Occasional Music

Mark WigglesworthThu 3rd January 2013

Does the quantity of music around today affect the quality of the listening experience?

Our digital age grants us almost unlimited access to music. Technology benefits millions, but in the long run the opportunity for music to be ubiquitous threatens the very thing it was created to promote. In the 19th Century, listening to music was a special occasion, rarely heard by accident. What emerged in the 20th Century through a desire to share music’s beauty and extend the reach of its meaning, could in the 21st Century, force us to become so sanitised to its sounds that we lose the ability to enjoy it at all.

The wide availability of music is not the issue. It is how rarely we can escape from it that causes the problem. More often than not, going out in public is to be accompanied by an endless, undiluted soundtrack over which private thoughts struggle to be heard amongst the multitude of melodies forced upon us. Listening to music should always be an active choice, not something designed, à la Nineteen Eighty-Four, to keep us quiet and relaxed. It has in fact been proved that unwanted noise raises blood pressure and depresses the immune system and though we’ve known since the days of the ancient Greeks that listening to music is good for our health, modern studies examining the beneficial qualities of certain music to our heart and pulse, show that people are even more relaxed when the music is switched off. Tell that to the hospitals stealthily introducing it into wards (apparently to mask private conversations!) or the health spas that use it as a way of helping us calm down. Inner peace doesn’t come from switching off. It comes from focussing on the silence that we should all have available to us if and when we want it.

The only way to deal with this incessant onslaught to our aural senses is to develop a means of being unaffected by it. Many people no longer notice music playing in the background. A generation is growing up believing that a constant stream of notes buzzing through a solitary earpiece is part of a contemporary uniform it cannot do without. But the ability to simultaneously carry on normal conversation suggests that the music is being more heard than listened to. Hearing is a purely physiological phenomenon, whilst listening engages both the brain and the heart within a specific cultural context unique to every one of us. Music is meant to demand our attention and there is a risk that being forced so often to hear passively, we lose our capability to listen actively.

Is our society frightened by silence? Is that why the quietest moments in performances are often the ones that make many audiences restless? To experience silence is an increasingly rare privilege. Yet only in relation to silence can sound have meaning. Play the piano without releasing the sustaining pedal and it will not take long for the notes to lose all purpose and perspective. If there is too much light, no one can see the stars.


Mark Wigglesworth

Leading conductor Mark Wigglesworth is equally at home in the opera house as in the concert hall – and, indeed, the studio, where his acclaimed Shostakovich symphony cycle for BIS is nearing completion. In 'Shaping the invisible' Mark shares his passion for music and his fascination with the philosophies and psychologies that lie behind it. (Photo: Ben Ealovega)

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