense could be overloaded, so could another, yes?

    — Brian

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  2. jigsawmusic

    Hi Frank! Ears get tired too, just like eyes, legs, backs, etc. I think that the amount of music necessary to strain the ears depends very much on the person, as well as the volume of the music and the medium by which it is being transmitted. Earbuds tire the ears much faster than listening to a stereo. I have come to recognize the physical sensation of my ears getting tired (usually my tolerance is about 4 straight hours of listening max) before the headache sets in, and make myself stop.

    If it’s any consolation, your tolerance seems way, way high! But be nice to your ears – you need ‘em!

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  3. nuhorn

    i think it has mostly to do with what you’re listening too. if it really grabs and holds my attention, i’m more fully engaged and susceptible to the occasional over-listening experience. music filled with content and event (may favorite) can often tax your brain in trying to follow it. i love Stockhausen’s gruppen but would get a headache listening to it more than once, same goes for much early music (Byrd’s ad domini cum tribularer comes to mind). i’ve had a similar issue music in twelve parts by Glass; sometimes it just hits me wrong.

    i too can’t really do the wandering around with headphones thing either. it’s not what i listen to music for.

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  4. MarkNGrant

    On his first visit to Nadia Boulanger in the late 1920s, the American composer-arranger Robert Russell Bennett gave Madame the score of a short symphony for which he had won an honorable mention prize in a Musical America competition. Nadia replied of the honorable mention, “What does that get you?” (“Qu’est-ce que ├ža vous rapporte?”) To which remark Bennett riposted to Boulanger, after she had scanned his score, “I always believed that too much music was being written and, rather than add to it my hope was to be a part of some of the great music already ours– preferably as a conductor, etc.”

    Boulanger’s response to this: “I understand you perfectly. I had exactly the same decision to make and I made it just as you are. But I see so many ideas here that I doubt that you have a right to make that decision. If everybody did that we should have no more music written.” (quoted from The Broadway Sound, ed. George J. Ferencz)

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  5. MarkNGrant

    correcting a word
    In my post above, I should have written the word “Mademoiselle” instead of “Madame.” Quel faux pas horrible!

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  6. bvlasak

    Sorry to post again; I always hate doing follow-ups, but it’s something that’s been bothering me for years. No kidding.

    The premise is simply this: I don’t necessarily the practice of listening to music. I agree with the above sentiment that too much music’s being written (and has been written). I suppose this makes me some kind of terrible human being, what with being a composer and all, but I’ve found that the more I listen, the more difficult it is to hear myself. Does this make sense?

    If not, I’m not prepared to rule out the terrible human being hypothesis.

    — Brian

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