An Appreciation of Background Music

The title itself sounds anathema to a composer and musician. There can’t be many of us who hope, during the (often seemingly endless) hours of writing and recording and re-recording and mixing and mastering, that the listener will treat the piece of music in that way – we demand the listener’s full attention and may even be offended if he said something along the lines of: ‘I had it on while I was washing up last night. It’s pretty good.’

But recently I’ve been finding a place for background music. This is not about music composed specifically for that purpose (think film and tv soundtracks or ambient music which is not supposed to be listened to with your full attention). I want to write about a specific situation in which the act of listening can have a different effect on the listener.

First of all, let me describe how I normally listen to music. For many years my listening has mostly been confined to earphones while walking or doing some other mundane activity so that the listening experience could front and centre. Also, I listen to music through a speakers at home while actively listening to it. Yes, there have been many times when listening to music and doing household chores or even while thinking about something else, but these modes have not been used often. There are also the uncountable instances of listening to a song or a part of a song while in a shop, bar or restaurant, but those were not options, and don’t need to be included here.

I’ve always been an album, rather than a singles listener; albums by their length and the coherent stories that they tell make listening to them a far more rewarding experience, rather than being flung in all directions by a song by ‘x’ immediately followed by a different song by ‘y’. The downside of listening to just albums has been that, over the years, albums have gone ‘missing’ because I didn’t have the time, the inclination, or even the attention span to listen fully and carefully; this has been especially true of those albums which were more opaque, multi-layered and ‘difficult’ listens.

So what does this all have to do with background music? The last couple of years have seen upheaval after upheaval in my life and things have recently started to settle down into what most people would consider normality: a wife, a kid, a 9-5 job, a car and a commute. It’s this last factor that has changed my listening habits and allowed me to see a positive in background music.

When you’re driving, you can’t put headphones on and sink down into the music you’re listening to; you can’t put most of your attention on that because you need to concentrate on the road, other cars, traffic lights, random people walking out in front of you… When driving I sometimes listen to audiobooks and podcasts and have been struck by the attention deficit compared to physically reading a book.

So recently I’ve been listening to more music on my morning and evening drives; a whole album that I just let play and when it gets to the end the car stereo just plays it all again. And I let it. Because, after a few cycles of it playing and washing over me, I start to ‘get it’. People often say the best albums or their favourite albums are the ones they didn’t really like on first listen, but on repeated listens the thickness and seeming impenetrability of the album clears up and rewards the listener for his effort. I would certainly characterise many of my favourite albums like that – it’s almost like you don’t hear them the first couple of plays, and that you need to work on them, put the effort into them.

Driving and listening to this type of album without giving it your whole attention or having your finger on the ‘skip’ button has, in the last couple of months, allowed me to listen to music I’ve had for years but appreciate it in fresh ways – it’s a wonderful experience and like having a whole new section of your record collection that you had forgotten about.

This has also been working especially well for me with some classical music that I’ve struggled with in the past. Everyone can listen to, say, ‘Clair de Lune’ by Debussy, ‘Consolation No. 3 in D Flat Major’ by Liszt, or ‘Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini’ by Rachmaninov and fall in love with those pieces immediately. But try sitting down and giving Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 7 your full attention and see how much you like it. Difficult, impenetrable and mad. But listen to it on a loop while driving so you can’t fix your attention on it consistently and its beauty slowly bubbles to the surface until, finally, you get it.

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