Thursday, October 9, 2008

Music is Communal

Music is a community event. It is hard, historically, to keep music to yourself. Until recently- about the last 100 years- to hear music you had to go to a public place, like a concert hall, a school or a church, to hear music. If you were fortunate you might be able to play an instrument and provide music in your home. Friends, neighbors and family members would gather round a piano or other instrument and sing, or at least listen to music.

Thomas Edison changed all of that. The invention of the phonograph meant that music was no longer participatory. When music is recorded it can become a spectator event, and much more private in nature. I can play music of any kind in my own home. No one else even has to know that I am listening. In many ways this was not a good innovation.

Eventually recorded music formats changed. We went from wax cylinders to plastic discs. From records we moved to a variety of tapes- reel to reel, 8-track, cassette- to the compact disc. These changes encouraged portable music devices. "Boom boxes," small battery-powered music players with handles, allowed music to be taken anywhere. Although the music was still communal in nature, it was becoming more and more private.

During the 1970's SONY introduced the world to the Walkman. The Walkman was a small cassette tape player with headphones that could be carried by an individual. This person could listen to music of his/ her own choosing without disturbing anyone else. Later developments of this technology included the Discman, which played Compact Discs in the same way. Finally, with advances in computer technology, we got the Mp3.

The Mp3, coupled with the advent of the internet, have allowed for greater access to a wider variety of music. Every conceivable genre of music is available to anyone with a computer at the click of a button. From the personal computer it is just a few connections and clicks to the personal (and tiny) Mp3 player.

Now, before I get too critical of the Mp3 player, let me say that I love creating my own play list and carrying it around in my pocket. I am a huge fan of having music with me wherever I go and whenever I want. In many ways the digital music revolution is perfect for me.

However, music has become too private. When I am in the department store and I see a person with ear buds in, I want to go listen. I want to know what they are enjoying so much. I go crazy in airports, malls and other public places. Joggers are the worst. They are working hard and getting in shape, but they are hearing music that I want to hear.

Listening to my own music does not help. I feel like I am missing something because I can hear nothing beyond my own play list. Although it is filled with my favorite songs, I am constantly wondering if there is something better out there.

Finally, and this will seem overly dramatic, Mp3 players are contributing to the breakdown of society. One of the greatest pleasures of life is discussing music with a friend. I love to argue over which singer, which songwriter, which band configuration is better. But as long as my friends and I are lost in our separate musical universes that will not happen. Here is what will happen: 
  • We will all get used to the isolation of the personal ear bud. 
  • We will forget how to interact with one another. 
  • There will be fewer and fewer meaningful conversations.
  • Music will die as markets get smaller and smaller.
  • School music programs will get smaller and smaller because there are not musical discussions taking place in society at large.
  • Music will go away.
It may take generations, but all those eventualities will come to pass if we do not return to the communal nature of music.

No comments: