Attention, Music Lovers

Music has always played a double role for us. It rewards attentive listening with stirring accounts of our inner lives, but it also serves as accompaniment to daily activities— from chatting at a bar, to slicing vegetables, to struggling with writing a novel.

The use of music as background accompaniment has a long history. As early as the tenth century, groups of wandering students—the jongleurs and goliards—performed secular songs at weddings and other court celebrations while the jolly party-goers talked and laughed as they ate and drank.

By the seventeenth century, composers were often commissioned to provide music as background for social occasions. In 1617 the German composer Johann Schein, influenced by the new Italian style of Monteverdi, wrote his “Banchetto musicale,” a series of pieces to be played during banquets as the title suggests. Georg Philipp Telemann, in 1733, published his famous “Tafelmusik”—literally, music for the table—dozens of light-hearted suites, sonatas, and chamber works calculated to amuse the guests at gala dinners. Even Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven contributed “divertimenti”—music for assorted groups of winds, brass, and strings—to provide a pleasant atmosphere at social gatherings. As if to validate the secondary role of this music, Mozart rescored an aria from “The Marriage of Figaro” for instruments only, and put the players onstage to entertain Don Giovanni at his fatal last dinner.

In twentieth-century America, the use of music in the background became big business. By the 1930s, the Muzak corporation had installed recorded music in offices, and soon developed energetic fifteen-minute segments to stimulate worker productivity in factories. Muzak's website proclaimed:


The idea of background music so enchanted President Eisenhower, that in 1952 he ordered music to be piped into the entire West Wing of the White House.

Today we cannot escape background music in public places. It assaults us in stores and restaurants, wherever there is something to sell. Where would television commercials be without music to help hawk their cars and medications? (Try watching without the sound.)

We have also let background music into our homes and studios. If we want our kids to study without the distraction, they protest. They say it helps them concentrate! I've read that the American artist Charles Burchfield could not paint without a giant Mahler Symphony urging him on in the background. We don't know if he ever really listened.

I wonder how centuries of artists and writers created their works of genius without the benefit of music to accompany their work, though some may have hired a local lutenist or harpsichord player to ease them along. What would the Sistine Chapel look like today if a band of musicians had been soothing Michelangelo as he worked on the ceiling high above them?

It's difficult to break the habit of using music as an accompaniment to other activities, to remain attentive, but it is worth the try, and you don’t need special training to follow the story of the music as it unfolds. I tell my friends that listening to background music is not listening at all; it is simply hearing—the physical registration of sounds in the brain. Listening requires active participation. When we are distracted, the composer's narrative is broken. Think of a Shakespeare sonnet without its middle lines, or a Rembrandt self-portrait, his heart-rending smile of resignation torn away.

Worse yet: in films, the expressive power of the greatest music can be destroyed by the images the music is forced to accompany. You will suffer with the viewer of Robert Bresson's film “Au Hasard Balthazar,” for whom Schubert's profound piano sonata No. 20 was ruined by its use as accompaniment to the pathetic story of Balthazar, a badly mistreated donkey.

I am particularly troubled by a celebrated surgeon I know who specializes in pediatric spinal operations, each one requiring seven or eight hours of laser-like concentration on those tiny vertebrae and thread-like nerves. The head nurse in the operating room complains that the music he insists on playing during the operation—jazz and popular songs from the sixties—is the loudest she has ever experienced in any operating room. The rest of the team find it painfully disturbing—they strain to hear his commands—but the surgeon will not lower the level of the music. He claims he absolutely needs that atmosphere in order to concentrate for so many hours. It relaxes him, keeps him positive. All my arguments with him fail: I am stumped. I cannot see what he gains from so much noise. And yet he remains one of the most successful practitioners of this highly specialized—and dangerous—surgical procedure. So I hope he keeps his music as loud as he wants.


It wasn't too long ago that background music was only available from a fixed location—in restaurants and offices, or at home on the radio or a phonograph record. The influx of portable devices has brought the internet out into the world. Now, with the arrival of cell phones and other portable devices, our downloaded favorites can accompany us wherever we go—anywhere, any time.

In a New York Times article of July 6, 2015, Jane Brody quoted from a documentary film called “Web Junkie,” which says that for many listeners, earphone music is beginning to dominate their experience of daily life, relegating the outside real world to a role of accompaniment. For these people the music no longer functioned as background: “MANY COME TO SEE THE REAL WORLD AS FAKE.”

Most people do not use their earphones non-stop throughout the day. They take them off from time to time and put them back in again. This shift from one reality to another creates a confusing sense of an interrupted flow of time. As life adjusts to these disconnected fragments, our brains adapt in various ways. One results in the fracturing of language: we learn to speak and write in hurried shortcuts, half-sentences and coded abbreviations, discarding nuance in favor of speed and simplification. Text messages are compressed into the briefest communication possible; tweets are limited to 140 characters.

It should not be surprising then, that such disjointed communication begins to affect the nature of our relationships with others. Developing closeness requires more patience and attention than a constantly distracted consciousness can give. As we become more easily impatient with each other, the developing pathways to intimacy on which lasting bonds must be built are cut short. We give up, drifting from one attachment to another.

Sadly, the inability to sustain focus and to connect, can lead to more painful feelings of isolation from the larger life of a community. Might it not also contribute to other forces at work in a dangerous unraveling of our social and political bonds?