Is music ever worthy of your full attention?

Is having music "on" the same thing as actually listening to it?

Steve Guttenberg
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 Stereophile.
Steve Guttenberg
3 min read

Singer CC Coletti, listening Nicholas Prout

A couple of weeks ago Geoffrey Morrison and I wrote about listening to music from totally opposite perspectives. He started with " Music multitasking: How 'background' listening enhances life," and I countered with " To listen to music or not: That is the question." Apparently, we're not done; on Wednesday Morrison posted " Music multitasking, part 2: Why music anywhere, anytime, is awesome," and here's my final two cents, listen up.

I'm talking about really savoring music, soaking it in. That has to be a more intense, soul-satisfying experience than merely having it on. Glancing at a great painting as you stroll by isn't the same as standing there for a few minutes, taking it in. I'll concede that Morrison's view wins the popular vote; few people listen without multitasking, so they don't know what they're missing. That's why I suggested to try and occasionally stop talking, texting, or whatever.

Background listening is obviously enjoyable; that's why almost everybody does it. It doesn't demand much from the listener; the sound is just a space filler, and that can be a good thing. Quiet restaurants without background music are deadly dull; gentle jazz stirrings can provide a pleasant atmosphere. There, I said it: background music sometimes serves an important function.

Why listen?

Of course, if you listen you'll be much more likely to appreciate sound quality, so you might see the value in buying better-sounding gear. The opposite is also true: the biggest advantage to multitasking is that even the lamest speakers or headphones will be good enough. If your "hi-fi" is an iffy Bluetooth speaker, I definitely understand why you can't listen to it! I'm not suggesting you need a $5,000 system to enjoy music; you might start with a pair Monoprice 8250 speakers ($32) and a Lepai LP2020A+ stereo integrated amplifier ($25) to provide an ear-opening experience. Invest in those products and you'll have better sound than what most $200 to $300 Bluetooth speakers can offer.

Steve Guttenberg/CNET

Mine is a simple request: listen with your eyes closed. Once.

Take a shot and play one of your favorite tunes in a quiet room, and see if you notice anything new in the music, stuff you never heard before. Maybe you will, and if you do, you might want to do it again. If not, you'll be robbed of 5 minutes of valuable multitasking time you'll never get back. If that happens, please find it in your heart to forgive me.

It's simply a matter of "being there," not distracted with other stimuli vying for your attention second by second. Stop and smell the roses, and you'll be more likely to better appreciate what's in front of you. It's not just music; you might try giving your undivided attention to movies, TV, art, eating great food, or drinking wonderful wine. Slow down and savor the experience. When you do, see if it makes a difference.

Getting back to one of Morrison's original points: we can't or shouldn't attempt to quantify how others appreciate music, or worse yet, tell them they're doing it wrong. I get it; I've tried to enjoy watching ballet, but it can't hold my attention. The same goes for opera or sports; I couldn't care less.

I'm suggesting that attentive listening may enhance live or recorded music, and multitasking will probably devalue it. That's my opinion; an article in The New York Times, "The Science and Art of Listening," provides a more objective perspective on the value of active listening.

Share your thoughts about listening, however you do it, in the comments.