Can We Really Multitask And Listen?

March 12, 2013

…Or my longest blog rant to date, with my apologies. article in the Winter 2013 issue of symphony (THE MAGAZINE OF THE LEAGUE OF AMERICAN ORCHESTRAS) definitely caught my attention. The Quest for Generational Diversity by Harvey Felder is an informative article that begins: “To connect with younger audiences, orchestras must understand and embrace the values of Generations X and Y.” There is much of interest presented here by Maestro Felder and well worth reading. There are lots of really good ideas for reaching these two generations.

“For multitasking Generations X (born 1965-76) and Y (1977-98), there must be multiple layers, all designed to broaden the experience beyond what has been thought of as sufficient for a symphony concert. Consider the baseball fan who brings a portable radio or television to a game…The fan now has access to a stream of information he or she will miss by merely observing the game without electronic enhancement. In the concert hall, some Generation X and Y audience members undoubtedly would find the concert experience more attractive if they were offered a stream of information about the event they are witnessing.”

At The Discovery Orchestra, we have certainly found that audience members of Generations X and Y as well as those born well before 1965 have benefited from our listening guides that are first used as an exploration tool and then visually followed during the performance. Our staff has discussed streaming the guides electronically at concerts – and we may well experiment with that in the near future. Our audience members tell us the listening guides help – and why? Our listening guides encourage audience members to notice more detail and stay focused in the music! As I said in my previous blog The Invisibility of Music “…a movement of music by Beethoven or Bach is delivered to us in time…the intent of the composer is always to have a continuous, non-stop presentation of their musical ideas.” These musical ‘events’ – be they a chord change or an ascending sequence – are meant to be noticed and emotionally experienced as they occur in real time, one after the other. If I stop to read the contributor’s list – let alone send or receive a text message – I risk missing some of these events as well as their relationship to musical ideas that occurred earlier.

Maestro Felder goes on to say: “Conversation, of course, must be curtailed during a concert, since it competes with the sonic creation emanating from the stage. But written (emphasis mine) communication and silent video screens can co-exist with live music.” Here, he appears to be concerned with not disturbing audience members who are just listening. He continues: “Problems may arise when the interactive style of Generations X and Y interferes with the listening style of other audience members. One easy solution is to designate a section of the concert hall ‘silent mobile device friendly’ allowing the virtual community to engage in the multitasking and interactivity that is second nature to them.”

I must respectfully disagree. Rather than ‘styles’ of listening, I believe we are all consciously capable of applying variable degrees of attentiveness while listening. At the bottom of the dial, we notice almost nothing except that there is perhaps a musical sound in the background which we are hearing while we do or think other things. At the upper end is that state of attentiveness in which we are so present with the music that we notice every detail in the sounds we are hearing as they occur. It is not so much having electronic mobile devices that worries me, especially if they were receiving a streamed listening guide. What concerns me is the “multitasking and interactivity that is second nature to them” – as in texting.

Written communication and silent video screens may be able to ‘co-exist’ with live music. However, people creating written communications with other device-users on and off the concert site – even if seated in a protective area where their lights and flashes will not disturb others – will likely miss, while texting, that one incredible re-harmonization of the melody which Rachmaninoff had calculated to be ‘the point’ or moment of greatest emotional intensity in the movement – not to mention a myriad of other musical details along the way.

Is going to a baseball game an equivalent experience to going to a concert and listening to a Beethoven sonata? I’m absolutely certain that Maestro Felder would not assert that. But to emphasize my point…at the game, we watch the pitcher, and then we take a bite of our hotdog, then have a sip of soda, then call a friend on our cell phone. We do all these things because we can and it doesn’t matter in all of that ambient noise! Even if we miss an entire half inning of play while we visit the restroom, it still doesn’t matter. But if we miss that one chord change as it happens in its unique moment in time, Rachmaninoff might say we would not understand the entire movement. We might feel bad if missed seeing the grand slam while we were in the restroom – but we would still know the score, understand the game and enjoy the day at the ballpark! At the concert, we have only that one precious moment to perceive that chord in its context.

I don’t believe that one would ever suggest we have a special ‘silent mobile device friendly’ section of a Broadway theater in which people could blissfully text each other while missing crucial dialogue lines of an Arthur Miller play. How would these ‘texters’ understand the plot? Is a symphonic movement not similar to an act of a play except that the information is all being conveyed in wordless abstract sound?

