The other day I was pondering the fact that sometimes I listen to music without paying any attention to it. And you know what? Some pieces are really more ignorable than others. One might term music that doesn’t interfere with other activities, “background music.” But is “background music” – or “ambient music” – really just bad music?
Some would argue that it’s not. The French composer Erik Satie first experimented with what he called “furniture music” (musique d’ameublement) in the 1920s. He considered this to be the type of music that could be used as the soundtrack to a dinner party; it didn’t have to be the focus of attention. Brian Eno picked up on this concept in the 1970s and coined the term “ambient music.” In his view, ambient music “can be either ‘actively listened to with attention or as easily ignored, depending on the choice of the listener’, and it exists on the ‘cusp between melody and texture’” (from Michael Jarrett’s Sound Tracks: A Musical ABC, Volumes 1–3).
On the one hand, it’s strange to me that someone would purposely write music that can escape its audience’s concentration, but on the other hand, it’s fascinating and admirable that this music can be appreciated on several levels. Aphex Twin, an electronic artist that I like (real name: Richard D. James), has a great collection called Selected Ambient Works 85-92. When I listen closely to this “intelligent dance music”, I find lots of interesting patterns and layers of melody. But since there are barely any vocals and a lot of repetition, I too sometimes get bored when listening to it, and my thoughts gravitate toward other topics and stimuli.
Explosions in the Sky is a more recent ambient music group, and their stuff is well-liked by many. It is instrumental, rather than electronic. In a recent article in Slate, Mike Spies argues that Explosions in the Sky is “facebook music.” He sees our collective obsession with Facebook – which involves broadcasting our banal activities to all of our friends – as a way to make our lives seem more interesting, more like a movie. And even outside the context of Facebook, I think that we do that, sometimes by creating drama, sometimes by making everyday events seem dramatic, often in retrospect (as an example, imagine some events from high school; doesn’t the emotional cloud around them make them seem so life-changing?). Explosions in the Sky’s music, Spies argues, is like Facebook, because the unintrusive, atmospheric, but emotional and mood-setting nature of it allows us to attach our own experiences to it. It is universally appealing, because it doesn’t dictate what we should think about – it just dictates feeling. My latest favorite TV show, Friday Night Lights, is partially scored by Explosions in the Sky, and I have to admit that this background music enhances the show. In the end, all of the events in Friday Night Lights are normal events, but the music adds dramatic weight, and reminds us that these normal events can pack an emotional punch in our lives, too.
Okay, so ambient music does have its place, and maybe finding the balance between “ignorable” and “interesting” is a musical accomplishment.
By the way, Wikipedia also introduced me to the concept of “foreground music” – music that can’t, or shouldn’t, be ignored. An example is the blaring pop/dance music that they play in some stores in order to reinforce the “lifestyle” associated with the brand. Hired DJs spend a lot of time crafting playlists that will make customers want to stay in the store longer. But I know from experience that this can backfire. Foreground music DJs: good luck trying to find the balance between “attention-capturing” and “annoying.”