The Sound of Music
Giving it up, and really listening to what you’re listening to.
A friend once asked a question generally pertaining to the attitudes and mental associations we have with music. While typing my answer, it felt like a question I had subconsciously been waiting for someone to ask, and so the conclusions came in waves. And because I found myself answering things that weren’t initially part of the question at all, I took the liberty to add these questions to give pretext to the extensive answer you are about to read.
Why do we listen to it? What’s the appeal? Do we ever find that we’re absent-mindedly listening simply out of habit? Do we need it and if not, why have we accepted a world mad with music? What does life look like without it? How much of it is conditioned? Is it a positive or negative influence?
There are three sections to this piece: my story of listening less, an eulogy to the love of sound, and the arguments for a life without music, including from an Islamic perspective. So to answer the above questions in no particular order, here is the mostly-original answer:
‘Thank you for a question I am genuinely going to enjoy answering.
I’ve been putting a lot of casual though into it for a while, it’s crossed my mind a lot before, I’m familiar with where I stand in my own mind.
Me and Music, Instruments and I: listening less.
For personal and spiritual reasons, I avoid music in general. I try not to listen to it when I run or when I’m on the bus or when I’m cooking or cleaning or doing any sort of routine or ritual task. This is for a multitude of reasons. The first and main one is religious, from within an Islamic framework. In a very orthodox line of thinking, music (the kind of stuff with dirty lyrics promoting immorality of any sort) is totally forbidden.
There is a lot of difference of opinion among Muslims on the permissibility of other kinds of music, but scholarly tradition aside, I had a stage where I was searching for lifestyle choices that would help me get closer to God. People who had given up music had very compelling reasons as to why they did and the benefits they got from it, which were, even from a non-religious standpoint, incredibly convincing.
I am a very emotional person by nature, so for me, I had become alarmingly aware of the escape I found in music. If I felt a certain way and I liked that feeling, I looked for a song to match my mood. If I didn’t want to think about my own feelings, I’d put on a song that distracted me or forced me to think about something else (the topic of the song) rather than my own issues. When I was pulling long nights studying and started to fall asleep (because I don’t drink coffee because I’m a kid), I would blast some upbeat, high-energy dance music to keep me awake. In essence, I used music to cheat my way out of experiencing things in their true form, whether emotions or situations, and I felt there was a certain cowardice in that.
Emotional people know that you have the choice to use your emotions as an asset or an enemy. You can control them or let them control you. I chose the former, because the way I experience the world is unique and peculiar to me, and I express this through writing, something very valued and special to me. Listening to music and importing other peoples’ lyrics and melodies into my mind and body drowned out my own creative thoughts and left little room for them to flourish.
So I had a stage where I completely didn’t listen to music for six months. Religiously. As intensely and intentionally as possible, I avoided it and I can testify that that was the most magical time of my life spiritually, where I experienced the world at its fullest. For the first time, silences weren’t always waiting to be filled, I could walk and travel and exist without being afraid to listen to my own thoughts and have inner conversation with myself and my emotions. This developed my emotional maturity an insane amount, because I finally gave myself the space to have mindful responses to my feelings, rather than knee-jerk reactions. It felt like life was playing before me at half its speed and I could actually take the time to enjoy it. Life is very comfortably slow without a soundtrack constantly playing.
What I enjoyed most were the new sounds I got to experience. The hyperawareness was surreal. I could open my window every morning and simply listen — it was like the world was alive with sound. Birds, wind, leaves and cars actually created the most beautiful symphony that I don’t think I’ll ever stop enjoying. It was strange to see who I’d become, me up at dawn after just praying the first prayer of the day, having heard my voice whisper in conversation with God, to sit at an open window with a beautiful breeze dancing in my hair and on my skin in my pyjamas, eyes maybe closed or maybe open just listening and appreciating the sounds I could hear in the natural world. It was so specially intimate.
I also became more conscious of the sounds I put out into the world, of my power of my voice and of the words I chose to speak — everything had to be beautiful. So I became incredibly mindful of thinking before I spoke, and having time to choose the best way to say things, so the end result was words like honey and a cadence like poetry, at least in comparison with before. I’m quite proud of that, although it’s a lifelong journey and I am far from perfect.
