The act of listening

September 15, 2015

Many years ago – at least 30 – I read a study from the early days of the psychology of music, I’ve forgotten whether it was theoretical or empirical, where an academic identified what happens inside a person’s mind when they listen to a new piece of music. S/he claimed to have found five operations that they undertake. (This is from memory and I don’t recall the details accurately, or their order, but I still think of this study often.)

First, the listener accessed their personal history of like and dislikes. If the new piece reminded them of something they liked then they were more likely to attend to it for longer.

Second, the listener accessed their peers’ histories of likes and dislikes. If the piece reminded them of something Joe or Mary enjoyed they were more likely to attend to it longer. I suspect that this was probably qualified by adding that while Joe or Mary might be friends, the listener still may have no respect for their musical tastes so may not have regard for them. So things probably weren’t as simple as I recall, but I suspect that the gist was that respected others’ opinions counted. You’ll get my drift.

Third was either cultural influences or image and iconography, I’m not sure which so I’ll go with cultural influences. The point being that if the piece was like something that the culture approved of, that is, if it was currently fashionable, the listener might be more inclined to attend longer, or equally, if they were rebelling against the fashion of the day they might feel less inclined. Either way, culture was a filter.

Fourth was image and iconography. Basically the listener was here asking whether they ought to be seen dead listening to this music; did it send the right message or convey the right image that they wanted to send to the world at large.

And here’s the point: Fifth came the intrinsic qualities of the music. That is, only after sifting through a range of historical preferences and peer and community influences and imagery did they actually focus on the music itself – it’s tune or words or rhythm or arrangement or the singing or whatever.

Now I’m sure I’ve remembered this inadequately but it’s always rung true to me and I suspect that it will ring true to others also. We mostly don’t listen to a new piece of music on its merits. We listen to it through all sorts of filters and qualifications, and only after we’ve done that do we actually begin to really ‘hear’ it.

I suspect that this is why so many of us seem to be so stuck in our musical tastes, our appreciation limited to a narrow range dependent mainly upon non-musical influences. Certainly I’m guilty of this. I didn’t like the first few hits I heard of the Beatles, but boy was I drawn to the Rolling Stones. They were bad boys and hence their music must be better. I recall listening to their song Tell me and thinking that it proved they were much better than the Beatles (well, it was a damn good tune), and as they inched towards their riff-rock style with Heart of Stone, The last time, and then Satisfaction, I became increasingly relieved that yes, they were great musicians. Which suggests that at some level I knew that the Beatles were much better but I soooooo wanted the Stones to be better than them in their stupid Beatle suits – yuk! When the Stones produced Paint it black I was ecstatic, not because it was great, although it was, but because it offered hope that they might even overtake the Beatles some day, who by then had produced Yesterday, which just bewildered me because I didn’t know music could be that good. But basically I just wanted the bad boys to win. I probably wasn’t even listening to the Beatles. I had this whole competitive scenario going in my head that really had nothing whatsoever to do with music.

I suspect that most of us are like this to some degree. Just as most people’s political views are merely the result of their socio-economic location rather than any critical analysis on their parts, so most people’s musical tastes may reflect nothing more than their early socialisation and subsequent peer, social and cultural influences. Actually hearing the music on its merits is quite difficult. We let our egos get in the way.

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