Musings on Music

“Recording engineers have learned… to imbue recordings with a real-world, life-like quality even when they’re made in sterile recording studios. There is a related reason why so many of us are attracted to recorded music these days–and especially now that personal music players are common and people are listening in headphones a lot. Recording engineers and musicians have learned to create special effects that tickle our brains by exploiting neural circuits… These special effects are similar in principle to 3-D art, motion pictures, or visual illusions…; they leverage perceptual systems that are in place to accomplish other things. Because they use these neural circuits in novel ways, we find them especially interesting. The same is true of the way that modern recordings are made.” (Excerpted from This is Your Brain on Music by Daniel Levitin, PhD, sound engineer and neuropsychologist)

In other words, there is a quality of recorded music that stimulates our brains in ways that natural sounds will not. This is accomplished through manipulating sound in artificial ways to create “sound illusions” in the mind that are particularly interesting.

So, what do I want with all this?

There is a popular notion that during periods when Jews are prohibited from listening to music (e.g. during the Counting of the Omer, the Three Weeks), one must not listen to live music, but recorded music is acceptable. The justification for this is that recorded music is of an inferior quality to live music, as recording does not capture the “life” of the music, or that it simply does not sound as good. However, this may no longer be the case, as indicated by the above quote. Today sound engineers create sounds that not only sound as real as live sounds, but that tickle the brain at even more enhanced levels than are possible with conventional instruments. If so, one might perhaps reevaluate the position that listening to recorded music is not in violation of these solemn days. This writer is certainly no authority on Jewish law, however, from a philosophical vantage point at least, one should certainly consider what should be done to maintain the spirit of the law.


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