Written by 5:00 am Audiophile

Music, Technology and a Zen-Inspired Listening Approach

Mark Smotroff reflects on the Zen-like role music can play in our lives


I’m going to tell you a little personal tale here and I hope it doesn’t feel like you are reading a leftover from Psychology Today or Readers Digest. But it does tie into music and how we listen to it, so I do hope you’ll indulge me for a few paragraphs.

Buddha225.jpgYou see, over the past 10 years I have been thrust into something of an increasingly spiritual journey of personal discovery. Harsh realities of life got very much in my face over this period, stuff many of you probably have faced yourselves at one point or another (family/friend’s sicknesses, deaths, job challenges, etc.). It’s been a bumpy road. Fortunately I have good friends who have helped steer me in healthy directions.

And music has certainly played an enormous role in my healing process.

Recently, a friend turned me onto a book about meditation which I’ve just started reading. I’ve never meditated so I was interested to learn more about it. In the first few pages of reading it I had a minor music epiphany that prompted me to stop what I was doing and write down this little thought piece for you, Dear Readers.

So… how does this relate to music and audio gear and other tech stuff, you’re probably wondering?

Stick with me…

You see, in the book on meditation, the writer of this particular essay, Clark Strand, put forth a very simple notion of the need to keep — or view — one’s meditation activities as a hobby, as something one enjoys doing.

It isn’t work. You meditate because you like it, even if that does require a certain amount of serious work-like commitment.

I get this. It’s like when I decided to join a gym, even though there was a time commitment involved, inevitably I felt much better after going there for my “workout.” I now view going to the gym as something I enjoy — more like a hobby — it has become less of a chore to get me going there to “do” my workout.

One makes the time to do it, a time to focus on things separate from all the stresses of the day… a time when you can let go and experience it for its own sake… simply because it gives you pleasure. You do it not because you are keeping up with the Joneses or trying to do it better than other or anything competitive like that. You do it simply because it makes you feel good.

As I was reading this chapter of the meditation book, it dawned on me that one of the many problems we face today as enthusiasts of music and high-quality sound is that people are simply not making the time to listen like they once did. People aren’t committing as much time doing the thing that once made them very very happy: Listening to music! Discovering music! Enjoying music!

Sure, they may be doing other things in its place — video games, raising a family, driving a spiffy car, etc..

But I question whether they have perhaps sacrificed something special and important for their inner happiness along the way.

The why of this phenomenon is, as always, of multiple causation. Things seem busier now, time shorter. Companies seem to claim more ownership of people’s private lives than ever before. The numeric phrase “24/7” is part of our modern vocabulary.

It seems harder to save money now and if you are a young family raising kids, it’s even more challenging.

But really, is it harder today? Is it so hard that we can’t possibly dedicate a moment to do something simple that makes us happier, more peaceful and focused, and ultimately more productive?

Or is it simply a matter that many of us need to simply reaffirm our commitment to the hobby and make more time for it amidst a hectic schedule?

I look back at my parents who had basically nothing when they started their life together and they raised three kids and made a decent life for us all. Our life growing up was nothing fancy. We were lower-middle-class folks, but we all came out pretty much OK. My folks worked their butts off, too. And perhaps they didn’t get to play as much as some do — big vacations were never really an option for them. But music was a part of our daily universe. There was always a radio on. Or a record being played. Or if we were in the car driving to a relative’s home, singing would ensue, usually initiated by Dad (winding up inevitably in a round of old George M. Cohan-era tunes — “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” etc. — often led by my older brother).

The point is, we found the time. We made the time. Music was our church, our temple, our spirit calling (if you will). We stopped to listen, just like people stop to watch TV or stop to play a game now or look at a text message on their iPhone.

Music has healing qualities and the ability to take the listener to another place. So that is where this sort of meditative commitment concept might come in to play: if we collectively remind people — you, me, our friends, family — that it is good and healthy to take a moment to do some listening every day, everyone might — perhaps — collectively feel just a little bit better, a bit happier, a bit less stressed.

After all, listening to music does stimulate those same endorphins that make runners feel so good. Taking it a step further, I usually find myself feeling really good after I have done some singing with friends in a band I’m in. Making music is a whole other level beyond the scope of this thought piece, but it does go hand in hand if you have the inner calling to create.

A friend of mine who is also musician is a totally Apple-equipped kinda guy with a Mac at home, iPads, Apple TV and an iPhone that syncs up perfectly in his spiffy new VW. Complementing all that über-convenient modern technology, he and his partner are big into all things “Mid Century Modern.” A couple years ago they found and purchased a nicely restored early-1960s Magnavox console stereo, which is the only record player they have in the house. It’s way fun. The tone arm weighs a half a pound, probably, but it stacks LPs and 45s just fine and wide-panned stereo recordings from the 60s sound great on it.

