Home > David Amos, Music > Some music is too good for playing in the background

Some music is too good for playing in the background

By David Amos

David Amos

SAN DIEGO–In the course of my various musical activities, either as a participant or as a member of the audience, I talk to many people, friends, relatives, and strangers. Everyone has a comment about the music, but the core message is simply “I love music.” However, here is where we start seeing differences in what people expect from music.

For the sake of simplification and the subject at hand, I have divided music (all music) into two categories, A) Music for entertainment, background, and B) Music that is a serious art form, music that requires our full attention. Both serve a purpose, both can be beautiful, but, do not mistake the two! There is a difference.

It is not a case of good vs. bad, although many may argue with me on this. But music that is a serious art form can and should not be used for atmospheric background sounds. It is music that makes a statement, has something to say. Can you imagine hearing Mahler’s Ninth Symphony in an elevator, or while waiting in line at the bank? I can’t.

But this also applies to other areas. If we use some kinds of music as a supplement while reading a book, studying for a test, or having a conversation on the phone, do you think that all the thought and artistry which the composer and performer poured into this work will be appreciated? I can not listen to any music if I am working at my office, writing at the computer, or talking to someone. The music is simply too distracting.

Guy Lombardo may have given us “the sweetest music this side of heaven”, but music such as the first movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 grabs you by the lapels, shakes you, and demands your attention. No background music here. Classical music is loaded with examples such as the Beethoven mentioned above. In show music, take the Soliloquy from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel. Same story. Some music is aggressive and complicated, some is lyrical and sweet, but you can not escape the fact that if it is music with something to say, to be fully appreciated, it needs our full attention.

How can we tell the difference of one group over another?

There is no magic pill, or even a few magic “how-to” words to help here. The only way to develop the serious musical taste buds is to have frequent exposure; the act of listening to classical music with full attention, not as a supplement to reading or working, requires time. Try reading a mystery novel while listening to a symphony, carrying on a phone conversation, and at the same time, rinsing the dishes. Tchaikovsky will lose his true meaning. If you think that this is bad, attempt it with opera.

We fall into the same trap again, that of music becoming a complement, an enhancement to our other activities.

Some music deserves all our attention, and some does not. I have frequently been a victim in concert halls, where “serious music” has been presented with false pretentiousness when in reality there was no substance and no redeeming qualities. This is what divides the serious composers from the imitators and the hacks.

Serious art music can be from the Baroque, the Classical Period, Romantic, Impressionistic, or any of the different kinds of contemporary music. Orchestral, vocal, ballet, chamber, and opera. For me, this includes Jazz and all its wonderful qualities. Broadway, television,  and film music may vary,  but there is so much that I adore from the musical stage and music from the movies.

I have also seen people superficially dismiss music of great depth and emotion with preconceived prejudices, ignorance, snobbishness, or lack of attention.

We have not even touched on the different subtleties and the infinite number of ways in which interpreters conceive and perform a masterpiece. The turning of a phrase, the brilliance of a virtuoso passage. Interpretation is totally lost in music that is incidental to other activities.

One has to choose if music is to be used as a pleasantry for pretty sounds, or as a truly satisfying artistic activity in which one penetrates the soul of the creative genius, such as the great composers.

Amos is conductor of the Tifereth Israel Community Orchestra and a guest conductor of professional orchestras around the world

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