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Energising or irritating? Madonna at the O2 arena 

On 22 November the musical world celebrates its patron Saint Cecilia's day. But what about 21 November? One plucky little organisation, No Music Day, has, for the past five years, designated this date a day when, its manifesto says, "the strings will not serenade; plectrums will not pluck; record shops will be closed all day; and you will not take part in any sort of music making or listening whatsoever." It concludes: "No Music Day exists for various reasons. You may have one." 

Most musicians cordially ignore these directives. But the campaign raises a niggling doubt: is there too much music around us? It's a concern, because if we hear music all the time, like it or not, we become inured to it — and chances are we will stop listening. 

I was in Amsterdam in September for the Manuscripta Book Festival, where I met a lively academic whose field I had not come across before. Henkjan Honing is a lecturer on "music cognition" — he studies not how music is composed or performed, but the way people listen to it. His book isn't out yet in English, but should be next year. Among the fascinating points he raised was that according to his experiments, people are gradually losing the ability to recognise melody. Apparently, it is not pitch that makes us recognise music, here in the noisy 21st century, but timbre. In his tests, a melody played successively on two different instruments was often not identified as the same one. 

This made me think. You might at first wonder why we should study how we listen, rather than what we're listening to — but it makes perfect sense, because without listening, music loses its point. A musical performance is a form of aural love triangle between composer, performer(s) and listener in "real time". An ideal performance is a revolving circuit where a musician conveys the composer's thoughts — or is the composer him/herself — to the audience, whose energy and enthusiasm then feeds back into the performer's own and helps him/her to give even more in return. The listener isn't an optional extra.

Maybe that's why some of the world's top classical performers do not regard recorded music as entirely adequate: it's only second-hand real time and breaks that triangular flow of energy. Studio recordings are made without the magic ingredient of give-and-take with the audience. But it's in studio recordings that most of us hear most music, most of the time, which is already a problem. 

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November 2nd, 2009
12:11 PM
Paradoxically, though there is music - in the largest sense of the word, since much of it is aural garbage in my opinion - everywhere, the choice has been narrowed and compartmentalized since the days of BBC's "Light Programme", which made a wide variety of music available. People aren't as stupid as programmers would have us believe. On the other hand, people are becoming more and more stupid under the bludgeoning effect of junk music and the quasi-obligation to copy one another and conform.To say "Music while you work" has become "music while you shirk" would be unfair but much of the stuff one is forced to listen to is mind-dumbing.

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