When reading was invented, people (albeit briefly) lamented that our memories would atrophy if we could just write everything down. When digital cameras were invented, photographers complained that much of their art was being lost. But so far as I know — and that is admittedly not terribly far — no one cried when music was first recorded. No one pined for the days when you couldn’t just put on your favorite record. No one claimed that recording music ruined it. But I am here to tell you, recording music ruined music.
You may object that no statement could be further from the truth, that people hear more music now than they ever did before. So much music that was impossible and beautiful has come to be as a result of the recording arts. And of course, it’s true that many musicians have done amazing things with recording, art even, but that’s not the point.
Both of the other innovations noted above are used creatively, certainly. But their first purpose is practical. Words and pictures communicate. Music, on the other had, is primarily impractical. Uses like music therapy are the results of channeling happy accidents. If music is not practical, then getting “better” music doesn’t seem quite as important as enjoying the music you have. We are so glutted with music now that I think we rarely feel it as we once did. Try this experiment with me: let’s try to recreate what music was like before it was everywhere. Let’s try to clean between our ears.
Just try not to listen to music for a month, a week even. It’s impossible, but try. Even if you turn off the radio in your car and uninstall iTunes and snap every CD you own, and disconnect the internet, you will still hear music. You will hear it blaring out of someone else’s headphones on the bus. You will hear it drifting out of a café or bar as you walk down the street. You will hear it at the supermarket and the mall. But ignore these infractions on your aural purity. Imagine that simply not listening to music on purpose is good enough. Take a month. Listen to no music on purpose, and as little peripheral music as possible. To do this is to also shun TV, radio, movies, and much of the internet.
Pay attention to what driving feels like. Is studying the same? What about cleaning?
Now listen to a genre of music you can’t stand (preferably, though not necessarily, something played on instruments; e.g., not rap or electronic). Listen to Bon Jovi or Bon Iver or whatever usually makes you roll your eyes. Really listen to it. Listen to the miracle of harmonies. Listen to the sweet simplicity of the rhythm section. Listen to the delightful complexity of the rhythm section. Listen to the inimitable sonic quality of a harp, of a harpsichord, of a philharmonic orchestra. Listen to an a cappella song and appreciate the fact that every person’s voice is unique. No one else could have sung that song just that way. No one.
Of course, all of that is second fiddle to seeing live music. That’s getting closer to what we’re talking about here, to pre-recorded music. Try the aural rest again, for as long as you can stand, and then go see a talented band. They need not be great, only professional. They need not have a best-selling record, only a polished show. And marvel. The band may not even be that excited about the show; it’s all a practiced routine to them. But it’s happening right in front of you, and then it’s gone. There is no rewind. You have to be right there, the whole time, or you miss it. It is not background to your morning routine. It is not making your workout go by quicker. It is not a crutch. It is pure magic: shimmering, ephemeral, and gone.
We can’t give back our iPods, not really. I don’t think I would want to. But I think it’s worth contemplating how much we take music for granted. How much we’ve managed to become snobs who are actually angry when we have to listen to music we don’t like. Do you think anyone but the most pretentious aristocrats could have felt that way before we trapped music in vinyl? I doubt it.
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