by Tony Copple

People may be divided into those who actively seek out and enjoy music for its own sake, and these for whom it is a passing distraction. There is a very small third group which dislikes music at any time. As with many minority activities, many who aren't hocked on it regard those who are as a little odd. This is an attempt to help some of the former to a better understanding of music, and perhaps to 'turn some of them on’ to it. Those who are already music lovers may be able to increase their enjoyment.

These days there is a lot of music about. The radio and gramophone have wrought a small revolution, and music is a part of more people's lives than composers a century ago could ever have dreamt. The very availability of music, however, means that its benefits may be dissipated by indiscriminate application. We've all found ourselves heartily sick of some song which once sounded pleasant, by over-exposure to it. By analyzing the processes in which we get to like, or dislike music, it is possible to increase the pleasure it can give us. One advantage music has over some of the other arts or hobbies is that no technical knowledge whatsoever is necessary to achieve full emotional involvement. You can start right now!

Firstly, please remember this: we, the untalented listeners, have a great advantage over all those marvellous musicians whom perhaps we awesomely revere. We have within easy reach the whole range of music to entertain us. When satisfied with one symphony, for instance, we can turn attention to another composer, another style. We can flip from classical music to jazz to pop merely by turning the dial or changing the record. Never need we worry about personal achievement or ambition; we can sample the best of what's going. Our favourite musician, however, is stuck with his personal limitations which he knows only too well. He has only so much time to improve his performance between giving his performances. Music for him is too subjective to be much of a relaxation. He is spurred on by the desire for unattainable perfection, and this can make for great unhappiness in lack of fulfillment. We, his audience, take all he has, and give nothing comparable in exchange, turning our favour to another when he falters. For the musician, music is a precious gift on which he must rely for an insecure living.

Since there follows in some detail an investigation of how we enjoy music, let me say what I raean by enjoyment. Basically it is the emotional pleasure which can be derived from listening to musical sounds. There are several ingredients in music which can give pleasure. These are tune, rhythm, words or lyric, theatrical or dramatic effect and the technique of the composer and players. This leads Hie t© a simplifying assumption: the discussion which follows will be concerned with only one of these, the tune. This is justified on two counts. It is the main source of pleasure for most people, and analysis in terms of most of the others gives similar conclusions. It is interesting that study of the composer's technique often forms the basis of musical appreciation classes, but, as I have said, pure enjoyment requires no skill on the part of the listener.

While measuring enjoyment, I shall not attempt comparison of the virtues of the various types of music, which is a purely subjective exercise. On this point I merely state the view that good examples of all types of music are equally valid.

Enjoyment of a piece of music is bound up with repetition, but the dependence is complex. As a general rule, an average piece will seem better after four or five hearings, though these can be spaced over a considerable time. This process is sometimes called ‘growing on you.’ Recognition of a tune is pleasurable, since the brain can relax in familiar surroundings.

Recognition of a voice or a style of music can reduce the number of hearings necessary to benefit fully from the tune. This applies to music lovers and others alike. Everybody agrees that 'Land of hope and glory' is a good tune, and the same old standards are requested again and again on Radio 2. Musak is piped to shops and public places to calm the mind with familiarity.

Though one can broadly categorize a piece of music one hearing, it is not possible to derive full pleasure immediately from that particular order of notes we call a tune. Many commercial pop songs, in order to achieve instant 'hit' potential, will repeat a tune many times within the one song, so that the listener can reach the repetition appreciation level, but this leads to problems of over—exposure, as we shall see.

Enjoyment of the average piece, then, increases from a low level initially, up to a point at which maximum pleasure is given at each hearing. The number of hearings necessary for this defends on the subtlety of the tunes, how many tunes are involved, and their frequency of repetition within the piece. Some more complex music doesn't seem to incorporate any tune at all until listened to a great many times; only then do tunes emerge. Some seem better than others, and later on still even the others sound pleasurable. (It is questionable in certain cases whether the emergence of a tune is due to conscious effort on the composer's part). The job of the record promoter in the pop music business is to ensure that records are heard by the public enough times to exceed an enjoyment level at which they will buy the record. This is very important
today as the best pop increases in complexity, and like good classical music, cannot be judged on a single play. There are many examples of excellent music which remain unnoticed by the public for years before some enterprising promoter or conductor demonstrates its value.

