The importance of music in our lives

Adrian’s iPod

My ancient iPod now has only one job: storing my music library of 765 tracks. Some of these performances bring me to tears when I listen to them. Many are bound to experiences in my life, and hearing them connects me to those powerful memories in a way that no other sense — save perhaps smell — can equal.

You probably have this kind of relationship with music. Your taste may vary dramatically from mine, the intensity of your connection may be different, but there’s no argument that music is an important ingredient in most human lives.

Long ago, my father played drums in a dance band, Billy Merrin and His Commanders, on the weekends. A few years before he died, I tracked down a collection of old recordings of his band. I vividly remember his delight and animation when he began listening once again to music he had helped to create sixty years earlier.

“People haven’t always been there for me but music always has.”
—Taylor Swift

If/when I am old and feeble, unable to do much, I want to have my music at hand. (On shuffle, please.) I hope I will still able to listen and recall and remember. I want to sing along when the spirit moves me, and feel the intense wondrous emotions that music has the power to grant.

Why we shouldn’t (but do) play music at conference socials

Can't hear you!Even though socials aren’t the best ways to meet new people at conferences, strong cultural pressure makes socials mandatory for most events. And if you want to make socials a maximally effective opportunity for interaction and engagement keep them music free.

Why? Well, you’d be horrified if loud construction noise invaded the ballroom at the beginning of your elegant pre-dinner mixer. Any kind of competing sound makes it harder for people to hear each other, reducing the quantity and quality of interaction. Yet plenty of meeting planners seem to believe that music acts as a kind of obligatory social lubricant when people get together. Jackhammers are not OK, but “background” music is, somehow, mysteriously exempt.

Why is music often inflicted on us during socials? While I don’t know for sure, here are a couple of misconceptions that may be to blame.

 — Music can improve creativity and enjoyment, so doesn’t it improve social situations?
Research indicates that the right kind of music can improve creativity when working and improve efficiency when performing repetitive tasks. For example, I find that listening to certain music helps me write, and improves my mood while stacking wood. So, some might conclude that playing music at socials could benefit the quality of interaction and engagement.

Unfortunately, there’s no evidence that social interaction is improved when music is introduced. Research findings of creativity improvements are confined to solo work. In addition, research suggests that positive effects of music depend on familiarity—i.e. music heard for the first time is not helpful—so it’s not possible to play one piece of music to a crowd of people and obtain uniformly positive results. Finally, music with lyrics is especially distracting to people trying to converse, and should be avoided.

 — Bars and restaurants play music while we drink and eat, so shouldn’t we have music during our event socials too?
Have you ever been to a bar where there wasn’t music playing or a TV on? Me neither. In my experience, the majority of restaurants play background music. Bars and restaurants are in business for people to meet socially, so surely they must have found that playing music improves customers’ social experience, or they wouldn’t do it!

Well, actually, no. Bars and restaurants play music, not for their patrons’ benefit but for their own! Background music that’s loud enough to make it challenging to talk to a friend but not loud enough to drive you out of the establishment has been shown to increase sales. From a 2008 French study“high level [sound] volume led to increase alcohol consumption and reduced the average amount of time spent by the patrons to drink their glass”. And 2008 British research concludes that “people do, at least partly, drink because they can’t talk to each other”. So the reason we’re surrounded by music in commercial social spaces is not to increase social interaction, it’s to decrease it and have consumers buy more!

We also need to bear in mind people—typically older folks like me—who have hearing loss that impedes their comprehension of conversations. Anything we can do to provide a better acoustical environment at our events will help the auditory challenged to have a better experience.

When is it OK to play music at events?
Are there times when it’s appropriate to use music during conferences? Sure. Here are some examples, feel free to add more in the comments:

  • Sessions where music is used as an important sensory, emotional, or learning component.
  • Parties! (But be sure to provide alternative quiet spaces for folks who don’t like the loud music and/or just want to talk.)
  • Corporate social responsibility and sustainability activities, especially if they involve repetitive activities—e.g. packing toys for needy kids.

In conclusion, avoid reflexively ordering music background for your events. It’s a fundamental distraction that, apart from a few specific situations, reduces communication, connection, and engagement. And, according to the above research, if you cut out the house music during the mixer, your food and beverage bill may be reduced a little too!

Why traditional conferences are dying like music albums

Record albums 8447794421_fdfda28f9f_kRemember the Compact Disc [CD]? Or, if you’re old enough, like me, the long playing record [LP], aka “vinyl” records?

For many years, the music industry primarily sold “popular” (i.e. short form) music as rigid collections of individual tracks. If you liked something you heard on the radio and wanted to buy it, you were forced to buy the artist’s “album”, which often contained many other pieces of music you didn’t care for. Unless the track you liked was released as a “single” (for which you paid a premium) you couldn’t buy it by itself.

We all know what happened. CD ripping, and later the internet, made it possible for the music lover to pick and choose her music purchases one track at a time. Adore four tracks on a Manu Chao album? Just buy those four!

Why did this happen? Because great music albums that tell a compelling musical story from one track to the next are the exception rather than the rule. Most albums are disembodied collections that, apart from perhaps the artist’s and producer’s minds, have no perceivable flow from one track to the next.

Traditional meetings are also collections of disembodied sessions. But they have not changed in the same way.

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Creating something beautiful with others

Brattleboro community chorusFor the last three months I’ve been rehearsing for the Brattleboro Concert Choir’s performances this weekend of Ernest Bloch’s Avodath Kakodesh. Looking back, I realize that I’ve been singing with the BCC for the last ten years.

The first weeks of rehearsal of a new piece are not much fun. I don’t know the music well, and I’m not a great sight-reader. Unless there’s a practice CD available, I usually spend a significant amount of time creating a soulless electronic version of the part I’m singing, precise tones with precise timings, which I share with my fellow tenors. I attend at least one two-hour rehearsal each week. All this work adds up to a large commitment of time and energy to the two, sometimes three, annual concert performances.

So, given the many other interests in my life, and the large number of attractive opportunities I reluctantly turn down, why do I choose to sing with the Concert Choir year after year?

Part of the answer is my pleasure, as the performance dates approach, of my ability to sing increasing competently at points in the music. Sometimes I experience singing beautifully, even if it’s only a portion of a phrase that suits my vocal abilities, and feeling in harmony with the musical moment is emotionally satisfying.

But the major rush I, and probably all my fellow choristers, feel is the joy of creating, being a part of, and sharing a beautiful musical experience with others. No one person alone, however talented, can bring our performance into being. To do so, our musical director, our soloists, our choristers, and our orchestra are all needed, and must collaborate effectively at many different levels.

At both performances this weekend, there were times when audience members were weeping.

The conferences I design and facilitate are not rehearsed, and what happens does not flow from a central musical score. But what the BCC performances and Conferences That Work share is the joy of connecting with others to create experiences that are meaningful, and sometimes profound.

I love being a part of both of these worlds.

And I hope you are lucky enough to also have the opportunity to experience this connectedness in some way in your life.