To Enjoy Music, We Need To Be Able To Escape Music

The following essay was written by Dennis E. Powell for Monday’s edition of the Athens News. I found that it really hit home with me as I’d been thinking about some of the same things. Surely the constant barrage of musical noise we experience daily is destroying our ability to really listen to and appreciate a musical performance. As someone who teaches and performs music for a living, I find that I require some daily quiet time to cleanse my palette and let the music between my ears play uninterrupted.

Oh, and as for well-known pieces that have been overused to the point of absurdity look no further than the O Fortuna movement of Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana. It’s become the default leitmotif for every embattled gladiator, evil wizard, and alien invasion that comes down the pike.

To Enjoy Music, We Need To Be Able To Escape Music
The assault on, with, and by music continues, and grows.

I love music, but I don’t know how long I can hold out, in a world in which escaping from music has become increasingly difficult.

It hit me especially hard last week when I watched what should have been a very nice video production online. A friend had sent me the link to the presentation, which combined the footage of numerous fascinating camera angles showing the latest space shuttle launch.

When the space shuttle goes up, it’s an impressive thing. It is majestically loud (though a mere bottle rocket compared to the sound of the mighty Saturn V that took astronauts to the Moon). As space is entered, the noise diminishes, because there is no air to relay the sound waves, so what the astronauts hear is transmitted entirely through the vehicle itself, in the way road noise changes when you roll up the windows of the car.

This is all really neat stuff. It needs no improvement.

But here was this very lovely set of images, and underneath it all was music. There were great thumping drums for those of us too dim to realize that yes, it was a dramatic moment. There were screeching electric guitars during some parts. There was even a kind of neo-classical music here and there.

The sort-of-classical stuff no doubt has its origins in the spectacular 1968 motion picture, “2001: A Space Odyssey,” in which director Stanley Kubrick masterfully created his vision of orbital mechanics as ballet, with space ships moving to Johann Strauss’s signature waltz. It was surprising and lovely then; it is a cliche now.

The filmmakers who put the shuttle launch piece together can scarcely be blamed, though. Nothing is considered finished unless it has a bed of musical noise.

That’s what it is, too: noise. Turn on any of the pseudo-science channels halfway up the cable or satellite dial and you’ll come away with the impression that divers swimming near sharks hear ominous music, and that birds flitting about hear playful music, and that tornadoes invariably arrive in a cloud of absurd headbanger stuff. The thing is, sharks and birds and tornadoes don’t need any help. Nor do we need assistance in learning that sharks are dangerous, birds can be amusing, and tornadoes are frightening. It might even be that the sounds of watery isolation experienced by the diver, the singing of the birds, or the roar of the tornado would in their way be even more effective in illustrating them.

But I will leave the sharks, birds and tornadoes to take care of themselves, because the saddest thing is how overuse of music has cheapened music.

It used to be fun to listen to what is sometimes called “light classical” music. Putting on a record of, say, Grieg’s “Peer Gynt” was enjoyable and evocative. It is still evocative — only now its “Morning Mood” evokes air fresheners and toilet paper, its “In the Hall of the Mountain King,” bumbling husbands and things crashing down until some product is purchased. Numerous pieces of truly beautiful music have suffered similar fates.

Even worse, the ubiquity of music in the background has, I think, harmed our ability to listen to music at all.

When was the last time you listened to music? I mean really listened, not merely have it on while you were doing something else? There was a time when people would put a record on a record player, sit down comfortably, and give themselves over to the sound. It could even be done by people in groups.

But anymore, people often don’t sit in silent appreciation even when they’re the audience for live music. Music has moved, often, from being an end unto itself to become life’s relish tray, something that is expected but that passes without much notice.

And it is expected. Some of us do not feel we can go about our day without music pumping through speakers or headphones, even though we don’t actually think about what’s playing. It is as if the endless musical beds on television — I’ve recently noticed that now it’s sometimes under news stories — have led us to believe that life is incomplete without a soundtrack.

The presence of background music is so universal that I’ve actually paused upon entering a store or shop, vaguely thinking that something is wrong, something is missing. Only after a little thought do I realize that there is no music playing. That there is silence.

Now, I know that by complaining about it I have as much chance of changing anything as I would have by suggesting that it might mix things up a bit if for a while the sun were to rise in the west. But maybe it is worth noting how the role of music has changed, to mourn how something good can in some ways die through overabundance.

Maybe it will remind me to take a little time to find and appreciate quiet.

Maybe you’ll give that a try, too.

Dennis E. Powell was an award-winning reporter in New York and elsewhere before moving to Ohio and becoming a full-time crackpot. His column appears on Mondays in the Athens News.

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