I always think professional music critics have a hard task. Faced with a pile of records and limited time, they have to decide the merit of a piece of music on one or two playings. Or maybe they are attending the premiere of a new symphony, notebook in hand. Since the more intricate music will only surrender its secrets to the listener after much repetition, the critic must extrapolate his initial impressions to decide whether a piece has permanent appeal, or is merely catchy but shallow. There have been some historical mistakes made, particularly with initial impressions of composers who in their time were considered ultra-modern, but whose music many years later is accepted and loved. In fact, only the continued acclaim of the public is of value in judging music.

The better the music, the longer it will go on giving great pleasure with each hearing. However, in the case of the more banal pop music, the maximum enjoyment level may be reached after as few as two or three hearings; see fig. 2. Such songs are called ‘catchy’ or ‘pretty’. Continued listening within a relatively short time period then causes a severe fall in the enjoyment level. In the worst cases it can become negative, indicating dislike of the song. There are often instances when over-promotion of a pop record on the radio results in over-exposure to individual listeners.

Even with good music, the curve of fig. 1 will turn down if a listener allows himself to hear a piece too often within a short time period. This is an additional hazard for the music critic who may become ultra-critical of the more hackneyed (but good) music.

What happens if one returns years later to a piece to which one was ever—exposed in the past? The brain will involuntarily remember the tune but will have forgotten its disenchantment with it. Thus it is possible to take pleasure all over again at an initially high level; hence the popularity of Radio 1’s ‘revived 45s’, and the nostalgia associated with the popular songs of our youth. For many people, the only worthwhile music is that which accompanied particularly emotional and receptive periods of their lives.

Let us contrast the enjoyment curves of figs. 1 and 2. There are two important lessons. Firstly, the better the music, the slower is the initial rise of the curve. Secondly, the slower rise seems to ensure a slower fall in the event of strong exposure to the music. These conclusions are very useful for individuals, but are also valid on a macro scale: the acclaim for a piece for more then a century by successive generations is the qualification theoretically held by classic music, but recognition may take some time to build up, reminding us again of the dilemma of the mime critic in his judgment of the greatest music, especially if its style is at variance with that currently in vogue.

Most of us find that there is certain music which is instantly intolerable to us. Much of pop has this reaction on lovers of classical music. Even within one sphere of music, particular tunes can create instant distaste in individuals. Figure 3 illustrates this with a 'dislike' curve, and in most cases the degree of dislike grows with every hearing. However it is possible for repetition of the music to a genuinely open-minded listener to give rise to positive enjoyment, even when initial dislike has been severe. Furthermore, the level of enjoyment which is eventually possible is very great, because the mind is introduced to a vast unexplored territory. In this way one can teach oneself to appreciate a new type of music. Though conscious effort is required, the rewards are very great.

The three graphs show broadly how enjoyment may be taken from music, and also how it may be dissipated. Unfortunately, music is presented to us in random fashion in the normal course of events, and any piece which becomes and remains pleasurable does so through fortunate circumstances indeed. Perhaps it is not surprising that so many of us dislike so much music.

The purpose of this article is to show how one can regulate ones exposure to all music in deliberate accordance with the above conditions, so as to maximise enjoyment. Furthermore it is possible to extend ones musical horizons greatly, and appreciation of why another man enjoys his sort of music is always a worthwhile exercise.

The most basic question is whether it is worth his while for a mature person to listen to new music at all; should he not confine himself to that segment of the repertoire which already gives him enjoyment, and reject all other as too much effort? This is the stumbling block reached by many non-music lovers. They are already on the flat or falling portions of their enjoyment curves, I can only say that if you've taken pleasure in the past from music then there is plenty more available to give you more pleasure. So try and listen to stuff you haven't heard before, and give it more than one try. You could break through to a whole new world. This article has been mainly concerned with reactions to new music because I believe that one should have a continuing supply of it for the greatest pleasure. After all, the brain has an inexhaustible capacity for remembering tunes.

In the quest for new music it is important not to be narrow minded and confine oneself to one or two particular composers or singers. Remember the situation in fig. 3. What seems uninspiring at first may well repay further listening. A good guide here is the opinion of the public at large. Music widely acclaimed by others is probably capable of enjoyment by you. As a listener rather than a performer you are free to change your allegiances; it's the music which is important rather than an individual musician.

The live concert is nearly always the best place to find music, but there are several ifs and buts. If the first time you hear a piece it is live, your enjoyment level will be low (very low if it's good music in an unusual style), and you will be disappointed in comparison with your expectations. But if you have prepared yourself by listening to a record of the music a few times, then the live performance can be a spine-tingling thrill which you can recall whenever you again play the record.

