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Music multitasking, part 2: Why music anywhere, anytime, is awesome

On which I respond to Steve Guttenberg, and a few folks from the comment section, about the "correct" way to listen to music.

Geoffrey Morrison

I guess I shouldn't have been surprised. Every time I try to start a debate on the Internet, it devolves into "Well, I didn't read this but you're stupid." I'm paraphrasing. Barely.

A few weeks ago Steve "The Audiophiliac" Guttenberg and I decided to have a bit of a debate, on the "correct" way to listen to music.

While we agreed on many things, we disagreed on others. Conveniently, commenters ran with it to call us both names.

OK then, game on.

If you missed the original articles, check them out before you check out this one. You can read mine, Music multitasking: How 'background' listening enhances life, and Steve's To listen to music or not: That is the question. I say that, knowing that a certain percentage of you read neither and are already filling out the comment form at the bottom. Cheers.

To recap, I'm of the opinion that you can get just as rich an experience with music, perhaps even more so, using it to enhance your life. Steve feels that 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."

Many commenters seemed unable to fathom that "background" listening could be at all enjoyable. Worse, some seemed to think that anyone who's not sitting, listening intently, is "not really enjoying" the music.

So when I'm singing along to the soundtrack of my life, I'm not enjoying it? Funny, sure feels that way.

Here are some examples from the comments, and my thoughts on them. One prevailing notion is apparently that people who don't sit and listen aren't actually "listening."

"Geoffrey Morrison is mistaking 'listening' to 'hearing'. Every parent and teenager have gone through this situation: 'Were you listening to me?' 'Yes, I heard you!' Both involve sound, but listening involves active engagement with the sound while hearing you only notice it, but not do anything with it. Ask anyone doing some work while the music is playing what songs or pieces were playing for the last 20 minutes and they'd be hard pressed to tell you that. Someone actively listening will tell you about what they heard, it's [sic] details, it's [sic] lyrics. So yes, most music is played while we are doing something else. But you're not really enjoying it" -- NazTech

The problem I have with this is how does he know how I'm listening? Something the next commenter touches on, but sadly veers away from.

"One thing that seems to be missing from your debate: people have differently wired brains. For me, the absolute worst thing that can happen if I'm trying to work (typical knowledge worker, on a computer) is to have someone nearby playing music. I find it infinitely distracting, annoying, intrusive, rude, etc. If I'm working with my hands, totally different story. I give a lot of credence to Pascal's quote:

"'All of humanity's problems stem from man's inability to sit quietly in a room alone' -- and towards that, have found great worth in shutting off the 'background music,' instead letting my thoughts keep me company. I listen to music, but never to cover up silence." -- Purplehart

Unfortunately commenter PurpleHart negates his excellent first sentence with the rest of it (including the quote, which is nearly ironic in this context). People's brains are wired differently. I write better to music. Without overly pimping my (internationally bestselling) book, I wrote many of the scenes to specific movie scores. I found it helped with pacing and mood.

I've interviewed many authors who do, and feel, the same. Even when I'm writing articles like this, music actually helps me to focus. If this sounds impossible to you, it's because we're wired differently. I'm not judging you for not being able to, or not wanting to multitask, so please afford me the same courtesy for doing so.

For that matter, Ty Pendlebury brought up a good point:

Music is the original multitasking tool: it was originally designed to make you dance. While some people like sitting motionless perfectly situated between the speakers others like to move about, or drink wine, or one of a thousand different things.

Unfortunately it seems conceding that someone can be different, but equal, is lost on some. While I hate giving digital ink to such an obvious troll, this is sadly a good example:

"Let me guess, Geoffrey: you listen to auto generated Spotify playlists, you like mainstream music but try to remain 'edgy' by repudiating with it. You listen to 'sad' music when you're sad and 'happy' music when you're happy. Good god. I vomited a bit. Yes, you DON'T enjoy music as it should be. I don't believe you are a former musician because if you were, you would find this act repulsing." -- Ericbeige

This is everything I'm talking about. So is this:

"If you wear earbuds or headphones constantly, everywhere you go, while doing everything you do, you have moved from enjoying music to self medicating and need to do some self exploration to try and find out why. I know some people who self medicate in this way.

"It does take a certain amount of maturity to sit still for more than a minute or two, to focus your attention on one thing at a time. But once you are able to do that you can begin to truly appreciate things." -- Audiophiliacwoodworker

And there you have it: I'm not a musician (funny, there were many witnesses who saw me play), those of us who listen to music all the time are mentally ill, and it's because we're not "mature enough."

Is anyone else seeing the issue here? Not that these people have aimed straight for ad hominum, I couldn't care less (I've certainly been called worse). It's that this attitude exists at all. How do people who disparage music multitasking know how much I (or anyone) enjoy or appreciate anything? If I experience it differently from you, you have little frame of reference to judge how much I might experience it at all.

Hmmm, that last part might be important.

Are we not audiophiles?

Jason Chen, formerly of Gizmodo and creator of the ebook bundle site Storybundle, tweeted a response to me I hadn't considered, and is worth discussing:

Interesting. Could that be the issue? Perhaps while we're all thinking we're talking about the same thing, we're not? By his definition, then, I guess I'm a musicphile, where the music is the goal. I'm sure many "musicphiles" would also say they're audiophiles (I would), and vice versa, but if someone is leaning more towards one camp than the other, it would be difficult to concede common ground to the "other" side. Of course someone who spends thousands on gear, and does nothing else while listening to it, would think they're getting more from the music experience than someone listening to stock earbuds while walking around.

But those two people would have no common ground to even have a discussion. How could one possibly know how "much" someone else is enjoying something? Does a football fanatic enjoy football more than a baseball fan enjoys baseball? How could you tell?

Except that analogy doesn't exactly work. It's more like two fans arguing about Pink Floyd. One says "Dark Side" is their favorite album of all time, the other "Wish You Were Here." Could one really say that they enjoy their favorite more than the other ? No, of course not.

In other words, it's music; let's just enjoy it and stop trying to create tribes and alienate others that are different. There's enough of that crap in the world already.

(As mentioned, this is the third of a short series of articles by Steve Guttenberg and myself debating the "right" way to listen to music. The first was Music multitasking: How 'background' listening enhances life. The second, his rebuttal, was To listen to music or not: That is the question. His rebuttal this article 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+.