Commusic – Music with Other Folks: Quantity, Quality, and Questions

Recently I noticed something that I’ve taken for granted almost my entire life, along with most of my generation. The biggest things, the ones we assume as part of our existence, are the ones that become invisible, and music is no exception. Music, as it is today, exists in a new and different format from the way it has throughout most of history.

Music is in the hands of the masses. Without the necessity of an orchestra, or singers, or any sort of equipment besides an i-Pod, we can listen to music whenever we want. Think about it. Before music became portable, first in the shape of radio, then records, tapes, CDs, and mp3, we would have to gather at some spot with other music lovers of the same kind, and attend a performance or make the music ourselves. Either way, music was a community event. Now, it is entirely common to see coffee shops bursting at the seams with hipsters and their earphones, all on their own, listening to some new band nobody’s heard of.


Everyone’s on a private tap in this brown room, and buds are burrowed into their ears. It’s like drinking alone at a bar of many people. I feel the urge to splash my beverage over the crowd, really shock them with a good cold splash of Irish drinking songs, maybe start a jig on the big table. But everyone is drinking their music alone, silently noisy with themselves. I take a sip. Soon I too am staring at greasy counter on my faded oak-and-brass stool, watching the wood swim through the brown wash at the bottom of a glass of soundtracks. I am drunk with my story of one. It’s lonely in this fable. Maybe I’m just selfish. Maybe we all are. All I know is that we are alone together.


Part of the problem is scarcity. The more rare something is, the more people value it. When music was available only on special occasions, only rich people could afford it. But now that music is in everyone’s hands, we take it for granted, like water. It’s everywhere. It’s assumed. But if you take it away….

Now, a thought experiment.

Suppose you had a rock face on a cliff, and a chisel. You have your whole life to write something there. What are you going to write? Well, you can be darn sure it’ll be the most important, profound thing you’ve ever thought of. After all, it’ll be your life’s work.

The rarer something is, the more we pay attention to it. If we could hear music once a week, we wouldn’t waste that time listening to Friday by Rebecca Black. We would want something important, something meaningful. So here’s a question. Does the quantity of music available to us affect the quality of music we listen to?

This is why the old question “If you were on a desert island, which 5 ___ would you take?” is so effective. It limits the availability of something, and then asks us to really assess what we value most of all.

And there are more. When exactly did music in community get trashed? Is it a product of individualism? Did new, portable technology shape our music? Did lower-quality music make it less worth-while to sing with other people? I don’t have all the answers. But I do have some questions that it may be worthwhile to ponder.

Do you have music you could sing with someone?

Would you feel comfortable singing with other people?

If not, why?

Is all music lessened when you listen to it on your own?

If not all, which kinds?

Do you value music less because it’s so easy to access?


(If you’re a Christian as I am, a few more questions.)

Does singing with your church congregation have more meaning than other music, because you’re singing in community?

If you don’t think so, why doesn’t singing in community feel any different? Are you missing something?

What do the Psalms have to say about singing together?

What would Christ have to say about singing together?


If these questions interest you, or you want to discuss these issues, feel free to leave a comment, and we can talk.


3 thoughts on “Commusic – Music with Other Folks: Quantity, Quality, and Questions

  1. These questions interest me. I’m all with you that we need community back in music, or music back in community. But I don’t think that you can blame the iPod or individualized music. I think the iPod and similar technologies have done fantastic, wonderful things for music listening. It’s totalized the listening experience and made it more difficult for music that shouldn’t be background music to be background music. The side-effect, as you might see it—taking community out of music—isn’t a side-effect at all, I think, because I think that happened more because of the abdication of the church and the academic elitism of the Classical music world.

    But, I think, I agree with most of your post. Nice to hear a sensible take on all of it.

  2. cdspratt says:

    Thanks for commenting, John. I was hoping to draw you into the discussion, because I knew that you’d probably thought more about this than I had.
    So, to clarify: you think that individualized music is not inherently problematic, and that individualized music and community music could coexist, but do not because of church abdication and Classical music elitism?
    I think I could agree with that, as far as my knowledge goes. But I believe I would still maintain that there is something anti-social going on when thirty people sit in the same room and each listen to their own music. In some way, they are isolating themselves from each other via their music, which is a little different than being able to listen to some previously inaccessible piece on your own laptop. In one, people are receiving music: in the other, they are rejecting other people’s company, something I believe is not entirely compatible with the goal of music itself.
    If music is a relational thing, requiring an audience and performers, not to mention whatever thing the music is representing, then for this relational thing to cut people off from each other is, as they say, “counter-productive.” It is more this that I was directing my critique towards, though that clarification came via your point.

  3. Right, but I would say that music is simply experiencing now what literature experienced 500 years ago with the invention of the printing press. Doubtless 1000 years ago, if somebody saw Bucer’s full of 36 people all reading books, they’d call it anti-social, isolation, etc. And they’d say that the purpose of stories, of knowledge, of wisdom, is to create community. I think the technology of printable codices has many of the same downfalls and side-effects, but we’ve come up with and continue to come up with ways to get around them. We just need to do the same with music.

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