Why I don’t like listening to music (sometimes)

I sometimes beat myself up a little for not listening to as much music as I should. After all, it’s my livelihood, and my vocation – surely I should be spending a considerable portion of my time listening to it. And yet, I will often just…choose not to. I think at least part of the reason is due to a damaging cycle: I have convinced myself that I ought to listen to music in a certain way, a way which causes me not to enjoy it all that much, which in turn means I seek it out less often.

To test this hypothesis, I’m thinking about the situations in which I encounter music. Let’s take a typical scenario. I’m at home, and it occurs to me that I might enjoy listening to some music. I’ll open Spotify on my laptop, and search for anything that springs to mind, or try and find something new. What happens next is generally one of two things: a) I will sit down and try and concentrate on the music; or b) I will try and do something else, with the music in the background.

In situation a), I’m likely to get a bit fidgety, or feel like I ought to be doing something with my unoccupied hands, or with the bit of my brain which is disengaged. In b), there’s a danger I’ll get absorbed in the other activity, and tune out of the music entirely, forgetting to actually listen. It becomes like trying to read a book in bed before going to sleep; the mind wanders, and before long, the eyes have travelled down half the page of their own accord without taking anything in.

Both of these situations are a little unsatisfying, and because of this, I’m often more likely to put on a spoken-word podcast, and get on with another task. This works better, because I’m getting something done, and at the same time I’m generally able to process the audio content. It makes me feel productive, and like I’m learning something, so it feels like an efficient use of my time.

But I don’t necessarily want the experience of music to feel like this – after all, efficiency really isn’t the point.

Accordingly, I’m trying to think of the times when I really enjoy listening to music, to see if I can extrapolate something out of those experiences which will help me work out where I’m going wrong.

The weather had just turned. A greying summer had finally given in to autumn, a triumph the latter celebrated with lashings of rain and evening gloom. It was dark both inside and out, and as I sat working on the sofa, the rain was falling hard at the window, illuminated by the nearby yellow glow of the street-lamp.

These conditions on their own were auspicious enough: who doesn’t like the feeling of being warm inside, while behind a pane of glass the elements rage? But I realised I could enhance this experience, and I knew exactly how. I opened Spotify and cued up the most recent album by the band Bohren & der Club of Gore.

digression A brief digression may be necessary here, to cover the artistry of Bohren. The German musicians have become, over the course of several decades, perhaps the world’s leading exponents of a genre variously known as doom jazz, detective jazz, slow-core, or cinematic noir. The band’s members started off in various death-metal outfits, including the charmingly-named Chronical Diarrhoea, before finding their chosen mode of expression insufficiently depressing. This prompted a progression to what can best be described as very slow minor-key jazz, which they determined to be the proper means to express alienation and despair.

It’s fair to say they’ve mellowed a little over the years, with 2014’s Piano Nights permitting at least some major chords, and this year’s Patchouli Blue poking its nose slightly further out of the abyss. Its palette combines the standard Bohren ingredients – brushed snare, rasping saxophone, a leaden double bass hauling itself effortfully into the next bar – with something approaching sunlight, albeit synthetic, but bordering on hopeful. digression ends

As the rain formed a sort of white-noise background static, the murky soundworld of the music fused with it, and the whole experience, together with the darkness, caused a physical shiver of delight down my spine that must have lasted ten seconds.

This, I think, is what is now known as ASMR, although that sciencey-sounding name belies a sensation that is still not well understood. It’s the sort of thing you might experience stepping into a warm shower after coming in from a muddy walk, or from someone gently playing with your hair.

I continued listening, fairly actively though entranced, for about half an hour or so, until it was time to get dinner ready. It was certainly one of the most enjoyable musical experiences I’ve had in recent weeks. But why?

The music had soundtracked, in an almost cinematic way, my surroundings: the weather, the dark, probably even my emotions – which, although I haven’t mentioned them yet, were doubtless another important contributing factor, coming at the end of day when I had been more than usually weighed-down by the frustrated ambitions of the year to date.

The key was that the music complemented everything else. I think one of the reasons I don’t always enjoy listening to music is that I expect it to stand on its own, in a vacuum, and for that to be sufficient to move me or even simply hold my interest. But music, as we all know, doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and it interacts with everything else that’s going on in the world, and the state of our minds.

I generally know enough to know that I have to be in the right mood to listen to a certain piece – but I tend to forget about everything else, the atmospheric conditions, the quality of the environment through which those sound-waves are going to end up vibrating.

As I write, I’ve tested this hypothesis a little. The environmental conditions are different: it’s the afternoon; it’s grey, but not dark, and my mood likewise. I’m playing the same album, but I’ve tried to recreate the circumstances a little by cuing up some artificial rain, via the website The resulting attempt is less powerful, but it’s still raising a little shiver.

(Interestingly, I seem not to be the only one who has discovered this combination. Does it go back to some culturally-ingrained knowledge of film noir, or perhaps a half-remembered detective novel? Or is tapping into some kind of shared urban alienation? Note to self: more research needed.)

Perhaps, then, it’s not the music that I’ve been getting wrong, but everything else, the environmental factors. Bohren needs a rainy, urban cityscape, darkness, a glass of whisky, perhaps a revolver in the top drawer, so that you can listen to it while you stare warily out into the street under the sodden brim of your hat.

What about the rest – what do other genres need to engage me to the same extent? Maybe renaissance polyphony needs the gentle clink of a thurible, the smell of incense, that cool, airy feeling from being inside a massive stone building. Maybe desert rock like The Killers needs the sensation of being behind the wheel of a car, speeding anonymously through the moonlit Nevada sandscape. Maybe.

Could there be a set of circumstances specific to every piece of music in the world, that allows it to speak its truest? It’s like being on holiday and enjoying an aniseedy liquor, and bringing one back from the airport, and then finding on returning home that it doesn’t taste the same. It needed that chemical reaction with the humid air, and that state of holiday excitement and relaxation, to properly register.

All of which is a way of saying, perhaps I can let myself off the hook a little when I don’t enjoy music. Sometimes, the context is wrong. I’m not always good at remembering that, and I’m not always good at realising what those other factors are that will allow music to do what it does best. Music doesn’t exist in a vacuum. The thing to practice is finding the right music for the right environment – or the other way around.