Music: We’re doing it wrong

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If listening to live music is like having sex, we’re stuck in an endless rut of degrading one-night stands.

There are many ways to listen to music. One way that we’re all familiar with is really fun: The music is loud! Pounding drums, wailing guitars, screaming vocals, and a thumping bass that vibrates from the sub-woofers directly to your loins. You and the crowd are dancing, drinking, shouting over the din to your friends. This is a great time. Go to any one of a million bars or music festivals and you can dive into this scene.

Now picture an intimate Merchant Ivory garden party: Dear companions, eyes closed in unison, listening intently to the intricate and nuanced harmony of a string quartet on a sun-dappled Sunday afternoon. The listeners’ deep knowledge of the music and its composer heightens their anticipation and appreciation of every strain.

If music is like sex, then the first example is a hot, sweaty, porno-style romp with a friend or stranger (it doesn’t matter), or maybe a group of friends or strangers. Everybody is happily treating each other like sluts and as long as proper consent has been established it’s a good time for all. In fact, I’m a fan.

On the other end of the metaphor, the garden party represents the slow, deep sensual unity of committed lovers in the throes of passion for one another and the unique and timeless bond they are building together. This is good, too.

Is there a proper balance between the two extremes? Individuals will vary on which ends (or which middles) of the spectrum they prefer at any given time. I personally think it’s best to explore the full range. I wouldn’t judge, but… it appears the scales have tipped sufficiently that I feel the need to weigh in:

In current U.S. culture, the former (the porn party model) totally dominates the public sphere while the latter (garden party) is getting harder to find. Of course, you can pay top dollar for a fuller, more nuanced musical experience, but I’m talking about easily accessible public spaces – clubs and festivals. In this realm, a healthy mix of musical experiences along the spectrum would be fine, but we’re not even close to that. We’re becoming a nation of musical degenerates. We’re doing this wrong.

Let’s look at the dictionary definition of music.

An art of sound in time that expresses ideas and emotions in significant forms through the elements of rhythm, melody, harmony, and color, the tones or sounds employed, occurring in single line (melody) or multiple lines (harmony), and sounded or to be sounded by one or more voices or instruments, or both.

Notice that nothing in this definition actually requires the audience to eat, drink, jump, or shout while “listening” to music. Many may be shocked to hear this, but it is actually possible – even enjoyable – to discern the ideas and emotions in the musician’s art by actually listening to rhythm, melody, harmony, color, and tone. I would add dynamics. Some might be surprised to learn that triple forte is not the only option.

Speaking of options, there are thousands of instruments and tens of thousands of possible combinations of those instruments. Why we are locked into the specific ensemble of drums, guitars and screaming vocals is as mysterious as it is disappointing. We could be enjoying an array of musical styles, from classical to jazz to bluegrass, etc., etc., and genres and sub-genres and sub-sub-genres within each. There are hundreds of countries in the world, countless regions and sub-cultures, each with rich and vibrant music, both traditional and contemporary. But we Americans turn a deaf ear, instead trapped in our own amber din of an ever more bland and homogeneous three-chord country-rock-blues-bar-band noise.

And we don’t even appreciate that! I am sick to death of musicians and audiences treating music like a whore. We objectify music when we focus solely on the base, crude, brash, mindless elements – the shouting and the hype. Sure, it’s all good dirty fun once in a while, but when it’s the only way we conduct our musical intercourse it cheapens the experience, it coarsens us, and it robs us of the beauty and shared humanity music can provide.

I know people who claim to “LOVE!” music but use it exclusively as a dopamine releasing party drug with zero appreciation for even a fraction of what live music has to fully offer. Or they dishonor live music in intimate settings by using it only as background lubricant for their drinking and socializing. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard quality music disrespected in this way. I have professional musician friends and they are sadly resigned to the new norm as they continue to pour heart and soul into their music.

To be sure, there are many great and original musicians making great and original music. And you can still find them in proper settings. In a better world they would be easier to find. There would be more public spaces for them and for their appreciative audiences.

I suppose the live music scene is just one more example of how America at large is dumber by the day… coarser, meaner, and shallower. There is plenty of room for all, and as I’ve tried to make clear, I love to get crazy and stupid on occasion. Just not all the time. Headbangers and drunks, I would not deny you your fun, but you’ve taken over and I don’t like it. It’s not elitist to love music for more than a noisy one night stand.


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Charles Bursell has been heard nationally on SiriusXM, National Public Radio, and The Pacifica Radio Network. He currently hosts the podcast Charles Bursell Presents

Contact: charlesbursell@gmail.comFollow on Facebook and Twitter @charlesbursell.

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