Music – Listening versus
By Stewart Hendrickson
The weekend is coming up and there are several possibilities for
Saturday evening. A big-name out-of-town folksinger is giving a concert
that is sure to be a sellout, so you need to make your reservations
quick. A local musician is giving a concert in a nearby coffeehouse,
and you’d like to support her music. And you’re thinking of
having some musician friends over to jam in the afternoon and perhaps
stay for dinner and more jamming in the evening. What are you going to
This is an interesting dilemma that most of us have faced at one time
or another. More often than not I will probably end up jamming with
friends. This has led me to wonder which I prefer most –
listening to music played by others or playing music myself and with
others – and why.
When I first came to Seattle ten years ago I found there were two local
folk music organizations. One musician I met advised me to join Victory
Music since it was an organization more attuned to the practicing
musician. I joined both organizations, but I think now for different
reasons that have to do with playing versus listening.
I view music more as a participatory rather than spectator sport, and I
find my musical home more in Victory Music. The other organization
serves me better for listening, so there are good reasons for both.
In order to understand these differences I think one has to understand
the history of making music and our contemporary culture.
Before radio, records, CDs, iPods and mega-concert halls, music was
something people had to make for themselves. Traveling musicians were
few and far between and concerts were a rarity. Folk music was the
music that ordinary folks made for themselves. It was not highly
sophisticated, and tended to be simple but highly addictive. And if you
were not playing music yourself, you were involved in it by dancing or
just singing along. Music was involved in most activities where people
gathered for social interaction. A friend of mine says, “I
believe that music is something we should do with each other, not
something we do to each other.”
Prior to the 20th century, if you were educated, music was an important
part of your education. Now school music programs are the first to be
cut when budgets are tight. That represents quite a shift in priorities.
In the folk craze of the ‘60s making your own music became more
of a thing to do. The guitar became a popular instrument and
hootenannies (or ‘hoots’ as they were known in Seattle
where the term originated) were almost spontaneous events were people
would get together to make music.
When I first came to Minnesota in the late ‘60s we would often
get together at various friends homes for music and conversation. But
by the late ‘70s that changed as people became busy, both spouses
worked, and free time was scarce. It was not until I moved to Seattle
in 1996 that I rediscovered home-made music.
Maybe Seattle is a different place, or I just got into the wrong crowd
(musicians will do that). It is certainly a different crowd than what I
was involved in back in Minnesota before I moved west. But even here,
when I try to explain to non-musical friends that I play in an Irish
session or perform at an open mic (and just what is an open mic?), I
have to explain that I am not a member of some band and am not a
professional musician. They find it difficult to conceive that
non-professional musicians, just ordinary folks, can actually make
their own music. After all, music is a commodity that you buy.
An interesting aspect of my listening side is that I tend to go to the
less-popular concerts. That’s good, because they are seldom sold
out and I don’t have to worry about reservations (and
they’re cheaper). But why is that? Is there something weird about
my listening preferences? Or do I listen to music for different reasons
than those who go to the more popular concerts?
I think that as I narrow my musical preferences to a particular style
or genre (Irish and other traditional music in my case) I become more
attuned to the subtle differences and nuances in that music. I thus
attend concerts to further explore these interests rather than just to
be washed over by nice sounds.
Listening to music is for me a very intense and demanding experience. I
often find background music annoying, particularly if I have to
concentrate on some other task. It’s either one or the other for
me. If I listen to the kind of music that I also play, I am listening
to both the structure of the music and the technique and interpretation
of the musician. I often interrupt my music practice to listen to the
same or similar piece of music on a CD. Listening, then, is a very
important part of my music practice.
Before folk music became my passion (I always had some interest in it)
I was interested and very involved in classical music. I sang in
various choirs that performed with symphony orchestras and was involved
in other semi-professional musical performances. I found rehearsing and
performing with a serious musical organization much more interesting
and satisfying than going to a concert. By being part of the
performance, and after many rehearsals, I could understand the
intricacies and nuances of the music in a way that was not possible by
just listening to a concert. So this listening versus playing is no
different in classical music.
I find it interesting that while Seattle is home to many
nationally-recognized professional musicians, I see very few of them at
concerts here. It could be that they are too busy touring, or have
little money to spend on concerts. Or perhaps they also prefer playing
music themselves over listening to others play.
I will probably forgo the big-name touring musician, unless he or she
is one of the top Irish or other traditional musician that I have not
heard before. I will more likely go to hear a local musician at a small
venue. But then I would be very reluctant to give up my Irish session
or open mic night. But if it’s just getting together with some
friends for music, food and conversation, that would be hard to resist.
Stewart Hendrickson is Chemistry
Professor Emeritus – St. Olaf College, Research Professor
Emeritus – University of Washington, and in his new career, an
unemployed folk musician (voice, fiddle, guitar;
http://www.stolaf.edu/people/hend/music.html ). Contact him at
firstname.lastname@example.org for questions, ideas or comments.