"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Why Older People Don’t Listen To Music

A recent survey done by a group of researchers at the University of Cambridge showed that older people listen to music far less frequently than those younger.  Reported by Alice Robb (The New Republic 11.19.14), the study concluded:

Younger people tended to be much more passionate about music: 41 percent of the youngest age group—the 13-year-olds said music meant a lot to them, and the numbers dwindled from there—all the way down to 13 percent of 65-year-olds. More than twice as many 65-year-olds as 13-year-olds said that music did not feature heavily in their lives. The proportion of people who said music was about as important as their other hobbies was similar across the life span—from 38 percent of 13-year-olds to 35 percent of 65-year-olds.

Few reasons are given in the article to explain this dramatic disparity, but Robb hints and the new mobility of music as one.  Young people are far more plugged in to mobile media than old and they listen to music on the subway, walking to work, and at work. It is rare indeed to see a 70-something with ear buds on K Street.

There is far more to the issue than technology. Age-related culture is compelling factor. In the decades before the computer age one saw, heard, and listened to the outside world without mediation.  It was not something to be cut off, ignored, or dismissed as less relevant than the virtual world within.

While in India in the early 70s I studied music with Jamaluddin Bhartiya, a disciple of Ravi Shankar and follower of the Rajasthan gharana, a school of musicians who played for the Rajput princes long before the British Raj. One day on our way back to his home in Old Delhi, we drove over a section of Ring Road which had recently been rebuilt.  The work had been done in pieces, and the seams between slabs of concrete were uneven and raised.  Jamaluddin smiled, and began to voice a complex rhythmical pattern. “Da, din din, da”, he started; and went on to to build his own tala based on the rhythm of the regular intervals of the road and on a familiar 16-beat cycles of classical music.

The Indian raga is based on classical, traditional design.  Each raga has its own signature composition – those essential notes played in either a minor or major key and a particular order and within a given rhythmical structure or tala. Beyond that, all is improvisation – the pace of the gradual progression up the scale, the number of note repetitions, the musical pauses for the pure rhythms of the tabla.  The musician senses the mood and tenor of the audience as well as his own, remembers the sounds and rhythm of the day, and a very personal and personalized piece of music is the result.

Few of us are as musically insightful as Jamaluddin. I continued my study for only a few years after returning from my long stay in India; but I never forgot the principle lessons I learned from Jamaluddin – a respect for tradition, the intimacy between artist and audience, and the appreciation of the sounds, rhythms, and impressions of the outside world. There wasn’t a day that went by that I didn’t hear rhythms in the sound of cars, pile drivers, Walk Don’t Walk signs, pedestrians, and clocks.

Listening for patterns came naturally. As a boy growing up in the Fifties, no one was plugged in or sealed off.. Before air conditioning the windows were open during summer, and the sound of crickets, cicadas, and evening birds is now as much a part of my memory as what I saw, felt, or smelled.

When I think of New York, I think first of the noise of traffic, construction, garbage trucks, sirens, and tugboat horns. It is not unpleasant. It is the city’s signature. It is as much a part of New York as skyscrapers or Fifth Avenue.  Whether I hear it it is an ensemble or disaggregated pieces of the whole, I would never consider blocking it out.

Woodstock and Jimi Hendrix defined the Sixties. Music was the cultural icon and expression of the era.  It was as much a coalescing and consolidating force as drugs. We didn’t just listen to music.  We experienced it.  It was at the heart of social life, sex, rebellion, and political purpose. Mega-concerts were the norm.  Folk music defined civil rights and protest.  Rock music was defiant, loud, and jungle primitive.  The relationship between inner and outer was fundamentally changed by the Sixties. Music became a defining element of our lives, not just an accompaniment. Most of us cannot think back to that time without the context of music. Never before had music and culture been so interrelated and indistinguishable. Before the Sixties people listened to music – on the Victrola, at concerts, or at home after dinner on the radio – but it was passive and impersonal.

As importantly, music and youth united. The combination of the postwar demographic youth explosion, the culture of the Sixties, and the musical revolution was the perfect storm of social revolution.

In the 80s when social causes became less compelling and necessary, the demographic curve evened out and the young, while always in the majority, no longer represented the bulge that occurred in the 60s.  Music was no less a young thing, but it became disassociated from meaning.  With the introduction of the Walkman, music became mobile, and the newness of portable music gave both good music and bad a big push, and the music market took off like never before.  Three decades later music is ubiquitous, portable, but still disassociated.

Older Americans then, who grew up open-eared and engaged in the sounds of the real world; and were then weaned on the ‘meaning music’ of the Sixties, have few incentives to plug in.

Finally, those of us of a certain age are beginning to contemplate the end of the road, and music is a distraction.  There is too little time left to be inefficient about the use of it.

Music – all music – is becoming less and less relevant.  Classical music is either too familiar, boring, or difficult to understand.  Popular music was written by and for the young, and we don’t get it.  In the South and West we have the Country Music station preset, but still prefer to listen to the BBC or NPR.  World music is appealing only to those of us who have spent time in Africa or Asia.

Finally and depressingly, older people are hard of hearing.  We struggle to hear what others are saying without the interference of music.  Just maybe the quiet guest on the sofa may have something important to say about facing the music.

My old Bose CD system stopped working a week ago, and I still haven’t gotten around to ordering another one; so the house is music-empty.  I will buy a new one because I enjoy a little Ali Farka Touré with dinner; but I am not in a hurry.

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