Why can't you listen to music?

Can you stop talking, exercising, texting, reading, or working while listening to music?

I know it might seem like a crazy idea, but do you ever listen to music without doing anything else? The musicians sweated over the tiniest details of the music and sound when they recorded it, so why not give it your undivided attention? Is music worth savoring?

Then again, it's not just recorded music, a lot of people can't keep their mouths shut at concerts. Sometimes they quiet down at the end of a tune to applaud, and go on yammering when the music starts again. The crowd at City Winery here in New York jabbered their hearts out the night I saw Dr. John in August. I paid more than $100 for the ticket, food, and drink, so I assume everyone else there spent about the same, but more than half the crowd talked, loudly, through Dr. John's long set.

The woman sitting next to me wasn't talking; she was too busy texting and e-mailing, and the light from her phone was hugely distracting. Her boyfriend was into the music, but she was sitting next to me so he wasn't blinded by her phone. They say times are tough, but I can think of better ways of blowing $100 for a night of music you totally ignore.

It's easier to actively listen to vinyl than CDs. Steve Guttenberg

New York's free outdoor concerts are even worse places to listen to music. The talkers and texters make up an even larger majority of the crowds, even for a classical concert with the Kronos Quartet at Lincoln Center. The sound coming out of the huge PA speakers was surprisingly good, but I couldn't stand the crowd's noise so I left after 20 minutes.

Music, by itself, can't hold the audience's attention anymore; it's just a nice backdrop to other activities. Is there another explanation? I swear I don't remember it always being this way.

Bringing it all back home, I wonder: can you listen to music without doing something else? In the pre-digital age, when most people listened to LPs at home, the disc's shorter playing times--20 minutes per side--required more hands-on attention. My Mom was no audiophile, but when she listened to her Frank Sinatra records, she really listened!

So I blame digital for weaning people off active listening. The transition from listening to background listening didn't happen overnight, but CDs were so convenient, you'd put one on and then immediately do something--read, clean, work--anything but listen. Three decades into the digital age it may be too late to reverse the trend.

So maybe audiophiles are the last group of people who can just close their eyes and listen to music. Then again, now that more and more people are listening to vinyl, maybe it's not just audiophiles. What can I say...LPs seem to have that effect on people, they're harder to tune out. I can't explain why, but there's also something about the way a good turntable plays the music's rhythm that engages the listener more completely than CDs ever do. Vinyl gets your juices flowing, feet tapping, and bodies grooving.

The "danger" of active listening is you might start to notice sound quality, or lack thereof, and become an audiophile. Of course, the opposite holds true; background listeners are perfectly happy with good-enough sound quality and the free ear buds that came with their music players. Right, background listening is the cheaper option!

What about you? Do you ever just listen? Tell us how that changes your feelings about music in the Comments section.

About the author

Ex-movie theater projectionist Steve Guttenberg has also worked as a high-end audio salesman, and as a record producer. Steve currently reviews audio products for CNET and works as a freelance writer for Home Theater, Inner Fidelity, Tone Audio, and Stereophile.

 

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