More importantly — as witnessed by his postings on some social media sites — my friend makes an effort a couple times a week to just sit down and listen. They have a big comfy chair in the sweet spot near the console and there he dives into his favorite pop music (The Partridge Family! Bobby Sherman! Per Gessle!) or some new metal band his buds have turned him onto.

He makes time to listen. He takes the time to listen.

BluetoothSpeaker225.jpgAnd this is a guy with a busy pressure-filled job juggling much responsibility as well as a rich relationship and other stuff they are doing.

I applaud him! Bravo!

Still, my friend is something of the minority these days from what I’ve seen.

In 2013, I visited family and friends on the East Coast. During my week stay with one of my brothers and his family I noticed something dramatically missing from their daily lives: music! That is not to say that they didn’t have music around. But their lives had become so fast-paced raising a young child and juggling high-pressure careers that it had become an afterthought. Actually, it was a non-thought. My brother’s stereo was in disrepair in his home office, papers stacked on top of the turntable and amplifier. His massive CD and LP collection was a mess, stacked willy-nilly making it near impossible to find anything he might have wanted to hear easily. In their downstairs area, there was only a crummy old broken-down cheap early-’80s plastic stereo combo-unit thing (almost a boombox, really) tucked away under a catch-all table in a hallway, speakers stacked together and the unit barely able to tune in a radio station. Sure, they had an iPad and iPods around the house, but none of them were really being used enthusiastically apart from maybe late at night when doing some home work.

Music was everywhere and nowhere in this lovely young home.

While there, I went out shopping one afternoon to a local Radio Shack (really!) to buy them two gifts, both of which I am proud to report has begun a reintroduction of music into their lifestyle.

First I got them a Bluetooth speaker to set up and use in the kitchen area. Really. It’s a single-speaker thingy that sounds halfway decent and certainly better than the broken-down old compact stereo sitting under the table. The Bluetooth speaker fits into their fast-paced lifestyle — and their filled-to-the-brim kitchen — in a very ergonomic manner. It sits waiting to be used on a nearby shelf, and enables them to connect their iPhone or iPad easily for listening to music (and podcasts) while preparing dinner and such.

]]>OK, so it’s not quite making “time” for the music but it is a step toward working music back into their daily lives at this stage.

But wait, there’s more…

AppleTV&Controler225.jpgThe next gift was an Apple TV box which I connected to their big-screen TV setup. They don’t have a home theater rig (yet!) but they do spend a fair amount of time enjoying movies and have cable where they can get those seemingly endless, faceless automated music channels. In general, they don’t really listen to those stations from what I’ve seen. This is consistent with what I have found with many friends because there is no real engagement with them — the music played there often is just viewed as audio wallpaper. With the Apple TV box, it’s a little different as it gives you some more personalized options. Sure, you can stream Apple radio stations which you customize based on your preferences (and it works quite well for the most part). But the cool thing was that I was able to set it up so that my brother could stream music from his digital music collection on his PC upstairs via iTunes to the speakers on the big TV down in the family room.

Immediately, the family got more engaged with the music because it was no longer locked on the laptop. They were able to bring music into their lifestyle. It was the start of my brother’s rediscovery of a beloved hobby.

I flew back home to California feeling good knowing I had done something to help bring music into their lives again.

This past summer I visited again and spent the better part of a day reorganizing my brother’s LP collection (alphabetically and by genre) which had gotten so out of order over the years that you really could not easily find anything. I also did a minor adjustment on his turntable which — to his amazement — made his sweet old Thorens spin again and make fine, fine music.

He got so excited that he rushed down to the garage to dig out a pair Boston Acoustics speakers a friend had given him years ago but which he’d never found the time to hook up. We swapped them out for the little Bose minispeakers he had “temporarily” (for five years) set up when they moved into their new home. We turned up the volume and I can’t tell you how good it made me feel to see the wide smile on my brother’s face. It was a sound he hadn’t heard in years: high fidelity!

Equally satisfying was seeing the sense of awe from my nephew, who I think was really hearing for the first time just how grand pre-recorded music can sound in their home.

Music was coming alive again there, and it sounded really, really good!

About a month later I got a call from my brother who was reveling in rediscovering his music collection anew and wanted to thank me for getting his system and collection back in shape for him.

I only did the mechanical grunt work. He had it all there. I just helped him to make the commitment to it again, to dig it out from its disrepair and disorder. The important thing is that I could tell from the tone of his voice that he was making the time to listen again, recognizing that it is something that in fact relaxes him, bringing much happiness. Like meditation, it is a life hobby that he is now integrating back into his daily life in a more committed way beyond the car stereo or the occasional walk using an iPod and earbuds.

Mission accomplished.

So the point of all this is that perhaps — maybe, just maybe — in 2015 you too can find a way to work music back into your daily life or the lives of your family and friends to enable a greater sense of peace and happiness.

What a fine idea for a New Year’s Resolution: Help your fellow man discover peace through music.

I hope you all have a wonderful, great sounding and very happy musical year in 2015!

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