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Paul Kilbey

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Stop Listening To So Much Damn Music

Posted: 14/10/11 11:02

I went to bed at about half past eleven last night. That's fairly early for me. (Read on, this gets interesting.) I was quite tired, having finished work late, and then I'd had two cocktails, which were great but did not serve to wake me up. All in all, come half past eleven, I wanted to go to sleep.

It was only when I turned the lights off that I realised that the people next door, whom I have never met, were having quite a loud party. That's annoying, I thought, but never mind. It wasn't that late, and given that it was a Wednesday evening the chances of them having organised some sort of massive rave seemed pretty low. It will stop soon, I thought, and then I will no longer be listening to a muffled version of 'People are Strange' and some annoying woman talking about central heating. That'll be nice. Something to look forward to.

It was in this haze of benign optimism that I spent the first forty minutes or so. After the Doors album finished, I started to get annoyed. The noise level actually increased slightly at that point, and the steady consistency of the all-Doors soundtrack was replaced, I think anyway, by a heavy metal fan's iPod put on shuffle. That went on for about an hour and a half. Then someone stuck on some Damien Rice or something and everyone was quieter for a bit. Somehow not in a positive, things-are-winding-down sort of way, though, but more in a this-is-a-bit-awkward-we're-all-getting-smashed-and-some-idiot's-just-put-on-Damien-Rice sort of way. There followed a slight pause, perhaps while they forcibly ejected the Damien Rice perpetrator, and then normal musical service resumed. From about 2 o'clock onwards I can't remember much of of what music they were playing, and I imagine they can't either - not just because they must have been completely wasted by that point, but also because the actual music being played was clearly completely irrelevant to the event. Of course, having some sort of loud music playing was essential, but what it actually was didn't matter in the least, just so long as it was loud enough. The heavy metal shuffle continued, interrupted only by the occasional attempt at power-ballad karaoke, until around 5.

Not having managed to sleep at all during any of this, it was all I could do to make it through breakfast, bus, work and bus again without dozing off. The one thought on my mind on returning home at half past six was to make up for all the sleep I'd missed. I lay down on my bed. And what did I hear? Well, I think it was Judas Priest.

Obviously I cannot vouch for the amount of time my neighbours spent in silence during the day. I am, however, completely prepared to believe that the only time they gave themselves off from listening to constant loud random music was the three-or-so-hour gap during which I got my entire night's sleep, prepared for work and left the house. These are clearly committed people. What interests me, though - at least, what I think interests me, given that I still haven't caught up on my sleep - is why in the world anybody thinks that listening to that much music could possibly be a good thing. It's not like you can pay attention to it all. Can you imagine spending an entire night reading unrelated paragraphs of text, one after another, while simultaneously attempting to shout a conversation with your friend?

Obviously, the answer to that is no, and the reason it is different is the amount of cultural kudos music arbitrarily appears to have acquired. It is a way people identify and make friends with others; it helps us define ourselves. And arguably music has always done this, from singing around a campfire to shaking hands at the opera, music is inherently a social facilitator. But contemporary culture still manages to really single itself out here, because this is surely the first time ever in history where in order to use music as a social facilitator, you have to shout louder than it. Music may be assumed to bring people together, but actually it kind of gets in the way. And certainly at this point, any actual musical value which music might contain is completely eradicated from the equation. I'm not sure there are any less musical activities than competing with music at a party.

It's been a feature of the last hundred years or so that music has come to play an ever more prominent part in our daily lives. As recording and production technology have improved, they have cheapened music at every turn. What was once the domain of the maestro, the wise old fiddle player, the unmarriageable middle daughter, has now become the means by which every teenager is meant to express his or her individuality. The 'content' of music remains just numinous enough that this hasn't become a complete contradiction-in-terms.

Is this mature, natural, Keynsian growth? I'm not convinced. I think this is musical hyperinflation. And this is a problem not just because it means I don't get enough sleep. It also means that people aren't actually paying attention to music any more. Music is worth savouring once in a while. And like anything, if you consume too much of it, it loses its affective power. I'm already looking forward to the Barbican's English Journey event next Saturday, mainly because I have absolutely no idea what it will sound like. A week's preparatory not-listening to this piece can only make the actual performance more interesting. And a night spent not-listening to anything at all is bound to have all sorts of benefits. My fingers are crossed, anyway.

 

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