Recently I attended a public lecture by a noted academic, and was intrigued that before he began his address he took out an iPod and attached it to a sound system and switched it on. It played the ‘Trout Quintet‘ by Schubert. After we had listened to the music for perhaps four or five minutes, he switched off the equipment and proceeded to deliver his talk, which (in case you are wondering) was not in any way connected with Schubert’s piece; nor did he at any point explain why he had played it. I have to say I rather liked what he had done, not just because it is a wonderful piece, but because there was something nicely civilised about the whole experience.
Maybe I reacted positively because, on this occasion, we were really being invited to sit quietly and listen. Far too often these days music is part of a background soundtrack, played but not listened to. In the department store, or the café; the busker on the street who gets paid money as a substitute for listening rather than a reward for playing; the pianist in the hotel lounge who has 100 ways of playing tunes from Lloyd Webber musicals but who never really has an audience. But music, I think, is a form of cultural language and really needs to be listened to. It is not wallpaper that softens the background.
Anyway, I approached the lecturer afterwards and said I appreciated the Schubert piece, and he told me he does this at the beginning of most lectures he delivers to students. He said it puts them in the mood for listening and engaging with his subject. It’s an interesting approach. He may be right.