The Lost Art of Listening

The Lost Art of Listening

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This post is the first installment in a three part series that continues with an article entitled, “The Lost Art of Living” and concludes with an article entitled “The Lost Art of Loving.”

1978 Fisher Price Record Player
If you’re my age, you probably had one of these plastic portable record players and a collection of 45’s

As a young child, my favorite possession was a Fisher Price plastic portable record player.  I had a stack of 45’s from artists ranging from Elvis Presley to Alice Cooper and I would play them endlessly.  When I wasn’t in my room listening to my 45’s, I’d likely be in the den where a large wooden console AM-FM radio / record player was the focal point of the room.  There, I’d listen to full albums from my favorite bands and experience the sound loud and in stereo.  Once in elementary school, I graduated from the plastic portable record player to a real grown-up’s system with two speakers that were bigger than I was, a turntable, an AM-FM stereo, and an 8-track player especially for those occasions when I wanted to hear a guitarist stopped right in the midst of a solo so that the song could continue on the next track. By the time I was a teenager, I was picking up my brother’s bass guitar and Korg Poly 800 keyboard and learning to play songs from bands such as The Police, The Cars, Tears for Fears, and Journey.

I didn’t take lessons, I learned by listening.  It was all I had done since my earliest memories of life.  I listened.  The sounds I heard on the radio, records, cassettes, and even 8 tracks were transferred to my fingers and when I heard the sounds return back to me from the amplifier it was like magic.  It came easy for me because I had so much experience listening.  In those days, whenever new music came out, it was an event.  One of my friends bought a copy of the new KISS album and we’d all go over to sit down and listen to it.  That was our activity.  We’d sit around the stereo and just listen to it.  Often times in silence, but always visualizing ourselves being the ones on stage or in the studio.  We’d pretend to be Gene Simmons with every slide of a bass string, pretend to be Ace Frehley with every shimmering Les Paul solo.  It’s what we did.  It’s who we were.  There were no distractions – the music was the whole point of our coming together.  Listening to music was intentional.  It was not something that happened in the background while we were doing something else.  While listening to music, we might have poured over the liner notes or photos in the album booklet but our ears were always focused.

Heavy Metal JeansDuring long and sometimes dull school days, I remember perfectly replaying songs or even entire albums in my head.  While “listening” in my mind I’d doodle in my notebooks or textbooks, drawing band logos or album designs:  the prism from Dark Side of the Moon, the symbols from Led Zeppelin IV, or simply those two mystical words that made us all feel like poets – The Doors.  My friends and I wore shirts from their favorite punk or metal bands.  Iron Maiden, The Ramones, Metallica, Ozzy.  In many ways, these T-shirts identified us.  We’d meet others who also wore shirts bearing the names of the same bands and we were instantly friends.  There was an understanding.

I went to work in a record store after school, began playing in a local rock band, and started writing and recording music.  I also helped promote concerts that came through town and was therefore afforded the opportunity to work backstage and meet several rock stars – including personal favorites such as Cheap Trick. That’s when the alternative rock movement took America by storm.  Nirvana and Pearl Jam belonged to the kids of the 1990s in the way Van Halen and Guns n’ Roses belonged to the kids of the 1980s.  Graduating high school in the 1991-1992 year, I had one foot planted in both decades and I enjoyed it all.  I thought about the lyrics to the old Neil Young song:  “Hey hey, my my. Rock and roll can never die.”

But then, something happened.  Blame politics, blame the internet, blame video game manufactures, it doesn’t matter – the point is, it happened.  Other media took center stage and music suffered – even among the youth.  As directed by record industry executives, the media, and even political activists, popular music became less of a raw talent relying on skills with a guitar, bass, drum kit, or synthesizer and it became more about programming synthetic loops.  MTV was no longer playing music videos – they became a social platform more interested in political agendas and social lifestyles.  Many music magazines, likewise, became nothing more than political platforms.  Only the short, rare article actually discussed music.  Interviews with famous musicians always seemed to gravitate to “what can you do about the rain forest or global warming?” All I wanted to read about was where the guitarist got his inspiration for a certain riff – not his political leaning!  Music then slipped into the background of our culture.  And sadly, popular music wasn’t even counter-culture any longer but rather it was the voice of The Machine.  Big Brother.  Instead of being the intentional point of youthful gatherings, it became something akin to a movie score playing behind whatever else people were doing.  Sadly, it became Muzak.  It became everything rock and roll wasn’t supposed to be.

Make no mistake – rock isn’t dead.  It just doesn’t hold the position in youth culture that it once held.  Nor is there an over abundance of great musicians being driven to success via the record industry.  For that matter, gone is the insatiable appetite from masses of music fans, young and old, to hear great music.  But search for good music in today’s generation and it’s there to be found.  And thankfully, there are still some people in the world who want to listen.

