I have a friend who has the most voracious musical listening appetite I have ever encountered. Listening to music—particularly music that is new to him, of any sort—is a completely integral part of his daily life. It’s a necessity for him, so much so that in his case it should probably be added to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, somewhere in between the physiological and the security requirements.
What is so interesting about this is that he claims to have no emotional or visceral attachments to music that he has heard. That is, hearing a song on the radio from when he was in high school does not pull up memories of that time, and he does not listen to a composition over and over because he thinks it’s amazing, even if he does in fact think it’s amazing! Listening to music, familiar of unfamiliar is a purely cerebral experience for him—if he listens to something multiple times, it is usually for study purposes. He doesn’t have a “desert island list” of recordings he couldn’t live without. He could be John Cage’s perfect audience member!
I am pretty much the polar opposite sort of listener—there are pieces of music to which I am extremely attached, for a multitude of reasons, and sometimes I will listen obsessively to one thing (familiar or completely new) simply because I can’t get enough of it and I want to somehow internalize the experience. And I most certainly do have a “desert island list” which is continually evolving.
I believe that for many of us, our relationship to music helps us organize the chronology of our lives. For instance, when I hear certain pieces of music that are familiar, I can instantly, and sometimes strongly, be swept up in memories of previous times when I heard that music, complete with the old emotions intact. At the same time, all sorts of life events, both good and bad, can be marked by music—I would never forget the music that made me want to become a composer, what I was listening to on 9/11, or what was playing the first time I thought I might be falling in love.
By the end of this conversation, my friend and I discovered that despite the obvious differences in our reactions to music, the listening serves a similar purpose for both of us, which is to take us beyond our normal day in, day out brain activity. He uses music to get outside of himself, while I prefer to go inside.
What role does listening to music play in your life, and why?