"Is There Anybody Listening?"

by Pope Penguin

This piece was written for my MySpace blog on May 16th, 2006.  I am reprinting it here in part because of the many positive responses I received, but also because I still feel very strongly about it and am rather proud of how clearly I laid my thoughts out on the matter.  Title taken from the Divine Comedy song "Dumb It Down."

This marks one of the only true "blogs" I have ever written for this site. It may seem a bit incoherent or even didactic upon first perusal, but I felt that all these thoughts spinning through my head should be put down and may be illuminating or at least amusing to the reader.  These thoughts stem from a number of conversations I've had recently, both with people who can relate and with people who have only observed.  I may add some thoughts later, but the following essay says pretty much everything I want it to.

I have often been told by others that I have a "great ear."  This is probably due--at least in part--to the fact that I have "perfect pitch" and can readily imitate sounds I hear around me, be they musical or otherwise.  I can figure songs out on the spot (in the correct key, of course) and can often hear nuances of music and even frequencies that other people cannot hear.

I am continually reminded of this fact every time I go to a concert...especially nowadays.  Now it's true that different people appreciate music differently and, in fact, there's something very sad to me about the fact that no two people will probably hear, or, most importantly, FEEL, music in exactly the same way.  But it is continually amazing to me how so many people will shell out 20, 30...100 dollars or more to see a concert, but then go to socialize, chat on their cell phones or inebriate themselves into a coma.  Etc.  It is unfathomable to me that people would profess to enjoy an artist and then attend a concert of the artist and pay only cursory attention to the sounds, the colors, the vibrations that are going on around them.  Is it that people merely want to be "seen" at a concert (as if anyone else cared)?  Do they merely want to be able to claim they were "there"?  Is it a biproduct of this disposable party culture we live in?  Or is this another symptom of our rapidly dwindling collective attention spans?

Or, as I mentioned previously, can the majority of people just not hear and, most importantly, feel the beauty?  Have we become so numb as a culture that we cannot feel something unless we are beaten over the head with it?  Will the second movement of "Moonlight Sonata" nearly always fail to conjure up strong emotions for the average Joe the way the latest disposable blockbuster action movie or vacuous reality show will?

Granted, I will admit to having tunnel vision when it comes to a great many things, but music is definitely at the top of that list.  I'm reminded of this fact on a near daily basis.  When eating in a restaurant with others, even if the house sound system is at a nearly inaudible level, I will frequently be cued in to what's playing and will sometimes even pause the conversation momentarily to make a comment.

"Oh, it's the Cars."


I point upwards to the speakers.

"Oh, I couldn't even hear it."

When I am listening to music intensely (which usually happens, by default), I am greatly irritated when someone or something (an intruder, a phone ringing, an incredibly annoying subwoofer emanating from a car on the street) interrupts my listening.  To me, listening to music is a form of meditation, and when something interrupts that connection it's about as frustrating to the layman as, say, when AOL goes down during an IM conversation.

This is also why I am constantly amused by polls, anecdotes, etc. that mention music that is playing during amorous activities.  It's hard for me to fathom how anyone could focus on both things at the same time.

The two times I have seen The Divine Comedy in concert, I felt like I was among listeners who really "got it" and who probably FELT the music in similar ways to me.  This was hammered home by the fact that you could hear a pin drop during most of the songs, and in between songs Neil Hannon was compelled to say "GOD it's f---in' quiet out there!"  Now if you're familiar with his music, you can probably understand that this was not a normal concert...more like an antiquarian recital.  And so it should come as no surprise that the assembled throng had come to LISTEN and not hoot, holler, drink or chat on their cell phones.  And the fact that The Divine Comedy is virtually anonymous stateside can also account for the dedication of its small fanbase at these shows.  But it was one of those ultra-rare concert experiences where I truly felt like I was in a room of my, shall we say, peers.

