If you walk down a street in London, it is easier to count the people who are not wearing headphones than those who are. Perhaps you too are bobbing along. Streaming music or podcasts is a great way to create a private space in public and to shut out unwanted noise or unwelcome contact. Keeping our stress levels under control in the hectic day-to-day life of the metropolis is not easy, and we need all the help we can get. Several studies have shown the effects of music on the psychobiological stress system — not just on our feelings and mood, but on our hormones and cardiovascular processes. Especially slow, quiet Classical music seems to effectively reduce anxiety and lower your blood pressure, so putting a bit of Bach or Puccini between you and the person whose elbow is glued to your face in the rush-hour tube might just help you bear it.
In the age of smartphones and MP3s, we are able to take our favourite tunes with us anywhere. For those of us who have grown up with mobile audio devices, it is hard to imagine the era when the experience of music was bound more to specific places and occasions. In the days before recordings, let alone portable audio, you would need to seek musical experiences in concert halls, churches, operas houses, music halls or theatres. Of course, if you or someone in your family played an instrument, you were able to enjoy music in the comfort of your own home, but should you want to hear an opera or a symphony written for a full orchestra, the opportunities were much more limited.
Even when recordings did become available, the first phonographs and gramophones could only be afforded by a wealthy few. In 1890, the first steps towards democratising the music scene were taken, when the théâtrophone became available in Paris. Théâtrophone was a precursor of the radio — a service broadcasting live performances from the big Paris theatres, concert halls and the Opéra, which you could listen to through the telephone wires. If you did not have your own telephone, coin-operated telephone-receivers were available in hotels, cafés, clubs and various other public locations, and you were charged by the minute. For fifty cents, you could listen to five minutes of a performance — not the best of deals for Wagner fans who wished to devour one of his four-hour operas.
Similar audio systems soon spread to other European cities: Budapest got it in 1893 and London in 1895. In London, the service it was called ‘Electrophone’ and, in true Victorian spirit, Brits added Sunday church services to the programme. In the churches from which the services were broadcast, the microphones were carefully disguised to look like bibles, in order not to distract people from more spiritual matters.
This early broadcasting system was a godsend to people who lived in remote places or who were, for example due to poor health, unable to leave their houses. The French writer Marcel Proust was a keen user of the théâtrophone, especially after he became too ill to attend performances regularly. He also had an automatic piano player installed in his flat so he could listen to the piano transcripts of his favourite pieces. However, sometimes the miracles of the latest technology just wouldn’t cut the mustard, and Proust would hire a string quartet to come and play in his apartment. It was particularly important for the writer to hear pieces that appeared in his novel In Search of Lost Time played live. The fact that he hired the Poulet Quartet on several occasions, even after he would have been able to buy a phonograph, suggests that Proust placed special value on live performances. There are echoes of this preference in his novel too: at one point, Proust’s Narrator describes listening to a recording on a gramophone as being as unsatisfying as only hearing your mother’s voice on the telephone line when you really need to see her.
While recorded music is now more accessible than ever, and while computers and even robots can churn out tunes, the attraction of a live performance has not withered. There is always an element of suspense in a real-time performance: you never know exactly what is coming. On a particular night, in a particular concert, the musician(s) might put a new spin on a song or a concerto you thought you knew like the back of your hand — a new interpretation that may shock you or entice you or leave you confused. Some may, of course, prefer the perfected quality of recorded music to live situations, feeling they get a more ‘pure’ experience of the music itself when the musicians become invisible and the auditive space is free of any distractions. But as the musical space becomes more sterile, as it does in a studio recording, and as the music is produced, polished and any errors erased, something of the inherent human element in music gets lost.
Watching and listening to a live performance, we are more likely to notice the different layers of interpretation that the musicians share with us and to sense the time-bound quality of the experience. Instead of being a mere backdrop or a shield from noise, music becomes the centre of our attention. Perhaps it is these very elements — the sense of presence, temporality and focus — that intensify the experience, and probably also partly explain why live music has been shown to be more effective in music therapy than recordings. A study published in Journal of Music Therapy in 2010, for example, showed that playing live music to patients undergoing MRI scans reduced patient anxiety and improved the overall experience considerably more than recorded music.
When played live, a piece of music — with that magic possibility of variation — becomes a living being itself, something that both belongs and does not belong to us, something we can experience in a private, intricate and highly individual way while still sharing the experience with others. Music truly becomes, as the Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke put it, a ‘heart-space grown out beyond us.’
(Reference: Walworth, Darcy D. ‘Effect of Live Music Therapy for Patients Undergoing Magnetic Resonance Imaging,’ Journal of Music Therapy (2010) 47 (4): pp. 335-350.)
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