The Sensitive Ear

It's Not Just Musicians Being Cranky!

By , Columnist

English composer Sir Peter Maxwell Davies has made news more than once with his objections to various sonic nuisances. Most recently, he spoke out against cell phones ringing audibly during classical performances, describing their owners as "artistic terrorists" and proposing that these offenders be fined.

A few months earlier, Sir Peter walked out of a London restaurant because of the music being played over its sound system, and also criticized the sounds piped into the reception area at the BBC's offices as well as the on-hold music used by call centers. He likened these experiences to torture, and invoked such provocative terms as "al-Qaeda" and "Guantánamo Bay."

Sir_Peter_Maxwell_Da_26470s.jpgI very much admire Sir Peter as a composer, and I'm in good company: he currently holds the post of Master of the Queen's Music, and two of his works were performed at William and Kate's wedding. So it pains me slightly to read these accounts where, let's be honest, he comes off as a bit of a crank. Hyperbole is a staple of public discourse nowadays -- I confess to being a fan of it myself -- but I don't believe deploying the imagery of terrorism and torture is ever a smart idea; you're liable to get yourself written off as a nutter.

you-kids-get-off-my-lawn.jpgIs Sir Peter merely acting out the highbrow version of "You kids get off my lawn!"? Well, not entirely. Miss Music Nerd may be more measured in her choice of words, but she can relate.

Musicians, unsurprisingly, tend to be very sensitive to sound, owing to a combination of training and native ability. We're not just posing or being finicky with this sensitivity, either; the musical brain is structurally distinct in measurable ways. In his book Musicophilia, neurologist Oliver Sacks cites MRI imaging research which shows enlargement in the corpus callosum and other structures in the brains of professional musicians, and he discusses marked physical changes that occur in the brain in response to musical training.

Now, I'm no scientist, but I have plenty of anecdotal observations on heightened sound sensitivity, in my own experience and that of my fellow musicians. For a long time, I lived with what I considered to be the shameful secret that I don't actually listen to music very often. I practice it, and listen to it for study purposes, but don't have it playing in the background all the time like many music lovers do. I have since learned, from talking to other musicians (and reading about famous ones in the Telegraph!), that I'm not alone.

I remember one night shortly after McDoc and I got married; we had just come home from a concert, and he went to turn on the stereo. "Nooooo!!" I wailed. My head was so full of the music we had just heard, that the idea of adding more to it really did feel like torture. What would have been relaxing and soothing to him felt agitating and enervating to me. I think that's because my brain is so highly responsive to music -- it feels like my whole body is an antenna for it -- that I can't not listen to it. I can't put it in the background; I have to engage with it actively whether I want to or not. And when I'm tired or irritable or just not in the mood for it, it's no fun.

So I feel Sir Peter's pain, and I share his objection to loud music in restaurants and other public places. And of course, no one likes to hear a phone ring during a concert. I'm here to tell you that it can happen to anyone, though; I'm extremely conscientious about turning off my ringer before a concert starts, but I learned the hard way on one occasion that my phone helpfully keeps its alarm sounds on even when the ringer is off. What's worse, I learned this during a concert in which I was a performer.

Don't fine me Sir Peter - as a musician, I can't afford it!

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Miss Music Nerd is the nom de net of Linda Kernohan, composer, pianist and music journalist. Her music has been played across the U.S. and Europe, and she has performed in a wide variety of venues, from a West Hollywood nightclub to the Basilica of St. Peter in the Vatican. She also writes at…

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