June 27th, 2020

Thoughts on my relationship to music

Over the years, I have very occasionally written about music and my opinions regarding it. I do not write about music much, for the simple reason that it is not that important to me. For most people, music is an integral part of daily life; every day, I see countless people who wear headphones in public and seem incapable of functioning without the constant blare of music in their ears. By comparison, I listen to music relatively rarely. I enjoy music sometimes, but I don't want to listen to it constantly, because to me, that would be like eating constantly, or having sex constantly. Music is something to be enjoyed when one can focus on it, and I only like to listen to music when I can pay attention to it and thus really appreciate it; I don't want it to be just some constant background noise which follows me everywhere.

There's a question on OkCupid which asks something like: "Do you play music to represent how you currently feel, or to change your mood?" For me, it's never really been either of these; I don't necessarily play music that reflects how I feel at the moment, nor do I use music as a utility to change my mood. I just listen to music because I want to listen to the music itself. For me, music is music. It's not a tool to change how I feel or reflect how I feel. I play music because I want to hear the music.

The more I think about what music means to me, the more I realize that I have some attitudes about music which are probably quite different from what most people think, and I decided that it might be worth writing these opinions down, not because there is any great wisdom in how I feel about music, but simply because it took me a long time to realize some of these things about myself, and if these things are true for me, perhaps they are true for some other people as well. There may be people for whom these ideas apply but who never actually realized these things about themselves, and so perhaps me writing these things down concretely will help other people realize these same traits in themselves.

The first important idea I'll mention about music, then, I'll mention because it is particularly relevant in our world today, and it's something I already touched on above: I don't want to live with constant ambient music. When I was younger, I used to think that this was a cool idea, as other people seem to think it is, this idea of constantly being surrounded by music wherever you go and whatever you do, but when I tried it, I found that I didn't like it. If you constantly hear music, you begin to tune it out, and then it's pointless, as pointless as going to watch a movie and then focusing on something else while in the movie theatre. For many people, music works like a drug, and they reach a point where they literally cannot function in everyday life unless they have some constant music playing in the background, and that destroys the art in music by turning it into something functional rather than a work of art. I only want to listen to music when I can devote the attention to be able to focus on it, not to have it play while I am working or doing something else, as so many other people play music. When I used to work in factories and on construction sites, people often played music as a way to make the day go by faster, and I always abhorred this practice; it completely destroyed the meaning of the music because people were not really listening to the music, they just wanted to have it on because they were bored. Those people ruin music.

This isn't to say that I never use music to set a certain mood or atmosphere. Sometimes when I read or write, I play classical music because I like the state it puts my mind into, and since it doesn't contain any lyrics, it isn't distracting, and so I can get my mind into the music and into the text at the same time. And yes, I sometimes listen to soothing music if I want to calm down, or energetic music if I want to feel inspired and focused; music's ability to communicate emotions without linguistic content is valuable, and I'm not at all saying that people shouldn't feel anything when they listen to music, but simply that music should only be played when you can really focus on it, not used as "white noise" that fills the background because people can't stand the sound of silence. Sometimes silence is wonderful, and people need to learn to appreciate it.

A related idea is that people should be able to choose when they hear music and when they don't. There are many moments in life when we are assaulted by unwelcome music, such as when you can hear other people's music on a bus or when you're in a store and they're playing music over the loudspeakers, and this, again, is like eating when you're not hungry or having sex when you don't want to. As much as music is an important part of people's lives, people should have the right to not hear music when they want. It is important to have times of silence in life, and being forced to listen to music without our consent robs us of these important moments of silence. To force other people to listen to music when they don't want to is no less a violation of people's personal space than rape or robbery.

Moving on to more explicitly musical aspects of how I feel about music, one thing which I think separates me from a lot of music fans is how important it is to me for different parts of the music to fit together. I don't like solos. I never really found it very interesting when one person sings or performs alone. Even the very greatest and most talented musicians in the world can only do so much at once. In particular, I usually don't like violin solos; they're thin and boring, because a violin can only play one note (or at the most, two notes) at a time. I love the sound of an entire bank of violins playing in harmony, but one violin by itself is a waste of time.

Looking back on my childhood, I think this is one of the reasons why I was never particularly devoted to my music practice. I think one thing I missed as a child was being able to play in an orchestra. I learned to play piano and violin as a child, but I was never really passionate about these, and when I think about it now, I think one reason for this was because I could never make the sounds that I really wanted to make. I didn't want to be just one person playing an instrument alone; I never liked that, either from myself or from others. I would have enjoyed being in a large orchestra, because there you can take part in really soaring harmonies, but a single person playing a violin is like trying to make a movie by hand-drawing one frame at a time. No matter how talented that one person is, the results will never be as good as when a whole band of actors work together in harmony and synchronization.

