Music appreciation

I read of an interesting study this afternoon, produced by Liecester University School of Psychology professor Adrian North. The study, which I couldn’t find in any online form, so I’m going from the news report, “monitored 346 people over two weeks to evaluate how they related to music.” According to North, music has become a commodity, “produced, distributed and consumed like any other.” This is quite in contrast to music of previous eras, says North:

In the 19th century, music was seen as a highly valued treasure with fundamental and near-mystical powers of human communication.

North goes on to argue that the great variety and easy accessibility of music online has made for a passive, consumer-oriented approach to music, one that lacks a true appreciation for music or a deep emotional connection.

I’d very much like to take a look at the complete study, because I wonder how much can be learned about people, musically, in two weeks of their lives. In the two weeks before Christmas, for example, I was downloading furiously from eMusic 1, loading up the iPod for the road trip, and burning entirely fair-use-friendly mix CDs for a few friends. By some measures, that woud look awfully mass-consumptive of me. But it would take more to convince me that that means either passivity or a shallow emotional tie. After all, entire industries are built on ties to product identity: Cars, computers, jeans. These are all mass-produced consumer goods, and I’m sure it’s not a stretch to say that our identification with them is built on more than a little bit of cynical manipulation on their part, meant to inspire brand loyalty through a shallow kind of identity. But cynical marketing campaigns don’t mean that consumer don’t take them seriously: I know people who will only wear Lee jeans because their rancher fathers wore Lee, and who will only buy Cadillac because it’s the model of value on which they imprinted so very long ago (Hi, Grandpa).

So when North suggests that accessibility and choice are part and parcel of not really appreciating music, I can’t help but think that he’s really talking about appreciating the right kind of music. This reminds me a recent essay over at Salon, from a food writer who once occupied the upper echelons of foodie culture. Ann Bauer writes of the way that culture ended up getting in the way of truly appreciating all the gourmet food she was eating:

I’m a novelist, supporting my family as a food writer. A restaurant slut, purveyor of food porn, author of articles that liken sea scallops to blossoming roses and lamb tartare to velvet and tiny chocolate truffles to explosions that move in waves of flavor over the tongue. I’ve written at length about the briney, dark quality of raw oysters, the way they wriggle down the tunnel of the throat as if entering with intent. I’ve advised my readers to close their eyes and let the silken heft of whipped cream and mascarpone drizzled with banyuls fill their mouths. But even as I set down the words, I’m checking my watch.

Opulent meals among foodies revealed what she saw as a culture that didn’t ultimately care about food, but about being seen appreciating food. It’s a pretty nice passage:

After dinner arrived, the conversation would switch from food people to food itself. There’d be groans and exclamations as each dish was set down. Reminiscences about other evenings and other meals. “What did you eat at Levain last time?” someone would ask, just as I’d taken a mouthful. And I would pause, feeling the same confusion you do when you’re listening to one piece of music and trying to recall another. But it didn’t matter. “Well, I had…” someone else would jump in. Then everyone would talk in turn about a meal he or she had eaten recently.

Only here’s the odd thing: They didn’t really eat.

Occasionally, one of the men would dig in. But the women, most of them, only picked—lifting their meat with the tines of a fork to snare a tiny fat-soaked shred, dipping a teaspoon into the sauce and touching it with the snakelike tip of a tongue. Plate after plate of food went back to the kitchen 85 percent uneaten, to be scraped into the garbage and thrown away.

This, of course, explained the fact that they ranged from willowy to preternaturally thin. I began searching the crowds for just one warm, sensual, zaftig creature. But most nights, there was none. Only long-necked people in beautiful clothes, talking ceaselessly about food, greeting the chefs and servers as if they were long-lost relatives, carrying $20 glasses of wine. Starving, it seemed to me, for something else.

Bauer’s essay makes it clear that the foodie aesthete is not an uncommon species, and I doubt the music version is, either. (Plenty of episodes of Fraser would confirm this, as Niles and Fraser fake their way, over and over, into the opera board and the wine club. Yeah, I’ve seen all those episodes; it was on after the news.) In contrast to North’s suggestion, I wonder if there is evidence for an alternate formulation of the effect of easy access and broad choice of music: If we don’t conflate appreciation of The Great Composers with depth of personal meaning, then finding music that resonates affectively is easier than it used to be, and our appreciation of it may end up being deeper than North can measure. Something like myspace might provide a place to test that sort of idea.

This, of course, doesn’t mean we can’t be insufferable snobs about our taste being better than anybody else’s. It just means that our snobbery can’t well be based on second-guessing what crappy music means to other people.

1 Which, by the way, turns out to be really pretty cool. I now have about two dozen albums on my “save for later” list, but for the $10 per month plan I only get three or four of them at a time. But hey, still a bargain. My best find there as of yet: Alligator from The National. This is seriously a great album: Rocky, moody, melodic, guitary. A few mp3s available from insound and their web site. eMusic offers 50 free downloads just for trying them out—and if you want to try ‘em out, let me know before you sign up; if I refer you and you end up paying for a month’s plan (no pressure), I get free stuff. Just sayin’. They’re cool like that.