Updated: Jan 30, 2020
We live in a world where pretty much any song you could ever think of is available at the click of a button. As a songwriter, I have my criticisms of Spotify and YouTube, but as a listener? They’re awesome. With so many great recordings available, it almost makes live music seem obsolete- after all, we’re not trapped in the middle of nowhere with nothing to entertain us but a fiddle and a banjo, are we?
Though, I enjoy playing my banjo any day!
I’ll be the first person to defend the internet, but live music is irreplaceable, no matter how advanced our technology gets.
There are three main areas where I believe live music carries an advantage: Acoustics, Emotions, and Relationships.
Any audiophile will tell you that vinyl records sound better than MP3 digital recordings. The simple reason is that Vinyl is an Analog medium, meaning an exact imprint of the sound as recorded, whereas MP3s are Digital, an approximation translated through a computer. Coupled with weak iPhone Speakers or low-quality earphones, music just doesn’t sound that good. MP3s are compressed, which means that they’re incapable of providing the wide range of dynamics and frequencies that the original performance would have had.
So, if Vinyl is good, how does being in the same room with a performance compare?
Research Shows an increased entrained physiological response to music of different speeds and moods when the listener is present with the performer, compared to listening to a recording of the same performance.
Even just watching someone, not actively participating, we feel the music more strongly.
Without the barriers of microphones and cables and mixers and recording stations and cds and iphones and earphones (it’s a lot of steps to get music to your ears!),
we feel the direct impact of sound waves in our bodies.
If you’ve ever been in the audience of a Mahler Symphony, you can feel the full weight of the brass section in your chest- it’s a multi-sensory experience.
Live music can provide this increased sensory input for the performer as well.
Dame Evelyn Glennie, a world-class percussionist, lost the ability to hear as a child. So now, when she performs music, she feels it. We all do, really, even if we aren’t so aware as she.
While we certainly have emotional attachments to particular recordings, we tend to opt for live music for the most important moments of life. Walking down the aisle at a wedding to a string quartet; singing a moving hymn together at a funeral. There’s a reason churches pull out all the big stops at Christmas and Easter.
Not only does live music offer a bigger emotional impact, it’s also adaptable.
Live music has been shown to significantly reduce distress and increase comfort during MRIs !
Music therapists often work in emotionally charged situations. A recording will always sound the same, but if I’m providing live music, I can adapt to move with the room. I can take a “happy” song and slow it down to provide a peaceful ambience, or add aggression to provide an outlet for feelings of anger.
Music Therapists are specifically trained to harness this iso-principle and use techniques of entrainment to address acute pain.
There are stories of law enforcement playing recordings on repeat as a form of psychological torture- I imagine the loud monotony of hearing Guns & Roses blasted on repeat would probably have a pretty adverse effect on me.
Live music is the opposite- it adapts and changes, and can meet us where we are, and take us to where we would like to be.
The tradition of vernacular music in America is an inherently social one. Singing and playing has always helped us to band together under oppression, to celebrate with our communities, and to cure loneliness.
The way we listen to music now is particularly isolating- having headphones in one’s ears is the universal symbol for “please don’t talk to me.” Documentaries like Alive Inside showcase the power of recordings to reach people who may otherwise have been unreachable, but they neglect to address the fact that retreating into a world of you and your headphones doesn’t help you connect to others.
Many of the people I work with have difficulty or aversion to communicating verbally with others (I share some of these inclinations- there’s a reason my social calendar revolves around music).
One of my favorite things about making music with other people is that we. don’t. have. to. talk.
Improvisation lets us have entire conversations and shared experiences without saying a word. And musical training isn’t necessary!
Anyone can beat out their feelings on a drum, or sing to their fears. Because music making uses a different part of the brain than speech,
people who may have lost the ability to speak due to stroke or dementia can often make music without any difficulty.
Effective therapy is relationship based, and making music together is a great way to build a relationship.
This magical video of father and son Bebo and Chucho Valdés reuniting through piano improvisation shows how music can speak where words fail.
I would never advocate for eliminating recorded music from one’s sensory diet- there are a lot of amazing things that studio engineers can do that are simply impossible to recreate. In the same vein, nothing can replace the experience of live music, particularly the experience of creating music.
One of my prime purposes as a music therapist is to make music-making accessible to everyone, regardless of their resources or training.
The ability to make music, to create organized beauty from noise and chaos is one of the things that makes us human.
We are ALL musicians, not just listeners.
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Catherine Backus, MT-BC
 Shoda, H., Adachi, M., & Umeda, T. (2016). How Live Performance Moves the Human Heart. PLoS ONE, 11(4), e0154322. http://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0154322
 Darcy D. Walworth; Effect of Live Music Therapy for Patients Undergoing Magnetic Resonance Imaging, Journal of Music Therapy, Volume 47, Issue 4, 1 December 2010, Pages 335–350, https://doi.org/10.1093/jmt/47.4.335