This doesn't just apply to classical music, by the way; it applies equally to other genres of music. Here, for example, is a YouTube video describing why classical music and heavy metal work together so well, and a lot of it has to do with the way that different sounds harmonize and complement each other. While mentioning that YouTube channel, I should also mention this popular video from the same channel which clearly describes another important concern I have about music, namely the death of melody, how melody is disappearing from music because people are emphasizing rhythm and vocalization more than melody. I've written in the past about the scourge of rap music, and one of the reasons why rap music is so terrible is because it removes melody from music entirely and focuses only on rhythm and vocalization, which is like modern fast food that removes all tastes from food except the tastes of sugar, salt, and fat. (No, it has nothing to do with racism; rap music has long stopped being black music. Today, even most white people listen to rap, and white pop stars produce music that is closer to rap than melodic pop.) Of course, this does not mean that music should not have rhythm or vocals, but simply that these should not be the centerpiece of the music. The centerpiece of music is the melody; rhythm may support that melody, but it should not be the other way around, where the rhythm is the focus and a few notes are injected to justify calling that rhythm "music".

By extension, then, one other thing which I realized about how I feel toward music is that I don't like vocalists who show off. I very strongly dislike it when some singer takes it upon themselves to show how impressively that can exhibit some kind of vocal effect or range. A lot of people become amazed and say "Wow! What a great voice! That person can really hit the high notes!" and I can only wonder: Why should anyone care? That's not music; that's just some egoist showing off. Great music is not just a voice, it's an entire group of instruments and notes coming together. In fact, when I think about most of the music which I like, it's often instrumental music which lacks vocals altogether, and even when there are vocals in the music, the vocals usually take a back seat to the instruments: I like it when the melody is carried by instruments, and the vocals, if present, accompany the instruments rather than dominating the audio. In this sense, it's fitting that one of the most widely-sung songs about hitting high notes is the national anthem of the United States of America. Other countries have national anthems which contain instruments (Kosovo's national anthem officially has no vocals whatsoever; there are versions of the anthem with lyrics, but these are unofficial, in effect "fan-made" versions of the anthem), but the American national anthem is usually sung a cappella, because the USA is not a country about people working in harmony, but rather about each person trying to show off how special and unique they are. It's a song for a country of egoists.

Finally, there's one big thing about music which I've mentioned in the past, but I'll mention again here because it seems to fit with everything I've said thus far: I don't like live performances. I don't really understand the point of going to a place to hear people perform live, because you don't have the same ability to mix and balance audio levels in a live performance that you have in a professional recording studio. In almost every live performance that I watch or listen to, I just can't help but think: "Wow, this sounds terrible". Even the world's best and most talented performers just can't produce the same fineness of tone in a live performance which can be achieved in a studio. And at the very best, the live performance sounds about as good as the recording, which begs the question: Why go to a live performance at all? Just stay home and listen to the recording. I have been to music concerts a grand total of about 5 times in my life, and those were generally more about watching the performances than actually hearing the music, because I liked the performers so much that I wanted to see how they performed on a stage.

This brings me back, once again, to the point that music is, for me, about the music. I once spoke to someone who was very passionate about live musical performances, and who explained this passion thus: "It's more about the experience of sharing music with other people than about technical perfection". But for me, that's the thing: Music, for me, really is about the technical perfection of the music. A live concert is not really about the music; sure, music is played, but people go to concerts mainly for reasons other than the music, such as to experience dancing (or moshing) with other people, or to see the performers on stage. If it were really just about the music, then people could stay home, because a recording of music is almost always better than a live performance. People say that they like the "energy" of concerts, but for me, the energy which comes from music comes from the structure of the music: how it all fits together like a jigsaw puzzle, every piece perfectly positioned so that every note is spot-on and sounds at exactly the right moment, the way the tempo is timed just right, the way the entire piece of music functions like a well-oiled machine is what gives me musical energy. I get energy from music's melody and harmony, not from seeing some drunk person moshing next to me. Music is an art, and the more care that goes into the art, the more beautiful and enjoyable the music. Being around other people just takes away from that experience.

All of this being the case, it's very difficult for me to actually become a musician in a way that agrees with what I value in music. There is really no point in me putting on live performances, because those performances won't be as good as what I could create in a studio. I could be a musician who simply produces recordings and never performs (there are many such musicians in the world), but even for that I'd need a lot of instruments, since I don't want to be just one person playing one instrument. Or I could just put everything together digitally on a computer, but then that would pretty much limit me to electronic music, since you really can't create an authentic sound with digitized instruments.

If you ever intend to become a musician, I think that before you begin learning the technical aspects of music theory and how to play instruments, it's important to first ask yourself the more personal, emotional, psychological, social, and philosophical questions of why you want to make music, and what you hope to achieve with that music. For years, I wanted to be a musician, but I never really acted very convincingly on this desire, and now I understand why: Because I never really had any reason to be a musician. I liked the idea of being on a stage and being able to perform well, which is a dream many young kids have when they see performers and imagine themselves in that performer's place on that stage performing that music, but really, what's the point of it all? The music doesn't sound as good live, and I have no reason to get on a stage and prance in front of a crowd; that would be just pointless pride. If I ever make music, it would be best to make it quietly and anonymously in a recording studio somewhere and release it with neither my name nor face on it. That's how you make music that is really about music. Anything else is just vanity and self-gratification.