Understand we must, but rather than completely “embrace the values of Generations X and Y” perhaps orchestras should challenge those values. There are individuals in the field of neuroscience who hold that we actually cannot multitask, that multitasking is a myth. They maintain that even if we are consciously doing many things, our brain is still doing them serially – one at a time. I’m not a scientist, but I think the dramatic increase in automobile accidents in America has already proven that people should not text and drive cars. I would also ask: “Are there other life experiences where an instant electronic communication is not appropriate and would perhaps ruin the experience? Would we want to be texting at the precise moment that ice cream enters our mouths and surrounds our taste buds in a sea of pleasurable sensations? Would we want to be texting a friend at the moment of orgasm?” Might the act of listening to the music of Mozart or Thelonius Monk be a similar situation – something that just has to be singularly experienced?

Do orchestras need to help Generations X and Y enjoy the concert experience? Absolutely! We know that the percentage of our entire population that regularly listens to classical music and attends live concerts is pitifully small. Perhaps there is a remedy. How about we just teach Generations X and Y how to listen perceptively to the invisible language of music? We can then let them decide whether they really want to be texting at concerts or just giving their undivided attention to the most important communication in the room – a very intimate emotional exchange from the composer’s soul directly to theirs with an assist from us, the performers.


{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

George March 19, 2013 at 1:15 am

The discussion goes on. This reported on The Hub at the League of American Orchestras:

Orchestra Hall Tweet-Seats Debate Raises Vital Questions

Tuesday (3/12) on the Pacific Standard (California), Tom Jacobs writes “On the evening of November 18, in Mobile, Alabama, a young newspaper reporter named Robert McClendon sat through a performance by the Mobile Symphony Orchestra while quietly updating his Twitter feed. The program that night featured Beethoven’s Eroica symphony, a passionate work that put McClendon in a reflective state of mind. Those who prefer experiencing the classics without a running commentary are probably cringing right now. But McClendon wasn’t breaking the rules. On this particular fall evening, the Mobile Symphony was inaugurating its ‘tweet seats’—a row at the very back of the auditorium where patrons are welcome to text or tweet during the performance. … The rise of tweet seats is just one facet of a larger shift taking place in the performing arts—one that champions ‘audience engagement’ and, in the minds of critics, subtly denigrates ‘passive spectating.’ The new conventional wisdom is that it’s vital not just to put on the best show you can, but to give audiences the sort of intense, interactive, personal experience that makes them feel involved in the production. … The controversy raises a number of questions that are hard to answer: … Who, really, is more engaged? Is it the audience member holding a screen and responding to the action with his thumbs, or the one sitting silently in the dark with her eyes glued to the stage?”

Posted March 15, 2013


Laura Ward March 20, 2013 at 9:51 am

George, this also got me thinking about our “rewind” culture – we are “allowed” to pay limited attention to so much because we can simply go find it online later, pause and rewind live television. You can’t pause a live concert or even the radio (I’ve caught myself in the car having missed something and wanting to do with my car radio what I can do with my television at home!). For me, listening requires a decision to stop everything else and do just that – listen.


Diane March 28, 2013 at 2:10 pm

This from Jim Haba, poet and painter:

Thanks for taking on the issue of multi-tasking and the price it exacts on the quality of experience. I agree entirely that art asks us to stop whatever we were doing to attend to what is being offered to us. And this happens, I believe, whether we are talking about music, or dance, or poetry, or sculpture, or painting, or ceramics, or architecture, etc. And I like the way you go beyond art to essential life experiences so that life itself becomes worthy of focus and devotion. Ultimately I think a religious point of view, although not limited to any specific set of beliefs.


Jonathan Harrison June 4, 2013 at 8:42 pm

Great thoughts here!

As a Generation X/Y member, I know the pull of mobile distractions can distract all generations. When I lead meeting or facilitate classes, some of the most distracted by their cell phones are born pre-1965.

Regardless, the experts in personal productivity (David Allen, Brian Tracy, et al) insist that focus on one thing at a time is optimal. Multitasking is a way to do many things in a mediocre fashion.

Bottom line: mobile devices may have a place pre/post concert, but will only weaken the actual experience if integrated.


Murray Bishop July 25, 2014 at 7:55 pm

I just read your article regarding the Gen X and Y use of electronic media
during a concert, i could not agree with you more! i do however believe we
can offer pre performance briefings and information which may be shared
via electronic means as a way to enhance the performance but not during
the performance.

