Thursday, January 28, 2016

Listen and Learn

by Kevin Price
(Head of Brass and Percussion, 
Royal Welsh College of Music Drama)

Music is my addiction. My role as Head of Brass and Percussion at RWCMD provides many opportunities to listen to live music every day, either in concert or in an exam situation. In addition, my children are all choristers. This means that my life is punctuated with the joy of live music, covering a massive range of styles and genres. This luxurious situation means that my iPod remains mostly unused.

Imagine what it must have been like before recorded music, when live concerts, military occasions and church services were the main ways of hearing an orchestra, choir or band. It must have been like eating Christmas dinner after weeks of living on bread and water. In many ways I imagine that this must have heightened the senses and created permanent musical memories for audiences and for performers. In many ways, this has been lost in our age of recorded sound and online resources. Music has become almost “disposable” and we tend to “snack” on the array of musical treats that are constantly available to us, rather than to “feast” on a rare and wonderful live concert.

A surprising side-effect of our unlimited supply of recorded sound is also emerging; musical hallucinations. I have a colleague called Dr. Victor Aziz, a psychiatrist at St. Cadoc's Hospital in Wales. He belongs to a group of psychiatrists and neurologists who investigate this area. They suspect that over-exposure to recorded sound can result in malfunctioning brain networks that normally allow us to perceive music. Put simply; our brains start to filter the sound as “unwanted noise”. We are all familiar with shopping or eating out whilst “piped” music is being played. Before long, we stop “hearing” the music. This is bad for musicians in exactly the same way that constantly snacking on junk food is bad for your physical health.

Before you throw away your iPod and recycle your headphones in horror, consider trying to balance “recorded” and “live” musical experiences instead. For the price of a CD, you can hear a great orchestra, choir or band. What’s more, you will see real human beings dealing with real nerves, making real mistakes and producing real excitement which cannot be repeated. In addition, it is sociable and a lot of fun.

Concert halls, cathedrals and some churches provide this unique experience which is collective and yet still private. Our interpretation and response to music is totally dependent upon the subjective experience of the listener, coupled with the spontaneity (and sometimes luck!) of the performers. Few experiences in modern society are shared in this way.

Sadly, music is so easily consumed in the privacy of our homes and headphones that it is becoming increasingly difficult to lure an audience to the concert hall. As musicians, we need to safeguard the future, by getting out there and hearing music “for real”. It’s also good for your mental and emotional health. The next time that you are considering buying a CD or downloading a recording, have a little think about the price of a concert ticket and the permanent lessons and memories that will be gained from seeing and hearing real people in a real concert hall. Stop snacking… feasting is a lot more fun!


A useful article on

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