Experiment: Can I Completely Stop Choosing What Music I Listen To? | Aaron Gervais, composer

Experiment: Can I Completely Stop Choosing What Music I Listen To?

In a previous post, I discussed the difference in our reactions to music when we choose it (active selection) versus when someone else chooses it for us (passive selection). I claimed that the endless choice we experience thanks to Internet technology was making it harder to enjoy passive musical selection.

Upon further reflection, however, I see that I am actually making less active music choices nowadays than I used to, and technology is part of the reason why. So I’ve decided to conduct an experiment: How long can I avoid making active listening choices, and what will that do to the way I hear music?

Why my listening habits are changing

I don’t really enjoy going through my CD or MP3 collections anymore. In fact, over the past few years, I find that I am buying much less music, nor am I revisiting my old favourites more frequently. Anything I own eventually becomes less special by virtue of owning it. (Is that extremely anti-capitalist or a plug for DRM?) I listen to as much music as I ever did, but I don’t feel the urge to choose it like I used to.

At a younger age, I took great pleasure in connoisseurship and independent learning, spending hours in the library studying the music of composers or performers I thought were important to know. But as I have become more confident in my tastes as an artist, I care less about this. I’m still interested in hearing great music, but I really miss the serendipity that I used to get when I was a more ignorant listener. I wouldn’t want to undo my education, but I want to recapture the magical aspects of listening that drew me to a career in music in the first place. And I find I can do that more easily when I don’t know what music I will be hearing.

Ways to avoid choosing music

Until recently, I was still forced to choose music. Paradoxically, it is the combination of my new smartphone and the Internet that make it possible for me to get away from active music selection without sacrificing the quality of the experience.

Concerts, of course, are the original passive selection experience, and I love them. You choose to go to the concert, but that’s where the choice ends. Concerts also feature interaction with other people, which adds to the potential for transcendence and serendipity.

For the rest of the time, there is the radio. Local college station KUSF plays new, independent music; a lot of avant-garde stuff; and a lot of punk, and I don’t have to scour the music blogs of the world in order to find this stuff. Sometimes I write down the names of the bands/artists but I have yet to go looking for any of them.

When the radio fails me I use Internet radio, which is a relatively new discovery for me. I never used to be a fan of online radio, but the breaking point was that I can use it on my smartphone now. Internet radio is now as practical to use as traditional radio, it just offers a greater variety of passive selection options.

Ethical considerations of passive music selection

There are a couple of problems with this approach. I realize that, except in the concert situation, I’m not paying any attention to who the artists are. I’m not sure if this is responsible, especially as a musician. If someone has made the effort to create music, and furthermore if I actually enjoy that music, should I at least make the minimum of effort to remember who they are?

Maybe, but right now I am more interested in regaining the transcendent experience of listening to music. Up until fairly recently, music was always ephemeral: You heard it, and it was gone. It is only with recordings that we began to develop this obsession with collecting sound. But if you’re not interested in connoisseurship or showing off the size of your collection, then there isn’t much reason to collect. I have a hunch that when it matters I will feel the urge to remember who the artist is and maybe go to a concert or look them up online. But I’m not sure I need to work to make this happen.

Another issue is that I am essentially using music in a disposable fashion, so maybe I’m just being lazy. But I do think that music should be a reflection of life in all of its aspects, and being lazy sometimes is part of life. So for now I’m going to let myself be lazy and possibly irresponsible, and see what it does to the way I hear music.

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