I teach at a small music school in Morris Park, a small neighborhood in the Bronx. I enjoy it tremendously, and am always fascinated by the effort it takes us to pay attention in a music lesson. Most of my students are young, so naturally there is less attention span to be found; and I spend a great deal of time thinking about how to support their interest and further engage them in their music. But it’s not just my students that have rapidly disappearing attention spans; it’s most of America as well.
There is a lot of research on this- the decrease of the human attention span. Roger Ebert wrote a very compelling piece on it in his journal for the Chicago Sun Times :
In it, he describes how he has become swept up by the “frisson” or, the jolt of excitement, that he gets from quick tweets and internet surfing. He mentions that research is being conducted that shows our actual BRAINS are being rewired by this, capitalizing on our instinct to want to feel short lived excitement, or the “frisson”. ( That link is: http://www.wired.com/magazine/2010/05/ff_nicholas_carr/all/1)
His discussion goes on to describe how he observed his own habits of attention span- and he noticed that amidst his tweeting and “Frisson” seeking, he had stopped activities that required longer term investment of attention, like reading Dickens. And ultimately, when he commits to reading literature more often and tweeting less, he finds a sense of deeper satisfaction, calm, focus. I certainly agree with him- and then I noticed the very end of his article.
A music clip! I thought the irony had hit me in the face. He ended with a two minute clip of a man playing a guitar, saying it gave him that real frisson. I’m not sure if he was referring to the music itself, or the visual element of watching a person play guitar, but I couldn’t help but wonder- did this intelligent, wonderful writer not consider listening to music equal to reading classics? Or worse- does a music clip go in the same category as the tweets, the short term thrills, the empty, non-substantive internet surfing? And if a person of Roger Ebert’s stature considered this non-substantive….. then clearly we are thinking about music in the wrong way.
Seeing as Mr. Ebert is in fact, a writer, it makes sense that his conduit for greater enjoyment, entertainment, soul-searching would be through reading. But the choice to listen to a piece of music without any distraction provides the same experience as reading a great novel. Forms and characters in literature are similar to forms and musical ideas in classical music. A composer introduces ideas and then develops them- he or she creates dialogue between two or more contrasting musical themes, developing them into something new and exciting, often times increasing the tension , and then resolving ( or, more interestingly, choosing not to resolve) them in a final movement that ties the meaning of the entire piece together.You can get wrapped up in Beethoven just as much as Great Expectations; It is as worthy of our attention as any great piece of writing.
This kind of engagement of our interest and attention is precisely what I think we should be supporting in our society- and music is a fantastic way of doing that. Studies from Stanford University provide some evidence to this point:
As we move forward in 2012, I’m sure that Facebook and Twitter will continue to evolve and shape our habits- but perhaps we should consider sitting down with a piece of music more often and give ourselves a break from that unrelenting string of little “frissons”.