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Music multitasking: How 'background' listening enhances life

One of the prevailing trends in audiophile circles is the notion that, to fully appreciate music, you have to stop doing anything else and just listen. I disagree.

Geoffrey Morrison/Maxell

There's an attitude, particularly among those who style themselves dedicated audiophiles, that boils down to judging others for how they listen to music. It says that people who stop all else and do nothing but listen, are somehow more righteous than those who don't. That it's not possible to be a true music fan if you do other stuff all else while listening.

Rubbish. Worse, offensive. Here's why.

The mindset is this: In order to appreciate music, you have to do nothing but listen. That anyone who would deign to do anything else somehow blasphemes the holy temple of the song. Oh, the horror if someone dared to go about their daily lives, with "background music," not listening, not appreciating.

For example:

"When one has music playing in the background, and there's another element in the foreground, the music is not being listened to, it's being heard."
"I believe music deserves to be listened to. It's not right to buy a book, read the summary, and say you loved it. It's not right to watch a trailer and then go on to write a review." --Jesse Marino, "Nobody Listens to Music Anymore,"

Or from our very own Steve Guttenberg:

"Music is all around us, it's just that very few people actually listen to it. Sure, you have music in your car, iPod, or computer, but is the music just a soundtrack to other activities? If music, a la carte, can't hold your attention from time to time you're definitely not an audiophile. Worse yet, you're missing a lot.

But who's to say we're not listening. Not appreciating? Not an audiophile?

I am firmly, proudly, in the opposite camp from the sit-and-listeners. I don't understand people who don't listen to music all the time. I listen while I'm working. I listen in the car . I listen while walking to the store or walking in a foreign city. I find music enhances almost everything I do. When you're getting ready for a party, don't you want to crank the perfect song? When you're heartbroken, don't you want that perfect angry (or melancholy) track to ease the pain?

What is music but the soundtrack to our lives? Music has the ability to raise our spirits, soothe our souls, comfort and coddle, excite and enhance the experiences of life.

Perhaps only the sense of smell has a stronger ability to recall an event. How many times, while listening to a song, have you been transported back to the moment you first heard it, or better yet, to a moment where the song fit perfectly with an event in your life?

The thought that somehow I and others appreciate the music less, just because we're also doing something else, is insane. As a recovering musician, I can tell you we're doing a lot more than just listening up on that stage. Listening is a key part, of course, but so is the very act of playing, or reading the music, or remembering what comes next, watching for visual clues from other players, and so on.

Even a soloist, pure in the moment, tapping into that great muse so perfectly -- they're not just listening. They're feeling.

It seems to me that's the common ground. The Feeling. It seems to me what we all want is the emotion of the song. To some, perhaps, they need a dark room, the glow of the tubes, and an envelopment of nothing but music to get the full effect.

Others, though, can get just as strong a reaction while enjoying music at other times. At all times. Music has gripped my emotions far more often while enhancing something from my life than I've ever experienced while stationary in a room.

This is not a judgment, and that's what annoys me the most. In my view, the point of music is to get enjoyment out of it, however you can. To condescend that "some people" don't enjoy music as much as you do because they enjoy it differently from you, not only spectacularly misses the point, but sets up a sad and vicious rift. A rift where one shouldn't exist.

Because music should be something that unites us, not divides us.

(Note: This is the first of a short series of articles by Steve Guttenberg and myself debating the "right" way to listen to music. The second, his rebuttal, is To listen to music or not: That is the question. My re-rebuttal is Music multitasking, part 2: Why music anywhere, anytime, is awesome, and his re-re-rebuttal is Is music ever worthy of your full attention?)

Got a question for Geoff? First, check out all the other articles he's written on topics like why all HDMI cables are the same, LED LCD vs. plasma, active versus passive 3D, and more. Still have a question? Send him an e-mail! He won't tell you what TV to buy, but he might use your letter in a future article. You can also send him a message on Twitter @TechWriterGeoff or Google+.