Post by Annie Licata (@annie_licata).
Go ahead, turn on music and do anything else in the world besides actually listen to it. No one will blame you. Who can, when everyone else is doing the same thing? Whether you’re the playlist-for-every-occasion type person, or just the type to throw Pandora on because the thought of being alone with your thoughts is just scary, the way we are listening to music is changing.
Back when we used to buy CDs from the store, you would pop them into the player in your car or Walkman and go through the songs. Sure, you might have skipped some songs that you didn’t like at first. More times than not, though, you’d circle back around, and after a while the songs you thought you hated were really the songs that became your favorites. You were listening. Now, the rate at which we pick and pull songs through our iPhones—what I’ve come to think of as digital music filing cabinets—creates a convenience that inherently limits exposure and absorption.
The experience of circling back around to the songs you thought you hated is undermined by the luxury of picking and choosing only what we want to hear. I never really liked “Carry That Weight” from Abbey Road, but I couldn’t listen to the album in succession and just skip the song. It clearly resulted in a break in the flow that The Beatles didn’t intend. Albums still have that flow, but we’re not hearing it. We’re too busy searching song titles on YouTube and Spotify.
Hearing only what we want to hear is inevitable in the digital age. It’s easy to seek out that one song off the album that trump the others, or press “dislike” on Pandora and poof, it’s on to the next one. It’s convenient and satisfying for my so-called “microwave generation," ones who seek immediate satisfaction similar to feelings felt from the final ding of that TV dinner. But it changes the way we hear what we’re listening to, and the way the artist intended for us to hear it.
Active listening is an underrated skill. Just because our ears soak up the sound waves doesn't mean our mind actually processes them. For listeners today, music serves as a comforting sound, like sleeping with a fan in the winter. But it's more than just the background noise of life. Music is emotional, and aren’t we? We crave those heart-wrenching ballads during a bad breakup, or those rock songs that we abuse our steering wheels to. It’s what attracts us to certain genres and artists, and even to music as a whole. We want to feel a connection, but we’re disconnected.
When we’re stuck in traffic or at a live show is probably the closest we get to active listening without consciously realizing it. We’re forced to be engaged in the moment, and to concentrate on what we’re hearing. If we took the way we listened to music in these moments and used those skills in our everyday music listening sessions, it would bring us a higher level of satisfaction.
We have become a generation of people who need to be captive to enjoy music. We don’t pick songs apart like the words of a poem, and embrace them as knowledge over entertainment. There’s definitely still a connection between what we hear and what we feel. People still listen to music and soak it in, but to be aware of that connection—and harness it in a way that will better us as listeners and artists—we must understand that music is just as much about the response as it is the comprehension. Thinking about music and responding to it breathes life into our culture.
Music that makes us think is just as, if not more, important than music that makes us dance. Active listening can change the way we consume music and enhance our experience of it. The next time you turn music on, shut the world off—become rapt with the music and feel the movement.
Annie Licata is an intern at Hypebot.com, studying Magazine Journalism and Writing & Rhetoric at Syracuse University. She's also the editor in chief of the music magazine 20 Watts. Follow her on Twitter.