When my ears were closed to music, my soul was open to God. The Qur’an, the final book of God is always recited in a beautiful voice, to honour the divine words being read. It is known for making people emotional and for changing people’s lives, Muslim and non-Muslim alike. People listen to it and read it for comfort and solace and to appreciate its beauty and extract its wisdom and knowledge. In this time, I found my favourite reciters and their voices, some of my favourite chapters and verses, and some of the amazing themes hidden in the book. I deepened my understanding of my faith and Arabic too. I allowed myself to be moved to tears and to be humble before divinity and God. I allowed myself to let the Qur’an speak to me and that is unregrettable and unforgettable.
I wish I could claim that I maintained this, and have been surfing a holy high ever since I shut out my playlists, but unfortunately that isn’t true. My story includes self-sabotage, relapse, and loss of purpose. Though this may sound dramatic when referring to music and not drugs, it is applicable because music is addictive for so many listeners. Compare the features of music to those of drugs: impulse, vulnerability, withdrawal symptoms, coping mechanism, escapism. I am not necessarily proposing that they are in the same realm of evil and danger, but I would like to call whoever is reading to consider just how much foreign influence we subject ourselves to by listening regularly and mindlessly. That being said, I, who have recognised these things still find it hard to refrain, avoid and replace as earnestly and conveniently as I did before. I no longer always have the willpower to avoid watching a video that has a lot of music in it, or to decrease the volume at the point of an interlude. I find myself craving the nostalgia that comes with memories of certain songs. Because I am so attached to lyricism, searching for the words to a song starts with the intention to read them like any other poetry, but ends with me plugged into the song and subsequently travelling down the rabbit hole of autoplay and related tunes.
Magical Melodies: an eulogy to the love of sound.
These are notes from a former avid listener.
Scenes from concerts always appear to be unified. Everyone is moving under the control of one force — the sound. I used music to help me learn languages and to study cultures. The melodies, instruments, tempo, beats and vocals all testify to a people, a history a place that someone calls home. I always say that if you want to know about a place, look at the people: what they listen to and what they eat. Studying these things is a very pleasurable dive into culture that rarely feels formal, it is the easiest way to immerse, and with the least judgment, and they tell a story far better than any travel guide ever could.
When someone shares their favourite music with you, they’re often sharing a piece of themselves. You can learn so much about someone from what they plug into. Their personality, their history, their weaknesses, and most importantly, the world they try to enter by listening to those songs. They likely have a strong connection to the artists’ and their personal stories. People listen for inspiration and comfort and catharsis and everything in between. If you ever listen to a song for the first time with someone, you will have a shared memory of a unique experience. Even listening on your own, you associate certain emotions with certain songs. Playlists reflect a certain period in your life, as do favourite albums. Many people connect music with a special moment, just as many can remember the song that was playing when they me the love of their life. Songs played at weddings, funerals, graduations, around campfires or late at night have always take on new and different meaning after the fact.
For me, with all of the above reasons to love music, the icing on the cake is lyricism. The art of poetry. Crafting words to match a sound. But above all, the fact that it is human expression is what makes the value of lyrics ascend far above any other aspect of music. Lyrics, like any art, is a journey through the artist’s mind, and no matter how dumb or shallow lyrics may be, they always speak to the writer’s experience. While there are many lyricless songs of great value and with great capacity to move a listener, songs with lyrics are on another level. The voice that carries them is yet another thing to be in awe of, where something as technical as vocal chords contracting and expanding can express love, anguish, loss, passion, pain and yearning.
Chorus Cancelled: arguments for a life without.
Beyond people who dance poorly embarrassing themselves, obnoxiously loud music at inappropriate times, and painfully commodified music on talent shows, there is also hefty argument against music’s place in our world.
Music can be an emotional trap, that suppresses and prevents listeners from forming their own genuine and authentic creative thoughts. People are told how to feel, either numbing their emotions or dramatising their experience. This is something that I personally found most invasive into my personal experience, and I regret the clouding of my autonomy and personhood a lot at times.
