To listen to music or not: That is the question

Apparently, CNET writer Geoffrey Morrison thinks music is best enjoyed as background "soundtrack" for other activities. The Audiophiliac feels otherwise.

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
4 min read

Yesterday, here on CNET Geoffrey Morrison's article, " Music Multitasking: How background listening enhances life," put me through some changes. He said a lot of things I think are just plain wrong, but I'll start with this, "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 walking to the store or walking in a foreign city. I find music enhances almost everything I do." Sure, why not? Yet he dismisses sitting and just listening to tunes -- I guess it's not "life enhancing" enough. Morrison's encouraging non-listening is like telling your eight-year old nephew it's OK to not eat your vegetables; ice cream and candy are plenty nutritious. Not!

Steve Guttenberg/CNET

The problem with background listening is that it leads to more background listening. So much so, the suggestion that if you occasionally stop talking, texting, or otherwise multitasking you'll more fully savor the music is met with confused stares. Morrison's assertion that music is something not worthy of your full attention disrespects the musicians who crafted it. They might have spent weeks or months fine-tuning the work, agonizing over the subtle details that will go unappreciated by most of the people "listening" to it.

So if you've never really focused on your favorite music, try this simple experiment: listen for 10 minutes in a quiet room with your eyes closed. Who knows? Perhaps the more you really listen, the more you'll want to focus on the music.

Non-listening leads to more non-listening, including live concerts, where a sizable percentage of the audience is either talking or engaged with their devices. The music is over there, while the real focus is over here. So even when folks spend large amounts of cash to see Radiohead, Tom Petty, or Arcade Fire, the band's music is background, being present for the fleeting experience of a concert is passé.

For the eternity before recorded music changed everything, music was a DIY proposition -- and definitely not background; it was front and center. People made their own music, they sang and played instruments at home, and most of humanity never heard the best musicians. Those guys were playing for kings and other rich folk. Music for the masses was what they could make on their own.

Radio and records changed that and brought the sound of the very best players into common people's lives, first in their homes and later in their cars -- and they were excited and captivated by what they heard. When they heard a tune they liked on the radio, they bought it. Right: music had -- get this! -- value. Musicians made money from recordings, so they made more recordings.

I'm not claiming that everyone was transfixed by music 100 percent of the time; of course not. People had music "on" in the background at parties, while driving, while reading, or whatever. But at other times, people who liked music also really listened to it. That's far less likely to happen now.

A couple of years ago I interviewed a small group of guys who had just bought their first turntables, and they all noted that, with vinyl on, they stopped multitasking and listened. Most weren't particularly interested in sound quality, or self-identified as audiophiles, but vinyl changed their relationship to music. That is, they actually listened to it. And if you're actively listening, chances are you'll care more about what the music sounds like. And if you're not listening, quality doesn't matter so much. Maybe that's why crappy little Bluetooth speakers are so popular: no one really listens to them.

I chatted with brothers Aiden (18) and Sean (14), two new converts to analog music. Aiden likes the ritual of sliding the record out of the sleeve, placing it on the platter, and putting the stylus in the groove. He said, "It makes it special, and you appreciate the music more." Without any prompting from me, Aiden noted he could more easily hear the individual instruments on LPs than with digital formats, and he said, "That's a huge benefit." Sean admitted he sometimes gets bored and skips ahead when listening on his iPod, but is less likely to jump around with vinyl.

Analog isn't perfect, but analog better communicates music's emotional power, which is the main reason LPs are harder to ignore. Fact is, most people rarely listen to digital music without multitasking. Apparently, digital music isn't compelling enough to give your undivided attention.

What do you think? Do you ever stop multitasking and really listen to music? Or are you like Morrison and are perfectly satisfied to just have music "on"? Share your thoughts in the Comments section.