How to listen to background music

Musical Vocabulary and Purposes

Many years ago, I had a college friend who was a devout evangelizer of abstract painter Marc Rothko. I remember that she overflowed on a catalogue of Rothko’s work, while thinking that I should be aesthetically challenged; she simply didn’t “understand” it. After all, most of the paintings were nothing more than large colored rectangles, with slight irregularities and a contrasting border or line. All known landmarks of line and form, perspective and shadow had disappeared. I could appreciate them as “design,” but not as “art. While they were nice enough, I couldn’t see why no one would notice these abstractions… until I saw them for the first time in person, a completely different experience! When I found them at the Museum of Modern Art, they literally stopped me on my way, subverting conscious thought and immediately submerging me in an altered state.

They weren’t just flat canvases on a wall, they looked like living beings, pulsing and beating in resonance with a wavelength that had a fundamental connection to the Source of things. I was stunned. They were not “expressing” a feeling, but rather feelings in themselves, and they seemed nothing personal to me, Rothko, or anyone. When I later looked at the reproductions of Rothko’s works in the books, they returned to the flat color samples. There was a memory, but not a recreation of my experience. This was an experience that depended on the presence of the original artefact (art: a fact).

A melody is not a tone

I spent my early musical life working mostly with music that used – as a performance art – a set of familiar musical conventions to create its effect. There are many vocabularies of melody, counterpoint, rhythm, harmony and structure that place music in a context in a way that makes it understandable to listeners.

“Understandable” is not exactly what I mean: it suggests that music communicates only intellectual ideas, while in fact it conveys and expresses a whole range of ideas, feelings, sensations and associations. But there is an element of “intelligibility” in conventional forms of music that depends on a formal vocabulary of shared expression. There are familiar elements that listeners use to anchor their real-time experience of a composition, formal or sound elements that are borrowed from other pieces created and heard in the past.

When I find myself humming a melody from a Beethoven symphony, or invoking one of its characteristic rhythms (dit-dit-dit-dit-dit-DAH), I reduce a complex sound tapestry to an abstraction, a shorthand that is easily recognizable by others who know the music. I can share a musical idea with other musicians using notation abstraction. But a “melody” is not a “tone”, and a “note” is not a “sound”. It’s an idea, even a powerful idea, but when I find myself humming the melody, I know that somehow I have “consumed” the music, reduced it to a subset of its conventions, deconstructed it and reconstructed it for my own purposes.

Ambient music, and in particular the kind of background music I will refer to as “soundscape,” abandons, or at least loosens, many of these conventions. In general, there is usually no melody that can be hummed, often no recurring rhythmic pattern, and if there is a larger “form”, more commonly it is not at all familiar or identifiable, not even to astute musicologists, it could be completely idiosyncratic for the composer. Even the vocabulary of the “instruments” is fluid and too broad to take into account.

With the profusion of sounds generated electronically or obtained and manipulated from field recordings, it is rare to be able to identify instruments or sounds that are separable and recognizable, i.e., “named. Classical composers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries worked hard to try to erase the familiar boundaries of individual instruments, using unusual instrumental combinations and extended instrumental techniques to blur sound lines.

Ambient music takes this even further. The sound palette of environmental composers is more diverse and less subject to “naming” than that of composers who use traditional instrument ensembles to present their compositions. While the wise may be able to identify a sound source as belonging to a particular method of generation (analog, FM, sample manipulation, etc.), the diffuse mixing and transformation of sounds can confuse even experts.

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