This was all foretold by a man I believe to be arguably the greatest songwriter who has ever lived: British multi-instrumentalist, singer, songwriter, and producer Steven Wilson.  He’s one of the crop that is still putting out amazing rock music – make that mind blowing, life altering rock music – in today’s generation.  In his song, “The Sound of Muzak,” he sings the following lines:

Hear the sound of music
Drifting in the aisles
Elevator Prozac
Stretching on for miles

The music of the future
Will not entertain
It’s only meant to repress
And neutralise your brain

Soul gets squeezed out
Edges get blunt
Demographic
Gives what you want

Now the sound of music
Comes in silver pills
Engineered to suit you
Building cheaper thrills

The music of rebellion
Makes you wanna rage
But it’s made by millionaires
Who are nearly twice your age

The bridge of the song leaves behind the analogies and drives the point home more succinctly:

One of the wonders of the world is going down
It’s going down I know
It’s one of the blunders of the world that no-one cares
No-one cares enough

But there are, at least, some of us who still do care.  And we refuse to let music, this wonder of the world, go down.

As I said before, you can blame it on politics, the internet, or perhaps even video game manufactures.  More likely, a combination of all three.  But there is no question, the youth today have tuned out of music – at least, the way we knew it.  Remember the picture I painted of my childhood?  Sitting around with my friends listening to the new KISS record?  Remember making mix tapes of songs you’d request on the radio and then sit around for an hour until the DJ played it so you could hit “play and record” on your tape deck and capture the tune, always annoyed that the beginning and ending of the song would be tainted by the DJ talking over the music?  Remember identifying with meaningful lyrics from Jim Morrison, Robert Plant, Bruce Dickinson, Sting, James Hetfield, Ozzy Osbourne, and countless others?  More than any of this, do you remember a time when we all sat around and, well, just listened?  Not the way kids listen to music today – as background, as Muzak.  But to really listen!

The problem is a modern world full of distractions.  I see both kids and adults on their smartphones literally all day long.  Kids and adults browsing social media pages on the internet – again, literally all day long.  Kids and adults playing video games – you guessed it, all day long. Sometimes music is a part of this experience – but it’s typically in the background as something going on while they are on social media, playing video games, etc.  They aren’t hanging out just listening to the new hit record today the way we hung out and just listened to the new KISS record in our time.  Music today is not intentional.  It’s an afterthought.

Even the machinery we used to use in order to listen to our music further facilitated the intentionality of the experience back then.  While I love my iPod and my Apple Music subscription, in many ways these devices and services cheapen the art and product that we call music and enable today’s generation to keep music as an afterthought.  Perhaps music is too convenient today.  It took effort to place a needle upon our vinyl records.  When one side of the record was over, we had to get up, flip the record over, and place the needle back down.  This effort placed the experience of listening to music in the forefront.  In addition, albums were cherished possessions in those years.  Today, with my Apple Music subscription, I have access to millions of recordings that I can take with me on my iPod wherever I may roam!  Again, don’t misunderstand – I love my Apple Music subscription and my iPod is easily my favorite gadget of any device I own!  But I’m a grown adult who has already developed a mature appreciation for music after years spent doing it “the hard way.”  Would I respect music the way I do today had it been so convenient for me growing up?

The problem with all of these new distractions – smartphones, social media, video games – is that they area vying for all of our attention all of the time and keeping us from simple personal and relational tasks and activities such as listening.  I would propose that as a culture, we have become addicted to these distractions.  People check their phones constantly during dinner dates (I’m sorry, but my wife is more interesting to look at and talk to than anything Facebook has to offer in its News Feed while I’m out on a date with her).  People live lives in online social networks rather than the real world.  They text cute memes to each other rather than picking up the phone and calling each other.  They post beautiful pictures of nature rather than walking outside and taking a hike.  I could go on…  But in short, I propose that these distractions hinder us from really listening and really living.

I remember taking a walk once down a stretch of road on which I drove daily.  By walking, I saw hundreds of things that I never noticed when passing by in a car at 50 miles an hour.  Wild blackberry bushes, etchings in manhole covers, even an underground tunnel.  Think of that – I had driven by these things daily for years but never noticed them until I walked by them.  Music can be the same.  In light of this, may I ask you try something for me?  Try putting the phone down, logging out of social media, and just listen to one of the following albums.  Straight through.  Start to finish.  With no distractions.  And not on your phone or computer.  Use a good pair of headphones or stereo system.  And if you don’t have a music service subscription such as Apple Music or Spotify, then actually purchase the album.  I’ve added several of my favorite albums of several different genres from which to choose.  I believe that the lost art of listening can be found again – and I believe you will find it rather rewarding when you do.  So here’s your list.  Now… listen.  And live.

 

  1. Modern Progressive Rock – Steven Wilson – Hand. Cannot. Erase.
  2. Jazz – John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman – John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman
  3. Rock / Alternative Rock – Foo Fighters – Sonic Highways 
  4. Heavy Metal – Tool – Aenima
  5. Acoustic Guitar – Donovan – Sutras
  6. Rock / Power Pop – The Grays – Ro Sham Bo
  7. Alternative / Female – Tori Amos – Little Earthquakes
  8. Funk / R&B / Soul – Various Artists – Pimps, Players, and Private Eyes
  9. Rock / Classic Rock – Cheap Trick – Heaven Tonight

 

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