Distracted Listening

By: Andrew Dell’Antonio (University of Texas, Austin) //

Structural listeners evaluate a musical experience grammatically. Just like we can’t fully understand a sentence or paragraph until we’ve read it from beginning to end, we can’t really make sense of a musical work unless we pay attention from start to finish. Because of this, structural listeners warn us not to become distracted or inattentive as we listen.

But sometimes we can make sense of a partial sentence from its context, if, say, we start listening in the middle of someone’s remarks. Sometimes single words or phrases can strike us as especially meaningful, even if that meaning goes beyond what the speaker or writer had intended. We might consider this phenomenon distracted listening.

“Distracted” implies laziness, or the inability to focus. But we should try to reject that implication, and reclaim a neutral, perhaps even positive, meaning for the term. After all, this is how we listen most of our waking hours. Our minds are hungry, always looking for new and interesting things, our ears inherently attuned to exciting patterns to feeds our brains. How could this kind of listening not be valuable?

We live in a world of many soundscapes. We get in line at the coffee shop, only partially aware of the music playing overhead. We didn’t catch the end of the song playing on the way in, but the next one we know by heart. We miss the first chorus trying to flirt with the barista, but then we get our receipt in time to enjoy the second verse. We drive away, the radio blaring another tune we didn’t choose and may not pay particularly close attention to. That is, until the refrain kicks in and we can’t help but sing along.

Sometimes we’ve got our headphones on and music is all we hear. Sometimes it’s drowned out by traffic, studded with footsteps, or overlaid with the cadences of the workplace. Studies have suggested how (and what kind of!) music might increase work productivity, and marketers of so-called “elevator music” have long argued for a scientific approach to background-sound; employers continue to take its productivity potential into account. Many of us have playlists for working out, study, and the office because we feel it provides particular kinds of encouragement and/or structure to those activities. This kind of listening still has value, even if we’re not focusing on the patterns at work.

Instances of distracted listening can be the starting point for literary or poetic reflection. Writers can use their experiences of particular sounds, detached from the meaning of a musical structure, to share their insights and help us consider new ways of musicking. In fact, the inherent curiosity of our brains—our ability to make connections among the different parts of our lives and share our unique perspective with the people around us—can be a most wonderful resource. Emily Dickinson, nineteenth-century poet from New England, used musical imagery in many of her works: “Better—than Music!” draws specifically on musical experiences that would have been familiar to her contemporaries to point to a spiritual plane. Or take Walt Whitman, whose poem, “Proud Music of the Storm,” first drafted in the late 1860s, assembles several contrasting sonic snapshots, including Rossini’s Stabat Mater dolorosa. (You can read more about Whitman and music at The Walt Whitman Archive.) And in her “High Summer,” contemporary poet Barbara Ruth draws on her neurologically divergent experience to underline the ways that music can both ground us and open our inner imaginations.

Langston Hughes, a great mid-twentieth century American poet, created an approach to poetry that was meant to both respond to and imitate the musical gestures of jazz. Here he demonstrates his approach on a TV show from 1958. (You can read more about Hughes and his Jazz Poetry at The National Endowment for the Arts’s Art Works Blog.)

The diversity of literary-musicking examples underlines the value of being able to listen in different ways. Distracted listening can be just as illuminating as structural listening, and either can be usefully joined with the transcendent goals of spiritual listening. For example, a handful of notes from a familiar hymn might bring back the memory of a spiritually intense experience, or we might glimpse the sacred by systemically contemplating a dense unfolding musical meditation.

Spiritual, structural, and distracted listening—these are just three perspectives among the kaleidoscope of options that are available to us when we listen avidly. Think of avid listening as an eagerness to embrace and understand different kinds of music, approaching each one with an open mind and open ears. Now—let the listening begin!

For Discussion

In what circumstances do you find yourself engaging in distracted listening? Try paying closer attention to your soundscapes for one or two hours today. What do you find your mind focusing on? How are your moods and interaction with others—and your environment—changed by the music and other sounds that surround you? Does attending more closely change the equation?

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