December 2013 Deanery by Jason Roberts
A couple of years ago, I was stopped in West Hartford center by a man taking a poll for public radio. What did I think of background music, he asked. I dutifully told him that background music is evil because it trains people to ignore music. There is music going on all the time around us: during movies, in the store while we shop, even in the bathrooms at the Olive Garden! This music isn’t intended to be listened to: in fact, many times we don’t even notice that it’s there at all, so well have we trained ourselves to not listen. In films, we pay attention to the visual clues and dialogue: if we don’t we won’t understand the plot. The music is not important- it’s background.
It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that audiences for concerts are diminishing. If you ignore the music and pay attention only to the visuals on the stage (and possibly the verbal program notes which are increasingly popular and increasing in length!), there’s not much to interest a concertgoer. Is it possible to ignore music in our daily lives and then suddenly pay close attention when we attend a concert?
I sometimes notice at the weddings of friends and relatives the consequences of our background music culture. Flowers at weddings are often very impressive. Enormous amounts of time and effort are put into the clothes and the food. But most often the music is either recorded or very poorly performed. Would the bride consider having fake flowers at her ceremony? Would she have McDonald’s cater the reception? Then why have recorded music? It’s because the music is background and therefore not important.
Will all this background music ever go away? Music can cause so much joy, and can be full of interest; it’s
a terrible thing to ignore. If background music could be a gateway into the appreciation of music for its’ own sake, then it might deserve a little credit; but it seems to create a world full of musical zombies. As Psalm 135 says: “They have ears, but hear not; neither is there any breathe in their mouths.”
After I had finished my rant, the poor fellow from public radio thanked me and moved on to the next interview. I don’t know if any of my statements made it onto his show. I never listen to the radio: too much background music.