12 July 2013

Losing Listening Skills

There is a very obvious downside to publishing a blog with universal access, and that is not so much the amount of promotional rubbish that gets sent under the guise of "comment" as the occasional offensive comment posted by some poor soul with nothing better to do than while away the night surfing aimlessly and (presumably) drinking avidly.  In a bid to avoid causing offence to my readers, I try never to allow comments to appear which hide their identity (although most seem to prefer to remain anonymous) and I certainly immediately expunge anything which contains offensive language - and a surprising lot of it does.  I often wonder why people access a blog which makes it clear that it is concerned with classical music if they dislike the subject matter so much; but each to his own, and if some of the comments received are anything to go by, my posts more often entice readers to listen to music or take music exams seriously than cause them offence.

A curiously vitriolic comment popped up the other day, however, which I would quite like to have published, but which I could not since it contained language which many readers would have found offensive.  As a critic, an examiner and, above all, as a opinionated commentator, I am used to inciting ire in others, and I am quite happy to take justified criticism on the chin as well as to field derogatory comments from those holding diametrically opposed views to mine, but I really cannot fathom what caused this outburst of venom.  In response to my post about favourite organ records, (follow link above) I received an abuse-laden diatribe suggesting that (and I paraphrase) I should talk to organists of my generation and not be so rude about Helmut Walcha.  Since it was Helmut Walcha's Bach recordings which first whetted my appetite for organ music (something to which I have alluded in other posts, and have no hesitation in pointing out again here), and since the post in question never mentioned Walcha, this comment was perplexing, to say the least.  I can only assume a mixture of undiluted orange cordial and a bad outbreak of acne had affected my apparently adolescent attacker's reason.

On the same day as this comment appeared, an organist of slight acquaintance sent a circular email inviting all of us to access his new account on YouTube.  "Log on to .... and see my latest performances".  Sadly, any exposure to the miserable, puerile offerings on most YouTube channels inspires in me the same irrational irritation as my blog posts do to adolescent glue-sniffers, so to avoid causing offence by taking up the invitation to proffer a comment, I avoid these things like the plague; there's enough music in my life without having to endure the amateurish ramblings of egotistical bores.

There is, though, a link between my offensive correspondent and my inoffensive organist; and that is the refusal to use the word "listen" - an essential element in anything to do with music.  The former suggests I should "talk to organists".  What would that serve?  Surely I should listen to them?  If, as is suggested, I am speaking from ignorance, further speaking would only reinforce that ignorance.  A spell of serious listening might well lift the burden of ignorance from my shoulders.

Similarly, my organist associate does not ask me to listen to his playing, merely to "see" it.  Can it be that he feels his playing is so bad it would be better to experience it mute?  That would certainly make, for me, YouTube a more amenable experience.

And it doesn't stop there.  When I asked a group of students to bring in a recording to discuss in a lecture on music criticism, they all brought in either a DVD or something downloaded from YouTube; the concept of listening as opposed to seeing and hearing was clearly out of their experience.  Whether or not aural tests at graded examinations are getting easier (as many suggest), the average mark being earned by students is going down - in a recent exam session I think I must have written "improve your listening skills" more often than anything else on exam reports as student after student was unable to differentiate between major and minor tonality or between modulations to the dominant and to the relative minor. If you give a talk about music, while your audience will sit spell-bound (no harm in trying it on!) while they can see you talking, as soon as you play a sound-only recording, they regard it as the time to talk to each other or send a text.  Concert audiences seem to find it impossible to sit and listen without accessing their texting device or confiding in a neighbour. Put simply, the art of listening seems to be dying out.  Listening is a skill which needs training and practice.  Perhaps society has become so lazy that the effort involved is simply not worth the outcome.

It seems to me that the greatest threat to music comes not from  general apathy, financial cutbacks or alternative technologies, but the universal loss of listening skills.


  1. I suppose these days we are so used to speaking, reading and commenting about others' actions/music/whatever their skill may be, and making ourselves heard that we have perhaps lost our listening skills- or have forgotten them at the least. Indeed it is an oxymoron of sorts, if it happens to those who 'enjoy' music. Wonderful post, Dr.Marc. Your writing skills are excellent!

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  3. Agree with all this Dr Marc; great post. Being blessed with perfect pitch, I've always placed a strong emphasis on the 'aural tests' in exams and have never seen them as an irrelevant extra. To me, the physical aspect of playing is only doing half the job; the ability to be able to listen/process completes the job. Being unable to distinguish between major and minor to me is unthinkable!