Is computer audio turning music from a social pleasure into a solitary one?
As music moves increasingly towards downloads and streaming, let’s not lose sight of the allure of the comfy sofa, and listening with others, says James Vesey
When I was a child, one of the highlights of the day was Listen With Mother. It was a chance for parents to take a break from household chores (and children from devising new ways of annoying those parents), and for both to sit down and enjoy listening to something together.
Spool on a decade or so, and many of my musical discoveries were made while at university, where those of us lucky enough to have record-players would often visit each other’s rooms to play a new acquisition.
I always remember the joy and amazement on the face of a Wagner-fanatic friend the first time I played him the opening of Bach’s St Matthew Passion; I think he went out the next day and bought the set for himself.
And it was at university that an unhealthy interest in the endless noodlings of prog rock developed into a passion for classical works: almost every day brought a new musical discovery, listening in fellow students' rooms, and a slight broadening of my listening horizon.
Now, as the download/music streaming age dawns, there are arguably even more opportunities for hearing new music whenever one wants, but there’s a fundamental danger with having all your music concentrated on, or accessed via, your computer.
And that is that you’ll find yourself sitting at the computer to listen.
Even worse, in today’s ‘content rich, time poor’ world, there’s the possibility that music will for many slip even further from being something one consciously makes space for in one’s life, by sitting down and listening, and instead is no more than a background for surfing, emailing, Tweeting or whatever.
In the past – and I am afraid I’m talking dim and distant rather than recent – I went fairly often to meetings of a recorded music society. Once I got over my fear of being surrounded by people who knew much more than me – fortunately it wasn’t like that at all – I found it an excellent way to discover new works in the company of others, and having a chance to share, discuss and even argue about what we’d just heard.
The fact there was a pub next door to the venue for these meetings meant discussions were often as protracted as they were heated.
Yes, I know these days one can do that via all kinds of social networking sites, but it just isn’t the same as listening together, sharing the same musical experience.
On a more personal level, I enjoy sitting down with my partner to listen to a new recording, not just to have some to ‘bounce reactions off’, but also to see just how it affects us. It’s always an enjoyable moment when a work comes to its end, and there’s a silence followed by one word: ‘Well...?’
Yet when I look around so many websites dedicated to ‘computer audio’, and browse through the user-galleries showing ‘My system’, I’m a more than a little dismayed to see speakers sat on desktops either side of a big computer monitor, with the only listening position clearly defined by an uncomfortable-looking ‘executive’ swivel chair.
Maybe it’s a sign of the growing up of the initial iPod generation, used to shutting the world out when listening to music, but it needn’t be this way. As these pages have been explaining for some time, there’s a wide variety of ways to bridge the gap between PC and hi-fi, and make music-listening sociable.
After all, great music is far too good to keep to yourself – share it, and enjoy it more!