The Dignity of the Background

When we listen to music as we are doing something else, we are under the conception that the music is in the background, that we are are passive receptors of its content.

Oliver Sacks had an interesting take on this point in his memoir On The Move. Therein, a friend and colleague notices that Sacks is writing in a notebook during a Mozart concert. Concerned about Sacks’ attention during the music, he inquires about it: “When Ralph saw that I had a notebook on my lap and was writing nonstop throughout the concert…Ralph was curious – what had I been writing about the entire concert? Had I been wholly unconscious of the music? No, I said, I was conscious of the music, and not just as background”.

An allusion is made to Friedrich Nietzsche who claimed that he too would write while at a concert. “[Georges] Bizet makes me a better philosopher” he declared. Much in the same way, Sacks felt that listening to Mozart made him a better neurologist.

Is background an indictment though? In any landscape, the background makes the foreground come into view. Lest the subject be floating in space, the background makes it so that there is a context for the foreground to exist.

Music is part of the background that supports the subject: a person as he or she goes about a worthwhile endeavor. It was there for Sacks and Nietzsche as they wrote and it will be there for someone who runs a marathon or studies for a crucial exam.

Music makes us better people, whatever shape that may take.


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