Music is like a very socially acceptable drug. It allows people a form of escape rather than developing healthy coping mechanisms. People listen mindlessly and on impulse, often doing so without reason or definitive motivation. They have an inexplicably hard time going without, and find it hard to concentrate or do daily activities without it. When we see someone with headphones in, we know not to interrupt, because they’re sending the signal that they have chosen to be in a world of their own making rather than a shared one. I question whether these reflex-like tendencies are conscious and intentional, and if we take the time to analyse the reasons behind why we do each time we choose to listen, beyond habit and compulsion.
Music drowns out life, and makes people uncomfortable to be alone with their own thoughts. It means people never get to appreciate silence or experience situations in their full true nature. Fabricated memories and forced mental associations hijack special moments and nostalgia. The fact that we’re often dependent on music to set a scene or create an atmosphere means that our confidence in ourselves and our own company and voices is meagre.
I recently read that discomfort with silence is a learned behaviour, which is becoming more common as we’re conditioned to a noisier world, including constant background music among other things. Noise distractions allow us to ignore our less comfortable thoughts, which can ultimately mean never confronting, assessing, or accepting them. The increased consciousness of self and the world that I experienced after giving up music had much to do with simply having the sound space to do so without a ‘convenient’ distraction from emotions and situations.
We’re being exploited and music is the means for it. Advertisements, and entertainment such as movies and videos all target us through music. A catchy jingle makes a product seem more attractive and memorable. Shoppers are subject to background music so that they feel at ease and inclined to spend more money. Film producers know what to play to make us sympathise and what music to use in a trailer so that we are tempted to go and see it. Our minds and behaviour are constantly being manipulated. Many of these subtle social conditionings make me uncomfortable when I think about them deeply. I have always wanted to see myself as an autonomous agent, conscious of the influences on any decision I might make, but unfortunately I have been finding that in many ways music has violated this interest many times without me realising.
On-demand music is a very new phenomenon. Slowly, there is more and more ease in how music can reach people: streaming services, iPods, Walkmans, CD players, radios, jukeboxes, and live performances — the evolution is undoubtedly impressive, but I find myself questioning the necessity of this increase. Throughout most of history, it was very uncommon to be able to hear a tune at the snap of a finger. If people did want to listen to music, they would listen to whatever was being played. People commuted, ate, worked and socialised with natural background noise. They were fine. The modern era hosts the first age of people to have on-demand music in the privileged way we do, yet we act like it’s impossible to live a quality life without, which is almost amusing if not for the genuine dependence on music as a personal and social crutch for so many.
We say that music is the easiest way to connect to people, and this might be true, but it makes us lazy. We have started to use it to replace genuine, deep relationships, and now we instead have a lack of real cultural appreciation or understanding, because all we do is listen to popular mass-produced foreign songs made for the purpose of export. The modern diversity of music is also disappointing. The uniqueness of a region’s music has been replaced with generic beats, drowning out the place’s identity. Many songs sound the same, and it is clear that some artists are motivated by sales and money rather than creating a rich listening experience. The soul of music is being sucked away more and more, so music is rarely worth the hassle.
As much as it highlights some of the most shared parts of human experience, music also desensitizes us to the reality of life; an example being the common lament of there being a million and one songs about love and loss. At a certain point, hearing yet another song of heartbreak or infatuation will elicit an eye-roll rather than provoke an emotional response. The expectations for romance for young people are very rose-coloured and very unrealistic — the commodification of the love song makes romance seem confined to the gestures and analogies imprinted in our minds. The depth and variety of the expression of love, and other human experiences, is lost.
The culture surrounding music can be quite exclusive. Certain genres are judged and stereotyped, and music snobs exist, particularly between generations and social circles. Sharing what kind of music you like is a public declaration of identity. There is pressure to be a ‘real fan’ and to always be up to date on a certain artist or groups releases and tours, as well as album and genre history. This is something I always found annoying and disrespectful, and it took the joy and light-heartedness out of the experience of enjoying music.
