Last week The Guardian published a passionate and well-reasoned essay about the importance of libraries by British novelist Neil Gaiman (whom music fans may recognize as the husband of American singer-songwriter Amanda Palmer). I was particularly struck by this passage:
Fiction … is a gateway drug to reading. The drive to know what happens next, to want to turn the page, the need to keep going, even if it’s hard, because someone’s in trouble and you have to know how it’s all going to end … that’s a very real drive. And it forces you to learn new words, to think new thoughts, to keep going. To discover that reading per se is pleasurable. Once you learn that, you’re on the road to reading everything. And reading is key. There were noises made briefly, a few years ago, about the idea that we were living in a post-literate world, in which the ability to make sense out of written words was somehow redundant, but those days are gone: words are more important than they ever were: we navigate the world with words, and as the world slips onto the web, we need to follow, to communicate and to comprehend what we are reading. People who cannot understand each other cannot exchange ideas, cannot communicate, and translation programs only go so far.
With some minor adjustments, Gaiman’s persuasive advocacy of prose fiction can be adapted into an argument for focused listening to music. Just as reading novels or short stories will make you fall in love with written language and ultimately enable you to more effectively communicate as well as comprehend the world around you, a similarly immersive experience with music (any kind of music) will make you fall in love with listening and ultimately enable you to more effectively pay attention to others.
And yet there seem to be so many negative claims these days about focused listening. That it is culturally specific and genre specific (to “Western classical music”). That it is an activity that developed late in human history (the Enlightenment era) and is now something of an anachronism. And, perhaps the most pernicious, that it is not the ideal way to experience music of any kind. This past weekend, as part of the 2013 installment of the Battle of Ideas at London’s Barbican Centre, there was a session that addressed many of these questions head on entitled “Listening to Music: A Public or Private Activity?” I wish I could have been there. Writing in advance about it for The Telegraph, Ivan Hewitt (one of the session’s panelists who made waves on this side of the Atlantic a few weeks ago with his take on the Minnesota Orchestra stalemate) offered a tantalizing preview of some of his talking points:
We can all agree that music is dishonoured if we let it dribble away in the background, as an accompaniment to chatting over a skinny frappucino or answering emails. But does it follow that to honour music as it deserves, we have to listen closely to it? There are many ways to relate to music, after all, and it may be that we’re moving into a period where “taking music seriously” means something else entirely. … [A]ll of us, young and old alike, find it harder to create the calm mental space needed to focus on a developing musical argument.
I would argue that the fact that it has become harder to focus in recent years makes the act of focused listening all the more necessary. In the political sphere, constructive arguments between opposing viewpoints have now devolved into mutually exclusive echo chambers that are hermetically sealed off from one another. We seem to be losing our ability to listen to one another, to the peril of the social contract that is necessary for a functional society. Listening to music could help.