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METALLUM MEDICUS (Case#2) - The Collector's Obsession

I’m not exactly sure how this topic worked its way into my brain, but it is actually something I’ve been contemplating over and praying about for a few years now. There are actually two issues that were bothering me: what do I do with all of this music I own; and why don’t we know how to really listen to music anymore even though we have access to thousands of songs daily? This current blog post was actually triggered by a recent discussion among our editorial team regarding the recording quality (or lack thereof) of CDs these days which are overly compressed and unlistenable at high volumes. From there it degenerated into a discussion about listening formats (newer vinyl sounding so much better, special mixes for vinyl such as the upcoming Stryper release, etc. etc.). In any case, the discussion invariably triggered much of what is to follow – thoughts I’ve stored up and stewed over for some time now regarding the way we accumulate and listen to music these days.

[Please keep in mind, my purpose here is not to determine what is the best media format for listening to music – a discussion that could take up many more pages and still never be agreed upon since everyone has different means and different preferences at any given time – but to instead encourage us all to take a closer look at “how” we listen to music.]

Let’s Be Listeners, Not Just Hearers

Hearing is simply the biological function of sound perception by the ear which results in subsequent transmission of impulses to the brain – it simply happens. Listening, however, requires a conscious decision – it is something we choose to do. Listening requires concentration and focus so that the brain can process meaning from the sounds we “hear” or perceive and it is our major link with learning. Without learning there can’t really be emotional or spiritual growth.

Mark 4:23-24 (NIV) “If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear. Consider carefully what you hear," he continued. "With the measure you use, it will be measured to you-and even more.”

I know this verse is taken a bit out of context (the parable of the four soils), but Jesus emphasized the importance of paying attention to what we “hear” (in all aspects of life and not just doctrine) and measuring that with the truths already revealed to us by the Spirit (wisdom). The reward (and understanding) is greatest when we listen most attentively. This is both common sense and Biblical truth.

If your music experience involves only “hearing,” then how do you connect with the artist’s message, their passion, their intent? Perhaps more importantly, how can we honor musicians (as we are called to honor others – our parents, friends, authorities, fellow believers, those around us daily)? We can certainly give them praise for their art, their creations and their performances, but how are we going to do that properly if we don’t “listen” to what they are crafting, and to what they are saying? How can we be transformed by the music if we don’t really listen to what is going on, what is really being said?

Acts 16:25 (NIV) About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them.

These acts (the prayers and singing) were the prelude to the miraculous events that ultimately freed Paul and Silas from prison and transformed the jailer’s life (along with his family) for eternity. Do you think the prisoners (and the jailer for that matter) were merely “hearing” Paul and Silas drone on about something inane or do you think they were actually “listening” to the words and the songs? Although Scripture doesn’t specifically say, could it have been the songs and the fervor with which they were sung that not only heralded the earthquakes but also drew the prisoners and the jailer to the Lord?

“If there is only 'hearing' and no time for 'listening' then it all just becomes background noise to the movie of our life.”

The Benefits Of Music (We Like)

I love listening to music – it is therapeutic (see below), that is as long as we don't let the “need to have it” and “need to hear it” process wear us out, which it certainly can do, both physically and financially. We know from Old Testament passages like1 Chronicles 13:8, where David and Israel were “celebrating with all their might before God,” and the examples of the Psalms, that not only is music a means of praising God, but it is also a means of repentance, a tool for spiritual growth and a vehicle for drawing closer to God.

Numerous studies have shown the mental and physical benefits of music in terms of work productivity and stress reductions, but a more recent study from a few years back suggested that the type of music you listen to is less important than whether or not you like it. In this particular study, MRI imaging of the brain showed that we are more likely to connect with our focus network area of the brain when listening to music we enjoy. Distractions were more common when the study participants were listening to music they didn’t like.

Medical science aside, even from a purely secular psychological standpoint, music is probably one of the more healthy escapisms available to humankind. All this to say, though … why listen to and possess music that you don’t really like (or never really listen to for that matter)? Why not just get rid of it or pass it on to someone who does?

Let’s Be Listeners, Not Just Collectors

1 Timothy 6:6-7 (NIV) 6 But godliness with contentment is great gain. 7 For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it.

Luke 12:15 (NIV) Then he said to them, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.”

These two verses are great reminders of truths, that in Western culture, we tend to evade – that less is actually more and that a life obsessed with collecting physical possessions can, in fact, be harmful. But how often do we think of music as a physical possession in this digital era? I think those of us who have hundreds or thousands of CDs can attest to the fact that these things take up space in our homes – they are indeed physical possessions. But how many of us think of digital files as possessions? They may not take up much physical space, but how much mental space do they occupy? And who has the time to listen to 50,000 digital music files?

