Close Your Eyes and Listen

No Music Day gives us an opportunity to stop and think

Music
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. 

We hear it whether we want to or not. Music comes out of virtually every structural orifice — doorways, windows, cars, telephones, aeroplanes, computers, lifts, hotels, restaurants and Underground stations trying to keep yobs away. For musicians, this is torture: imagine you’re trying mentally to practise your concerto for tomorrow’s concert, but someone is trying to deaden your mind with that insufferable recording of popular melodies on the panpipes. If you don’t want to hear it, music isn’t music: it’s just noise. If people have been desensitised to the point that they know timbre but not tone, perhaps it’s no wonder.

But what about the way we listen to music we do want to hear? Try this example. We see a high-demand concert on the calendar some way ahead — whether András Schiff at the Wigmore Hall or Madonna at the O2 arena — and we book seats. But we have no idea what will happen that day. The performer can be on tiptop form, but what about the listener? We may have been kept up all night by a crying child, we may have a cold, a train may break down and we arrive seconds before the concert starts, tired, hungry and angry. In our state of stress or exhaustion, a Bach fugue may be an uplifting influence, or it might put us to sleep. Madonna could give us a double shot of energy, or she might irritate the hell out of us and send us scurrying for the exit. That doesn’t depend on the performer, it depends on us, the listeners. 

We’re constantly being told of the way music impacts upon the brain. What about the other way around? Our subjective responses go far deeper than the mood of the moment. How strongly are we conditioned to a certain response to certain music through experiences in our formative years? For instance, Bach’s Goldberg Variations has been my top Desert Island Disc since I first heard it at the age of 16, played on the modern piano by Schiff, who in a Dartington masterclass opened my ears to the glories of the composer. But then at university I encountered a very 1980s attitude which decreed that playing Bach on the piano was virtually a crime against humanity. That struck me as nonsense — and as it happens, Bach advised Cristofori on potential improvements to the pianoforte that the instrument-maker was developing — but you can’t tell people that if you’re an undergraduate. Today, although I listen with awareness of my own conditioning, I’m still resistant to Bach on the harpsichord since one twang takes me back to 1986.

Yet those promulgating what some now see as early-music fundamentalism in the 1980s were only human. Supposing — just supposing — that in their formative years they had come to associate lavish, romantic performance style with the exaggerated grandiosity that was favoured by the Nazis and for a while continued to characterise a generally Germanic approach to music (notably that of Herbert von Karajan), and thence made a mental connection to a war era that they were desperate to leave behind. This may seem extreme — and it’s a hypothetical example — but the subconscious works in bizarre ways, and the sound of music can carry past associations as powerfully as the aroma of Proust’s madeleine.

So perhaps the study of how we listen is indeed as important as the study of analysis and performance. Nobody can listen to music without the full compass of their own mind informing and sometimes skewing their response. For every person this is bound to be different. There’s nothing we can do about that. Music works at too direct an emotional level. “No Music Day” makes the good point that perhaps, just occasionally, we ought to stop and think about what listening to music really means — and give our overloaded ears a rest.