Whether you’re a performer or a listener, when you’re involved in music you’re flipping your attention all the time, orienting it from one place to another, focusing on something near or far, just past or maybe about to happen, from the sounds to your emotions and then back to the sounds, in a repeating feedback loop over time. That’s what involvement with music is: a flipping between the sounds and your engagement with them, over and over again. Even the most cursory self-reflection suggests that we never listen to music absent mindedly. (Even “chillout” music has a particular job to do that we track as we listen to make sure it’s doing it.) As we listen, we’re constantly comparing what we hear to what we already know, constantly registering degrees of development and stasis, and constantly evaluating the affective power of the music. Is this moving me? Is this interesting? What does this remind me of? How is this making me feel? All these questions simultaneously jostle with one another as we listen.
Recently I was watching a well-known rock band perform on Saturday Night Live. Rock isn’t my Thing, but I’m familiar with its instrumentation and its go-to musical gestures. As the band played I closed my eyes and tried to assess the performance not as celebrity spectacle—this was a well know band!—but as sound alone. The song seemed to be, at best, of average quality. Since my eyes were closed, I imagined walking past a small club on Avenue C in New York (back in the day—that area has long since gentrified) and hearing this band play through an open doorway. There might have been a few hardcore fans watching them, but the music wouldn’t have compelled me enough to stop. (In both my imaginary scenario and in real life there is always more just ok music than there is exceptional music.) The point of this story is that even though I’m not a rock fan, I listened to the group’s song while simultaneously bringing to mind every rock-ish music I had ever heard to try to make sense of what I was hearing. I flipped the band’s music around as they played it, trying to relate it to what I already knew. It had electric guitars, it had a drummer playing hard, and it had a singer sounding aggressive, but those facts on their own didn’t prove any musical worth. As I listened I tried to imagine why someone might like—or love—this sound.
Music offers many kinds of flipping opportunities. Musicians flip chords by inverting its notes to create new harmonies, and they flip musical style markers to play with musical genre conventions. Meanwhile music listeners flip between what they hear and what they’re thinking and feeling, always measuring the music against other metrics—including the musics they’ve already heard and who they feel themselves to be. I would say the band I saw on SNL was average, but maybe one day when I learn to flip my perception the right way they’ll be amazing.