Forgotten Music

Everyone knows that a lot of people these days tend to prefer texting to talking.  College roommates converse via Gchat from five feet away.  Fox News ran a story a few weeks ago of a girl who was so intent on her texting that she fell into an open manhole.

Mark Bauerlein of Emory University ran an op-ed in today’s Wall Street Journal about this trend of “continuous partial attention.”  At one level, it hurts people’s ability to function as social beings.  A young man’s career might suffer because he can’t recognize humor without a smiley face, or because his unconscious shifting and sighing irritates his boss, or because he communicates disinterest by constantly turning back to his iPhone.  A diplomat who knows Japanese words but not Japanese linguistic or nonverbal customs is likely to make some major blunders.

This is because it is often human interaction, not text, that teaches us what to value.  And if we limit our sources of habituation to ourselves – our vision by staring at our iPhones, our hearing by plugging our ears with ear buds – we can habituate ourselves out of appreciating the things that make life worth living (this cartoon is a great example that made me feel a little guilty).

Music is a perfect case study for this.  In contrast with our grandparents, we don’t listen to music for its own sake.  We inject it into our ears as our own private soundtrack; the background noise to accompany what we’re actually doing.  We treat Beethoven and Louis Armstrong like they’re Hans Zimmer.  Often this means we don’t look for beauty around us on the way to work.  Sometimes it means we can’t even see it when it is right before our eyes.  Joshua Bell, the world-renowned violinist, tested the truth of this by playing for almost an hour in a D.C. metro station.  Hardly anyone stopped to listen.  But one of the few people who noticed him said, “It was a treat, just a brilliant, incredible way to start the day.”

As one considers this, he might criticize technology, modern music, teenagers, and several other things.  Or he might accept the constant message of Fox News, that the world is just a horrible, depressing place that’s going to the dogs.  Or, perhaps, he might take the ear buds out, save the iPhone for work, and try to appreciate the things that make him human.


  • August 31, 2009


    I’m not sure playing the violin during rush hour on the DC Metro is the best way to test whether people are willing to stop and enjoy the roses. I love to listen to music for its own sake, but generally prefer to do it from my couch or an auditorium seat than while hurrying to get to work on time.

  • August 31, 2009

    Brian Brown

    That of course is food for another discussion, which is the proper place for particular things. Classical music has traditionally been played to an quiet, attentive audience in some kind of auditorium setting. Rap has never been played that way. One of these days I should write something on this topic…it would give me a chance to tell a story from my experience at a hip hop exhibit at the National Gallery of Art….