Foreground and background listening

Foreground and background listening

Some people like listening to music by paying attention to it. They stop doing other things, as they would do when they were listening to some very interesting conversation or reading a book. They prefer not to eat breakfast, type emails or dance while music is playing. I call such people foreground listeners.

And background listening, which is sort of obvious now, is the opposite. These people have to be doing something else when music is playing, or else they begin to feel fidgety. One of the commonest "other" activities that the listener will be doing is reading something, like the newspaper or a Tintin comic book, while music is playing. These people are actually uncomfortable if they have to sit and listen to music in a room, doing nothing else.

(There is usually only one situation where a background listener will sit intently and listen to music, doing nothing else. This is a live performance. In this situation, the goings-on on stage are their foreground "distraction", and the music is in the background, in some sense. So they are comfortable listening to music in this situation.)

I feel that this distinction between foreground and background listening is very fundamental. It's becoming progressively more difficult to find foreground music listeners in today's world. And if you try to understand your friends' music listening approach, you will understand a lot about their taste in music and the kind of music systems they need.

For instance, people who do foreground listening easily get bored with Easy Listening types of albums. On the other hand, those who do background listening usually like the Easy Listening kind a lot.

People who want to have music at parties want to do background listening. Those who like Lounge, Trance, or Techno usually want these in parties and are usually only comfortable listening to music in the background. On the other hand, foreground listeners specifically do not want their favourite music being played at parties -- they treat music listening as a solitary activity, exactly like reading a book. A party would be a wretched environment to read your favourite book, wouldn't it?

Some music is the exact opposite of Easy Listening. I would not like to call them Difficult Listening, but you know what I mean. Such music is very irritating to the background listeners, but delightful to foreground listeners. Both types of classical (Indian and Western) would usually fall into the difficult listening category most of the time. The more cerebral examples of jazz too fall into this category.

I find a correlation between TV watching and music listening patterns. If you are a regular TV watcher, and specially a channel surfing type, you are probably a background listener for music.

Finally -- this is where my interest in audio systems shows -- most background listeners do not need good music systems. They sometimes need loud and powerful music systems, if they are the party music kind. But they do not need accurate reproduction or precise tonal characteristics in their audio systems.

When I realised that there were two broad types of music listeners, I also realised something else. You can meet someone who claims he likes music, and you may hope that you have just found a friend. But if you discover that you are a foreground listener and the other person is a background listener, then there will be hardly any common ground between the two of you. Your tastes will differ very widely, and the way you relate to music will differ widely too. It is almost as if there are two different worlds of music, the foreground-listening world and the background-listening world. And the two communities have as much in common as, say, Snakes and Ladders and chess.

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