The classic concerned-parent reasonings against certain music are often overheard but must be said because of their genuine relevance. Songs that promote violence, crime, hypersexuality and promiscuity, substance abuse, gross materialism, narcissism and the general degradation of individuals are a stain on society, and while we downplay the effects, it really is something to seriously keep on our watchlists. Music videos and music personalities also have a lot to do with this.
Music videos for such songs often contain wildly inappropriate, suggestive and lewd imagery, particularly depicting females in an explicitly sexual and degrading manner. The consumption of alcohol and drugs is excessive and heavily glamourised. Importance is given to a flashy and high-speed lifestyle, where personal gain and public image are most important, which also comes with the suggestion to stomp out anything that might stand in the way of this. Celebrities are idolised, even after displaying careless and selfish behaviour, and the message then sent to fans is that morals are optional for the rich and famous. All of this is inherently problematic but is being fed to listeners on some of the most popular and catchy songs to be found. The effect that this has on listeners is alarming, especially on young listeners who aren’t yet equipped to think critically about songs, their videos, or those who sing them.
Consequences include misogyny due to the hyper-sexual portrayal of females, a rise in the glorification of gang culture, the desire for young people to get rich quick, leading to crime, reckless behaviour, heavy consumption of drugs, and attitudes lacking compassion, as well as inappropriate pressures and expectations on young boys and girls. We have to admit the impact that pop culture has on everyone, and that behaviours and lifestyles become normalised through it, consciously or not.
As much as I love lyricism and cultural understanding, there are many other ways to enjoy these things without music, something I realised by not listening. Poetry can be shared and stories can be told in another way, culture can be explored through language and conversation too. I was taught by an old teacher about the revolutionary role of poetry in the 60s and 70s, and I simply could not believe it. Lamentably, the value of the spoken word seems to have been drowned.
Ultimately, my most compelling reason is my religion, Islam. I come from a tradition where the belief is that everything prohibited is for our own safety. It has to do with the concept of sacrifice and being true to oneself, and reaching one’s full potential in their relationship with themselves, the world, God, this life, and the afterlife. Anything that helps me get closer to God is more noble than anything else, and the willlingness to sacrifice music if it means concentrating better in prayer, having the mental space to remember God and appreciate His creation without being distracted, form more honest and rich relationships in every circumstance, and display obedience and understanding of a prohibition is worth gold to a believer. We believe that when someone gives something up for the sake of God, God will always replace that thing with something better, and to that I can testify. The value and benefits of this are to be seen in this world and in sha Allah in the next.
Because there is so much debate on whether or not it’s allowed or not, I found myself swinging between different opinions for a long time, simply depending on how I felt about it, listening when I felt the urge to. Some might say that my pleasure is my guiding tool, and I should do as I please when I wish, as long as I am not harming anybody. My value set doesn’t allow me to see things this way: I am committed to principles and beliefs, and when I believe something, I should believe it wholeheartedly and committedly. My nafs (ego) is not supreme.
I try to remember that the reason for distancing myself from music in the first place: in order to get closer to God. This did happen alhamdulillah, but as was made clear, music is very tempting in a lot of ways, especially to a seasoned listener. But it was hard: at parties, when feeling low (a key trigger of mine), and because of my position as family DJ.
When giving consideration to whether or not one is going to leave music, you have to consider the reasons you listen, what you get out of it and weigh up all of the issues relevant to you and your listening. And then consider what you hope to achieve and experience by not doing so. It is a unique endeavour that very few people consider, though if we can’t be critical of the things we do regularly, how can we maintain that they’re definitely good for us?
(Many people claim to be free-thinking agents, yet acknowledge the infringement music has on the liberty of their thinking. It’s like reading books and watching movies but not knowing where the content ends and your thoughts start. So if one claims to listen to music from a position of habit or impulse, yet refuses to give it up, there is an element of denial and untruth in this refusal.)
My journey has been highlighted by podcasts, the Qur’an, nasheeds, nature, inner dialogue, relapses, loss of purpose, renewal of intention and everything in between, but that’s not what this essay is about.
The peace and purpose that came from the music-free silence was genuinely a first in my life and very life-changing. I hope that something in this essay has provided some scope for evaluation and consideration.