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About the perception of music

I colori del suono Music and space Ascoltare il tempo Ascoltare con gli occhi Degustare la musica, ascoltare il vino Accordature d'epoca Music as education for listening to others Classical music in the age of interruption The awareness of one's emotions Slow listening - tasting music Free to listen, free to judge?

Free to listen, free to judge?

By definition, music is not a science, but a form of art, and as such, cannot be judged in absolute or perfect terms. It is not difficult, then, to explain the very frequent differences of opinion regarding a given interpretation: each listener, beyond any doubt, has different preferences depending on their own particular culture and sensitivity. But are we really sure that our judgments are really our own, and that they aren't, instead, the result of a series of complex external influences? Are we really free from prejudices when we listen to a musical performance? For example. The newspapers publish various articles that announce the coming of a great event, a concert featuring a famous artist who is returning to perform in Italy after many years. They talk about it on TV as well, and many people hurry to buy a costly ticket before they run out. Finally the long awaited moment arrives. The hall is packed, the great musician makes a slow and confident entry, and after a few intense moments of silence begins the performance. Many listeners savor these notes with bated breath: after months of anticipation they are listening to the great artist who has been so much talked about. So, how many of them in this particular state of emotion will really be able to take in what the musician is doing? Not many. A large part of the emotions that reach the audience could be more due to the publicity campaign, well prepared by the artist's highly efficient  press office and the concert organizer, than to the actual charisma of the performer. And the high cost of the ticket is a crafty way of leaving the audience satisfied: the spectators will unconsciously try to find all the virtues of the performance that they have paid so much for, even at the cost of resorting to mirages! And what would have happened if the same artist had played in exactly the same way, but in different conditions (in a small, half-empty hall in the outskirts, ticket at 3 Euros, no publicity, not even a notice in the local paper)? The same level of success would be unlikely... It seems that the world classical music is becoming increasingly similar to that of commercial music, where the construction of the image, often made with the aid of generous sponsorships, counts much more than the actual artistic quality. Some concert seasons are consistently "sold out" despite a low level of music, while others invest all in a schedule that includes the best artists of the moment, but never manage to fill even half of the hall. This is not intended to be a moralistic denunciation: on the contrary, treating music as a commercial product could also be an advantage, in that it might become a means of making more money for the important financing bodies and attracting bigger audiences and more capital. But what is important (and not only in the field of music!) is that each one of us does not completely lose our freedom of judgment. An independent and sensitive listener should know how to distinguish between a publicity stunt and a great artist, even if the latter hasn't yet (or no longer has) an agency or recording company influential enough to endorse him/her in the most prestigious circles. The freedom to listen and to choose is a right that, luckily, still exists, but that not everyone knows how to exercise. How, then? For instance, by taking advantage of the huge supply of recordings available, at least virtually, in Italy today. Maybe the shops in our town don't offer a vast and varied selection of CDs, but thanks to online sales or large-scale retailers everyone can listen with their own ears to a great deal of  recordings, even those of artists that are unknown or disregarded a priori. And often the rarer recordings are a lot cheaper than those that are more widely publicized, not to speak of the re-releases of old recordings: these often turn out to be real treasures to be rediscovered, at a cost of 6 or 7 Euros! This also applies to chances to listen to live music: there are many small or medium-size concert seasons, less linked to the business concerns of the large agencies, which invite artists who are unknown or neglected in Italy, certainly worthy of being heard at least once. On the other hand, it is really up to the listener to know how to grasp as deeply as possible what the performer is communicating. It is well known that each of us perceives music in a different way, depending on our cultural background and our mood at the moment. The most important thing is that we shouldn't have too many preconceived ideas that will distort our perception of the music. Listening to the same recording over and over again, then using it as a benchmark to assess other interpretations, is perhaps not the best way to be "free listeners". Making comparisons is certainly useful and natural, but it is well to consider that such a comparison is often influenced by the different conditions of listening (and, in the case of disks, of recording and reproduction).The risk of losing the freedom of listening affects most of all those who deal with music at a professional level. If a pianist listens to another pianist, they will easily be conditioned by their own performing habits, by what they learned from their own teacher, by any possible professional preferences or dislikes, and will tend to impose terms of comparison that are anything but objective. The pianist will, perhaps, be, freer when listening to an orchestra or a singer, not being in that case conditioned by technical factors or by the fact of belonging to a particular "school". This doesn't mean that ignorance helps to receive the musical message better, also because there is no such thing as a completely virgin perception. However, an attitude of trust towards what a new performer has to offer can surely facilitate a better comprehension and a deeper appreciation of the art of music. An ideal listener should also know how to distinguish the affinity of taste of a musician from sheer Talent. Talent is a gift that transcends the stylistic or cultural choices of the artist, and allows the fortunate who possess it to truly move the listener, to speak "the truth" in a wholly natural and profound way. Unfortunately, in most cases true Talent is replaced by a more banal professionalism together with an adequate stylistic preparation, supported by carefully planned commercial strategies. If listeners learn how to recognize and appreciate true Talent, music will still have plenty of surprises and much joy in store for us.
Roberto Prosseda