Keep up the great work

Murray Bishop


Diane March 18, 2013 at 11:10 pm

We’ve translated the post on the link below:
“I read an article at that I find interesting for reasons other than those raised by the author. Turns out a Symphony Magazine article proposed a new way to attract young generations X and Y (individuals say, between fifteen and thirty years of age or so) to ‘classical music’. Not an easy task, the conductor, Maestro Felder, poses desperate solutions to a desperate situation: converting the experience of live classical music into something compatible with mobile toys. The idea is to create interactive guides that can be read, discussed and shared by tablet or smartphone while sitting in the chair of the concert hall. This, naturally, would cause The Discovery Orchestra’s artistic director to tear out his hair.
I shall not comment on Maestro Marriner Maull’s vision of how classical music should be experienced (for whom missing a chord is like skipping a chapter in a mystery novel, you ruin the ending). I don’t have the energy for that today. What I would try, perhaps by way of my studies in psychology, is the interaction of sensory stimuli of different nature.
Can you read while listening to music?
It is at least arguable. Of course people can hear music while reading, just as one can talk while driving. The question is whether we can listen. This would require reaching agreement on the definition of this concept but I think we can agree that listening requires attention. How much attention is needed for you to consider yourself listening? The truth is that one receives lots of information from sensory sources without paying any conscious attention. And that complicates this issue. One can be concentrating (with mindfulness) on, say, a math problem, and suddenly raise ones head because someone mentioned one’s name in the next room. At other times, of course, the opposite happens: how often have not I concentrated to the point of ignoring everything around me, including people making gestures, calling me by name, and so forth?
The point is that everything is heard in our heads but we do not pay attention. Let’s assume that you are devoting your attention to reading a very interesting book (e.g. these days I’ve been reading The Hitchhiker’s Guide by Douglas Adams). At the same time that you read let’s suppose you are listening to music through headphones. How does your attention work? Is the experience evenly distributed by channels?
On the one hand, in the visual channel, your concentration is very focused on the pages you are reading. From the ‘corner of my eye’ I see the rest of the room, people walking around the house, cars moving along the road to the other side of the window, etc. But these stimuli are ignored as long as your brain, in passive (unconscious) analysis, does not consider these other stimuli important enough for you to stop reading. Furthermore, your auditory sensory channel is completely absorbed by the music from your headphones. Only a loud explosion or screaming would over ride the sound of the music, However, you are not paying attention to the music at all. For the sake of brevity we will ignore the other senses (smell, touch, the sensations of nerve endings, etc.).
In the example given, the attention focused on the visual channel will make you oblivious to anything other than the pages of the book but not what you hear. Of course you will not pay attention to the songs. If you were asked about something that you heard while reading you probably could not give too many details, the songs are mixed together, etc. But that does not mean that you are unaffected emotionally and/or cognitively. Therein lays the crux of this whole diatribe.
When is this a problem and when not:
If you listen to music with lyrics in your native language while reading, it is clear that the auditory sensory channel will cognitively interfere with your reading. Both channels will be doing work on the part of your brain that analyzes messages, provides meanings, etc. Surely, you have noticed many times that you can read and listen to what someone tells you at the same time. You can quickly switch between one thing and another so you do not miss anything. But if the message is extended or complicated, you lose part of the message.
However, if you listen to instrumental music without lyrics or vocal music with words that are in another foreign language that are easily ignored, you can benefit from reading and listening to music as something done together. Combining language and music into an emotional potpourri can be great – or terrible depending on the style of music you choose. (Perhaps another article could result from this.)
My experience and advice is this: Music can help you read and improve the reading but also the opposite. Choose carefully what you hear because it will affect how you experience reading. Search songs without lyrics, with simple rhythmic foundation, without shocks because they can be too distracting, nor melodies that are ‘hummable’ and you can enjoy reading with the help of sound isolation that will not distract you and in fact prove quite the contrary.
And how about studying with music on?
Of course one can. I hasten to add! (You should probably stop the music if you need to memorize anything perfectly, according to the rules above, or for critical reading of texts or summary writing, study guides, etc. But listening to music will help you keep your spirits up, not lose interest and not be tired. Without music I could not endure even twenty minutes in front of my neuroscience books. With music on the hours just ‘fly by’ (Okay, I’m exaggerating).
Of course, each person must try to find what works for him or her. These rules do not apply to everyone!
One thing I can tell you: if you cannot read while listening to music, you’re probably listening to inappropriate music.
And you, dear reader? Do you listen to music while you read? Does it give you problems? Share your experience in comments!


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