Many people often like to make the claim that music and mathematics are related or, worse yet, that music IS math.  Well, there are definite patterns in music, yes, as there are in virtually anything we encounter in life--there's a Devo song about that...anyway, moving on--but I think an important distinction needs to be made.  Music is SO MUCH MORE than notes that are lined up on staffs in a way that makes symmetrical sense.  It is more than repeated patterns and familiar sounds, although those can be pleasing to us at times. You cannot have music without emotion: the emotion of the composer which, in turn, hopefully arises some sort of emotion in the listener as well.  This is part of the reason why I decided not to study music formally (although I do have hands-on experience and training in theory, composition and arrangement).

On that note, I have found in my musical journeys that, to paraphrase a friend, passion is where you find it.  For instance, it is amazing to me that many folks can't see the beauty in music that uses synthesizers, or "computer music."  Some of it can be repetitive and meaningless, but there are so many nuances and textures in the best electronic and synthesized music.  It is amazing to me how someone could listen to a track like Kraftwerk's "Computer Love" or "Neon Lights" or even the recent track "La Forme" and not hear and SEE so many colors.  To me, so many different sounds can be equally pleasing, and no one sound is necessarily more pure, organic or "honest" than another.    This is not to say that I am one of those people who makes the ridiculous claim to "like everything."

But really, is anything as JOYOUS as a good mariachi or klezmer band?

I seem to have strayed from my point a bit...

Ah yes, here we were: music is more than math...

Music as an art is more than just knowing where to put notes on a scale.  Moreover, complicated or advanced music is not necessarily inherently "superior" to simpler forms.  I see folks fall into this trap time and again.  Now I am often a fan of astonishing, inventive chord changes, and I can FEEL certain things in an amazing set of changes that I maybe can't feel in others...but conversely, some of the most haunting songs of all time were incredibly simple and, quite often, written quite quickly.  I usually can't think of a more phenomenal song than The Beatles' "Girl"...a song that only uses about a half a dozen fairly typical chords, is over in less than three minutes and was dashed off by John Lennon the night before the album's deadline.  Similarly, The Ramones' "Blitzkrieg Bop" rates with The Beach Boys' "Surf's Up," in my mind.

The Beach Boys' "I Just Wasn't Made For These Times" is an astonishing work with a bizarre, labrynthine set of chord changes (and amazingly resonant lyrics), but the fact that it's complicated ISN'T what makes it a great song.  What makes it great is the way all of those elements fall together to create an incredibly moving, empathetic, utterly transcendent piece of music.  It is true that my appreciation for the Beach Boys came about by figuring out their songs on piano with a friend, but what translated those chords and harmonies into FEELING?  EMOTION?  When I play "Caroline, No" to myself on piano, why am I overwhelmed with the emotion of the piece?  I believe these are fascinating concepts that cannot be explained by mere mortals.  Or, to paraphrase the great Nigel Tufnel, it's "best left unsolved."

All this sort of compounds my usual feeling that I lead a bit of a lonely existence in the way I think and feel about music as art and the way it touches me and moves me.  That is not said to sound elitist, just a basic truth that becomes painfully clearer to me with age.  I know there are at least two people here who will know exactly what I am saying (both with perfect pitch, ironically), and that does solace me a bit, but I think whoever coined the axiom "perfect pitch is as much of a curse as it is a blessing" didn't know how close to the mark they truly were.  Not that the way I hear, feel and even see music is a "curse" I would want to break.  For if one cannot only hear but FEEL INTENSELY the vibrant colors and frequencies and sheer JOIE DE VIVRE that emanates from so much music, I truly feel sorry for them.  If it is merely background music for you, or an excuse for you to go socialize or sink into some sort of bacchanalian abyss, that is a true shame.

Stop shouting and guffawing and "running everywhere at such a speed." Try closing your eyes and moving your body slowly and deliberately to a piece of music sometime, even if you feel like a fool doing so.  Wave your hands in the air as if the music is a marionette that is dancing according to your design.  FEEL IT.  See what happens.

Is there anybody listening?

© 2006 Crapple Records, Inc.  All rights reserved.  No part of this article may reproduced without the expressed written consent of Crapple Records, Inc.

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