The Friday Morning Listen: Talking Heads – Fear Of Music (1979)

A while back I started to read David Byrne’s book How Music Works. It’s a terrific read, with Byrne talking up everything from the many functions of music in society to his time creating music with the Talking Heads as well as his own solo career. Toward the end of the final chapter, there’s a short segment on Marshall McLuhan (the “medium is the message” guy) and his idea that, post-Enlightenment and Scientific Revolution, there was a shift from an acoustic culture to a visual one. What he meant was that instead of us perceiving our environment holistically, with everything “all around us,” we began to see with a focal point, moving our perception toward a more linear (or timeline-based) outlook.

I had a little trouble wrapping my head around the former concept, until Bryne provided the example of Matthew Whitaker. Born 23 weeks premature, he was never able to see but seemed to have enhanced musical abilities — he played seven instruments (thanks in part to all-day lessons on Saturdays in NYC) and perceived all sounds as musical. His description of the city:

“There is music everywhere. Everybody has a smile on their face. It’s musical, it’s dark and so beautiful.”

From McLuhan, Byrne moved to Erik Satie’s idea of “furniture” music and then on to Muzak (coincidentally, I read this last chapter on the day that the news broke that Musak‘s name was about to change, re-branded as “Mood”) and further investigations of musical environments. One paragraph in particular struck me:

The concept of a musical soporific doesn’t workd across the board, though. Not every activity is improved by adding a soundtrack. I can’t listen to music while I write this, though I have friends who have music playing constantly in their studios while they paint, do Photoshop work, or design web pages. But my attention is always drawn to music. One recent study claims that analytical work is hindered by music, while creative work can get a boost. I guess it depends on the creative work, and on what kind of music you’re talking about.

Not every activity is improved by a soundtrack? Hmmm. OK, I’ll admit that I’m one of those people who has music playing almost all the time. Heck, I used to have one of those bathroom shower radios that you hung over the shower head with a rope. But I can see how music might be a distraction in certain situations, not that that happens to me or anything. TheWife™, for instance, tends to turn off the car radio on her way home from her work place, the silence providing a source of calm from her busy day. It used to be that I’d slip a CD into the car stereo when the news of the day (provided by National Public Radio) got to be too overwhelming. That behavior has become more common as it feels like my head will explode if I hear one more story about bone-headed behavior in Washington, the Middle East, or anywhere else.

But do I ever prefer silence? Not often, though when it does happen it’s always when I’m writing: because (and you’re going to think this is weird) I like to hear the sound of the pencil being dragged across the page. No, I don’t really know why.

And as for music hindering or helping based on the kind of work being done? I’d like to read that study. I’ve been listening to music while doing “whatever” for a long time. I wrote papers back in high school with Bad Company blaring from my bedroom stereo. I worked on calculus in my dorm room with headphones one, with Kiss Alive playing at unhealthy volumes. And on any given work day, I’ve got my Sennheiser ear buds plugged in, the music locking out the sounds made by the twenty or so other engineers and their equipment. I guess I can’t say that the music is hindering my work, since I’ve never really tried working without it.

People do complain about how music has become something that’s hard to escape from in our culture. It’s “everywhere.” True enough. But for this listener, it’s not really a problem.

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Mark Saleski

Mark Saleski is a writer and music obsessive based out of the woods of central New Hampshire. A past contributor to Jazz.com, Blogcritics.org and Salon, he writes several weekly features including the Friday Morning Listen, (Cross the) Heartland, WTF! Wednesday, and Sparks Fly on E Street. Follow him on Twitter: @msaleski. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.