The atmosphere of the concert and also the fidelity and dynamic range of the sound will add greatly to normal enjoyment. Performers who introduce new material at a live concert rely heavily on the audience's appreciation of the singer rather than the song, and then they wonder why the reaction is not all that enthusiastic. It's always worth while getting to know the music first before going to a musical comedy - the same rules apply.

Live music, however, is only a small part of the music you are likely to listen to. The gramophone has given us easy access to the whole musical panorama. It is the means by which we may regulate the music we hear to a patter which pleases rather than a random deluge. These days it's also cheap entertainment. The tragedy of the gramophone is the large number there are sitting idle and disregarded, having been bought by fashionable impulse, and provided with four or five paltry records before initial enthusiasm and the first stylus wore out.

Though it is self evident that the gramophone without records is impotent, nevertheless many people seem to expect perpetual pleasure from ridiculously small collections of records. The reader will know by now why this is impossible. A large library of recorded music is essential if stagnation is not to set in. The thrill of getting to know a new disc can be preserved so long as it isn't played exclusively or too often. Moderation in all things is the cry: the record should be placed in strict rotation with others — which also placates the neighbours.

Not many of us can afford to buy all the LPs we would like. And even if we could, let's face it, a good many are disappointing, and nearly all have several tracks or passages which we don't like, especially in pop or jazz. Therefore I highly recommend the postal record libraries. They score over council public libraries in broadness of taste and willingness to supply new releases. Records are kept in very good condition. Purchases can be made (at suitably reduced prices) of records you find wholly satisfactory in content and recording quality. This is the ideal way of building a record collection and a most enjoyable pastime as well. Ones collection starts to include those unpromoted gems which never reach the best sellers and are therefore unobtainable in the shops. And it's possible to listen to every single disc that might interest you for a modest outlay.

I have not stressed the radio as a suitable source of listening material because as such it suffers from randomness of output. The daytime menu on Radio 3 is a valiant attempt to be more systematic however, and by diligent study of the Radio Times one can derive much pleasure from it. But as far as non-classical music is concerned the BBC seems determined to provide mainly a background drone (which is what most people want) and secondarily a very quick listen to samples from new releases, in the manner of an advertising agency, while ignoring the majority of recorded sounds. The record review programmes are quite useful, however, in conjunction with those fallible music critics of the press, for helping one to choose records intelligently. It's worth while keeping a continuing list of 'records to hear’ for use when checking off the record library lists. If one becomes very keen on a particular artiste, there is a temptation to buy all his records on release, but beware; this can lead to disappointment. The gramophone record is just as good a year later. I am afraid there are even right and wrong ways of listening to records for getting the greatest enjoyment. Most important is to use good equipment, particularly the cartridge and speakers. If the fidelity of the live performance can be approached, then some of the thrill of being present there can be recaptured. This is just as important in pop as in classical music. Stereo is essential. A good cartridge will keep your records as new. Many people blame 'loud note' distortion on record wear, when in fact it is often caused by the inability of the stylus to track the groove properly. If you have records in your collection which contain tracks you don't like, then this is the time that the tape recorder comes into its own. By making up tapes which contain only the good tracks, you'll go on liking the music for much longer. Unless you can afford a very good recorder however, you will not produce perfect copies, so I don't recommend you tape your full collection. And that tape costs a lot of money.

Tape is the best place to keep your pop singles, if you go in for them. As I have suggested, they very soon lose their appeal on their own, but if placed with a lot of others, you are not only spared the annoyance of putting them on the turntable, but they stay pleasant longer. And five years later, nostalgia steps in and they sound good all over again. The permanence of records and tapes is an important asset. Never get rid of records or erase tapes because of temporary disillusionment. They will almost certainly improve if left to 'ferment' for a few years. Keep especially that music you associate with happy times. One day it will seem like the best music ever written. Finally, choose the company carefully in which you listen to your music. There's nothing so destructive of enjoyment as the adverse opinion of a non-music lover. If you can't assemble sympathetic friends, then listen alone - it's nearly always the safest way. Music has many moods. It can be soothing and relaxing, or aggressive and challenging, with every varying shade in between. Choose the music to suit your mood and sink into it....

Author's note: This piece which was recently found among some old files, was written in the spring of 1971 and submitted for publication to the British magazine Hi Fi News. They has previously published a piece entitled "Broadcasting in the 70's," but they felt this piece on the enjoyment of music was not suited to their magazine.

Strange But True: Music Doesn't Make Some People Happy, added March 2014
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