Remembering The Album: Hearing vs. Listening

Question: When was the last time you put on an album — vinyl, cassette, CD, mp3, whatever — then sat down and listened to the whole thing, no TV, computer, tablet, or smartphone screen in sight, no multitasking going on, just listening to the music, song-by-song, start to finish?

Think about that a minute as I take a quick detour…

As I mentioned back in September 2011, Pink Floyd had just released a box set of their entire catalog, remastered and including all kinds of extra goodies. Having been a Floyd fan for many years, I gobbled up as much of the associated media coverage as I could, even though I was already intimately familiar with many details of the band’s history and their recordings.

But, the other day I came upon an issue of Rolling Stone from October 2011, the cover story (subscription required to read online, unfortunately) was their contribution to the press coverage of the box set, and despite the fact that I’d seemingly read it all, I started in on it. Scanning through, there was the usual stuff about their early days, Syd Barrett’s genius and decline into madness, the story of how the band managed to reinvent themselves leading up to their 1973 masterpiece, The Dark Side Of The Moon, the tension between Roger Waters and David Gilmour, the under-appreciated contributions of keyboardist Richard Wright, Waters’ departure, the tense reunions, etc.

And then I came across a quote from Gilmour that I’d never read or heard before, a quote that brought on a wave of nostalgia and a pining for days gone by:

[Pink Floyd] expected you to listen to [The Dark Side of the Moon] with close attention, perhaps ideally in the dark, in an altered state. “Attention spans have changed,” says [singer-guitarist David] Gilmour. “The idea of going around to somebody’s flat or house and sitting around in a comfy room and having a really good hi-fi system and listening to a whole album all the way through, then chatting for a few minutes, then maybe putting another album on…does that happen today?”

I don’t think it does happen much today, and whether that is the result of shifts in our culture or the music industry or both, it seems sad to me, similar, I’d guess, to how my parents and their generation may have felt at the end of the age of radio, when an evening’s entertainment was no longer as simple as sitting around listening to what looked like a piece of furniture.

I wrote back in November 2009:

I can honestly say, without exaggeration, that discovering great music, literature, and visual art saved my life…

…and music was the gateway drug.

Amidst the din of crappy Top 40 radio, the trials of a dysfunctional family and a dysfunctional world, and the pain and frustration of adolescence and young adulthood, a cousin of mine took it upon himself to expose me to good music by buying me LP records and encouraging me to listen to FM instead of AM. And every chance I could get I would steal away to my room, put on an album, and I’d read every word on the cover and the liner, sometimes over and over again. Or, I’d just stare at the ceiling, soaking in every note and every word. I was, in essence, studying. And, I would visualize the band performing on stage, sometimes I’d be onstage with them playing a guitar, or I’d see the imagery and characters and stories that the lyrics were describing.

It was more than just escape. It was an education for a kid living in a soulless New Jersey suburb, a non-place dominated by strip malls and malls on what had once been farmland and woods. It was a doorway to the cities of the world, the cares of the world, even the cosmos.

And my closest friends were all experiencing the same things, so that when we hung out we often sat listening to entire albums, discussing them afterward, trying to wring out every ounce of meaning and significance we could.

And I wonder if any of that would have happened if I was growing up today, in the world of the $0.99 song on iTunes, the world of shuffle, the world of Pandora, and the world of the ubiquitous earphones that provide a soundtrack for us as we go about our business.

To me, it all has to do with hearing vs. listening. When I’m at work and I have music playing while I’m managing my email, taking phone calls, working on projects, scheduling meetings, etc., I’m hearing the music, in the background, but I’m not really listening.

An interesting April 2009 Stereophile article brings it back to the album:

…An iPod of sufficient capacity and with sufficient variety could—does—connect genres, composers, and songs in unique, and frequently liberating, ways. But I also find that for “serious” listening, I revert to the album concept…

We humans are programmed to enjoy narrative and albums—well-sequenced ones anyway—offer that structure that Shuffle so joyfully abandons. Stumbling upon “Will o’ the Wisp” in Shuffle is a completely different experience than encountering it in sequence on Sketches of Spain. The song is just as moving and delicate, but its impact is greater in situ. For me, anyway.

Of course, we have to consider shrinking attention spans, and some, like the Stereophile writer, place a portion of the blame on artists who took advantage of the CD format to release albums that are 50% longer. (Remember how you used to be able to fit two 45-minute albums on one 90-minute cassette tape?)

But really, how many people do you know who currently would listen to…and really hear…even 45 minutes of continuous music?

And so I long for those days when an album was a discrete unit of measurement, a complete package, like a painting, days when we had the time and attention to really listen to albums, to digest them, to fully absorb and integrate them into our lives.

One thought on “Remembering The Album: Hearing vs. Listening

  1. well said. and the answer to the question at the top is…i have no idea. what i do know is that i’ve downloaded a lot of music in the last couple years, most of which remains unfamiliar to me. because i don’t have time to sit and listen to it.

    sure, our culture and our technology is designed to distract us at every turn. but the fact that two years of music is basically languishing in my digital archive is entirely on me.

    thanks for the wake-up call.

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