Against Fragmentation: A Holistic Approach to Music

Boredom is the greatest evil, amusement the greatest good.

-J.P. Moreland

I

 With technological change comes cultural change. In many ways, the only constant in today’s culture is the expectation of change and further technological development. Music is not immune to such transitions. The question that must be posed is whether or not the ramifications of such change warrant the consequences. Recently I have been examining the methodology in which I listen to music. Previously, it is plausible that I did not even acknowledge a method, either proper or improper, towards the enjoyment of music. Such ignorance, however, is a fault of where modern technology has delivered the listener.

Instead of utilizing music as mere background noise, an unfortunate relegation of a culture which moves far too quickly and lacks concentration, I allotted time to bring music to the forefront of my attention. Recently I have listened to music. That is, I chose an album and allowed it to play from beginning to end omitting interruption. I sat. I listened. I enjoyed. I critiqued. In doing so, the musical experience was a moment of artistic appreciating and appreciative artistry.

I allowed myself to utilize this methodology to enjoy the following albums: The Smashing Pumpkins’ Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, Radiohead’s Pablo Honey and OK Computer, Sufjan Stevens’ Illinois, Death Cab for Cutie’s Transatlanticism. Despite whatever one thinks about the genre or content of these bands and their respective albums, when listened to uninterrupted, these albums compel the listener to deeper concentration of the musical essence and style. Unfortunately, too often this is not the methodology commonly employed when enjoying music. I am no expert in musical theory nor is aesthetics the branch of philosophy that I study in depth. Yet, it has become reality that some of the benefits of modern technology have ruined the art of music. Unfortunately, the listener is largely unaware of the deficit that technology presents. While technological developments do have their benefits, the unfortunate result is that technology has ruined musical intent; that of a complete work of art. This is manifested in two primary manners: fragmentation through personalized playlists and sequestering music to background noise.

II

 In a book critiquing the affects of television on society, Neil Postman states that language, whatever form it undertakes, is the principle medium of communication. It expresses ideas, facts, claims and, possibly, propositional truths.[1] If one understands the medium of music to communicate a message, as I believe it should be, then the album in question ought be listened to as the artist intended it to be. The interruption of this process is what I will call musical fragmentation.

Musical fragmentation resulted due to the ability of the listener to select the album track voluntarily; i.e. records, 8-tracks, cassettes, CDs, etc. The listener, thereby, had the ability to select certain songs through an album without consideration for the whole. This became easier with the development of iPods and other mp3 players. With these technological devices all one needs to do to skip a track is aimlessly hit a single button. Listening to a single track or selection of tracks on an album removes emphasis from the overall message and work.

Musical fragmentation is further perpetuated with personalized playlists on computers and mixed compact discs. Here the ultimate devastation of musical intention is actualized. When one compiles a personalized playlist the listener takes a specific song and groups it together with different songs, possibly from different artists and genres. This, however, is misguided from the onset. Harmony amongst music is lost with this tactic. Unfortunately this is how culture operates and, I too, until recently, have succumbed to this deliberate, albeit unmindful, butchering of music.

Music ought not be treated as a collage. One would find it implausible to create a masterpiece from torn out shreds of a magazine that were then commingled together. This would manipulate other works of art and allocate the now jumbled segments into disarray. Here, the intention of the artist is eradicated and listener preference is epitomized. Playlists do the same thing. It takes the creation of a variety of musicians and illogically affixes them together at the barbarous hands of the listener.

Fragmentation not only removes all creativity of the original musician but also enables to listener to ignore any aesthetic judgment. Doug Groothuis expounds on the idea of aesthetic judgment in his book Truth Decay. Groothuis compares the aesthetic pleasure and enjoyment between two different jazz musicians, John Coltrane and Kenny G. I will not masquerade as an expert in jazz philosophy, however, Groothuis points out the contrast between the philosophy of music of Coltrane and Kenny G. Coltrane attempted to portray objective realities through his music. His creativity and expression ultimately point to something greater than himself. Kenny G., in contrast, simply plays whatever feels right to him.[2]

With the above in mind, imagine if someone were to create a personalized playlist consisting of jazz selections. Even if one tries to create a synchronized playlist within a specific genre it becomes clear there is a lack of consonant unity. Thus, even within jazz, if one were to compile a playlist including Coltrane and Kenny G, there is clear discontinuity of not only style but also content. What is instantiated, therefore, is a cluster of music that does not flow; nor does it have any sense of organization. A playlist merely consists of is fragments of albums thrown together.

III

 Due to the misappropriation of music discovered in musical fragmentation, music is often relegated to background noise to remove oneself from community. The problem here is twofold: first, it disrespects music as a creation of art and ousts it to a supporting role in life. Second, plugging one’s ears with headphones, whether at the library, on the bus, shopping, etc. is removing oneself from engaging and actually being present with others. I do not wish to convey that listening to music while doing something else is always inherently bad. However, compartmentalizing music in this fashion is disrespectful both to the art and to others in close proximity.

I have reminisced about times of so-called community with other people when working on papers or other daily tasks. Too often I plug my ears with music in an attempt to study more efficiently. And perhaps I can be more efficient in the specific task at hand. Yet, if I do this with other people in close quarters I share no presence with that other person(s). Closeness does not imply actually being present;[3] this should be the primary concern in regard to the mistreatment of music. I can literally be sitting next to a close friend and not acknowledge his or her presence. I segregate myself and commit myself to willed loneliness.

This also reduces music to simple noise and deprives it of any attention the music deserves. Picture visiting an art museum and walking past a famous painting and lackadaisically acknowledging its presence and creation; this ignores any reflection and awe the painting evokes. If we can willingly and acknowledgeably appreciate such a painting then why does culture treat music as if it serves a lesser purpose? Both painting and music are forms of art, albeit different, and both convey some kind of message. If we simply utilize music as a filter for distractions then music loses meaning and substance. Music, much like a painting, can simply become a conversation piece or a means of small talk. They demand more.

There are, conversely, many different scenarios in which one can be in community while simultaneously enjoying music. For example, just as a group of people visits an art museum, a specific time devoted to the enjoyment of music renders fruition. That is, allot a specific period of time to sit and enjoy the music over dinner, tea, or other naturally communal environments. This brings music to the forefront and engages attendees in conversation after the conclusion of the album. Not only does this give music the proper treatment it deserves, but it also bonds a community. As the great Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said, “the physical presence of others…is a source of incomparable joy.”[4] Thus this form of musical enjoyment expunges the two problems of musical fragmentation posed by ‘background’ music.

IV

In sum, culture must refer back to times of musical reverence, allow time to properly enjoy music for what the artist(s) originally intended, and treat it as an artistic and creative portrayal. In the busyness of our fast paced contemporary culture allow yourself to slow down and enjoy music without distraction; eliminate playlists and other forms of musical fragmentation. Stall the inescapable technological development to remind yourself of times where fast forward was not an option. It is there where music is properly enjoyed.

[1] Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death (New York, NY: Penguin, 1985), 50.

[2] See Douglas Groothuis, Truth Decay (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity, 2000) chapter ten, specifically p. 259.

[3] For a brilliant exposition on the need for closeness and presence, please see Eleonore Stump, Wandering in Darkness: Narrative and the Problem of Evil (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), chapter 5-6.

[4] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together (New York: HarperCollins, 1954), 19.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s