I will be the first to confess that I love both collecting and listening to music. I’ve been a musician since the 5th grade and started collecting and listening to vinyl not long after that. I had the proverbial “stereo system” with turntable, amplifier and speakers at a young age and have always been drawn to the album artwork, lyrics and physical product. When I went mobile at age 17, the vinyl songs were recorded on “mix tapes” and the magic of multi-artist track cassettes took the listening experience to a whole new level. Not only could I listen to the music I loved while driving, but I could now listen to more than just one album side at a time. Little did I know at the time – “mix tapes” were the precursor to the infinite universe of digital streaming and downloads that now make it possible to own and have access daily to thousands of songs and just about any artist imaginable.

1 Corinthians 6:12 (ASV) All things are lawful for me; but not all things are expedient. All things are lawful for me; but I will not be brought under the power of any.

Although Paul was addressing sexual immorality here, doesn’t it apply to most anything in our lives that can “take over” … any obsession, including the desire to own and possess music? I think it does. I’ve had to address this in my life recently as I looked over my own collection/library. I’ve had to ask hard questions like, “How much is this something I really enjoy or find rewarding, or how much is it just something I have to complete a collection?" As an ongoing avid reviewer of music there is the need to have reference material as well, but how much of this can I stand to part ways with? Yes, God gave us a free will to work, choose and possess homes, property, things … but when is enough, enough?

The Ministry Of Music

Dangers of greed and covetousness aside, don’t you miss the ministry of music in your life? We live in one of the most information bombarded ages in history – everything from news to gossip, to natural disasters, to an endless litany of evil acts perpetrated by devastated and deceived souls. Digital downloads/streaming services and YouTube videos pervade our society to the point of excess – no lack of access. There is no denying artists have been able to gain greater visibility and exposure through the digital world. But for the consumer of music, streaming/downloading can actually be a negative in that not only are you hearing mostly over-compressed music (which I would argue is also a negative for the artists) but the nature of how you listen to it has changed as well.

Consider this. For those of us who grew up in the analog/pre-digital era, purchasing and listening to music was so vastly different. Back then, many of us listened to our parents records if we were fortunate enough, but even if/when you could buy new music you might only get 3 or 4 new albums in a 2 month span because that was all your milk money/lawn-mowing funds could support. You would wear those records out – taking in the cover art, poring over the lyrics, blasting the music by day and then again at night with headphones for the sake of the rest of the household. We were more selective back then … saved for what we knew or hoped would be good. And usually it was!

Then there was the phenomenon of what I call “the virgin listening experience,” which was hearing that new record with new music – hearing it for the first time in its entirety. There wasn’t a pre-release lyric video to stream. We read the lyric sheet. It was a wonderful, almost magical experience. Unfortunately, streaming and downloading has robbed many of us of the magic of discovering new music. For those of you born after the digital era, you probably can’t relate to these musings, as you can’t miss what you’ve never experienced, right? But I would still argue that you too are missing out on the true “ministry” of music, because even though entire albums are available, how many of you listen to music like that? It’s all in bits and pieces now, often over multiple weeks, or even never at all.

Ask yourself this? Regardless of the listening source/media preference, when was the last time you just sat down for 20 minutes, album art, lyrics and your favorite beverage in hand and just listened to the music you love? I don’t mind background tunes to accomplish and accompany the day to day tasks … but if you go through a month and have not had a single session of sitting in front of a good sound system (or under a good set of phones) with the art and lyrics in hand then you might want to question what’s the point? If the music isn’t good enough to hold your rapt attention for at least the average 20 minute album side then what’s the point? If there is only “hearing” and no time for “listening” then it all just becomes background noise to the movie of our life.

The Doctor’s Prescription

Cut-back on collecting/downloading and spend more time listening. The personal rewards – physically, mentally and spiritually - are tremendous. Not only will you be honoring the musicians who work hard to create music for our enjoyment and edification, but you will be maintaining a more manageable/healthy library of songs – those which, to you, are both more enjoyable and meaningful. When you check out new music, listen to (or look up) the lyrics, find out a little about the artist and what they believe, what’s important to them, who’s in the band, those kinds of things.

Please understand, I am not suggesting for you to purge your music collection into oblivion. Although it is a good exercise to get rid of music you haven’t listened to in years, that’s not really the point of this discussion. Rather, I exhort you to change your mind-set regarding music – start learning to enjoy it again and be edified by it again rather than being obsessed with “hearing” it for the sake of the experience and/or possessing it for the sake of the collection. The goal is to have a healthy balance between collector and listener, with a heavy focus on collecting only what you really enjoy listening to (and are edified by) regularly. Selah.

Coming Full Circle

On a personal note, for many of the reasons outlined above, over the past few years I have moved away from digital music (even fewer CD purchases) more and more and have moved back into listening to vinyl. Vinyl is an expensive endeavor so I mostly choose my favorite bands and the releases I most enjoy from what’s available. As a result, I’ve accepted listening to less music now but I’m enjoying more what I can afford. And in doing so, I’ve come full circle, back to the days of my youth.

“That virgin listening experience is priceless and it stems from our childhood music listening roots.” – Doc.

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