Thanks for reading, Bob.
Your Mahler addiction is long-known, certainly understandable and more-or-less incurable. Typically, on the first day of music theory class, I reiterate to my students (I say “re”-iterate, because they should have heard it somewhere before) that music is perceived and understood by humans in three basic ways (perhaps more, but three that we can really agree on). All humans (hopefully) experience music on an emotional level–emotion really is what keeps us coming back to it, having arguments about it, flipping the CD back to that same track again and again (the last movement of Mahler 2, right?). I think that anyone except the most profoundly mentally handicapped person feels music on an emotional level; not being able to perceive music emotionally is, to me, a profound mental handicap.
Then there is a physical understanding of music. This is perhaps best expressed in dance, at least in its pure state, but without a physical understanding of music, it would be impossible to play an instrument, or sing with a group of people. Musicians and non-musicians alike spend years trying to master the physical implications of music, from marching in step, to dancing at your own wedding, to performing a concerto or an aria at Carnegie Hall.
Then there is the way to understand music that people with university degrees in music tend to emphasize, and around which our system of music education is (supposedly) constructed–the intellectual approach. This approach begins when we stop just reading music and begin to look for the very abstract patterns in the sound and in the notation and vocabulart that describes it–key signatures, open sevenths, sonata form, fugal expositions and the rest.
Of course these approaches overlap, and there is much gross oversimplification in my three ways to understand music. It ignores cultural considerations like the social function of music and economic considerations like the profit motive. But I would argue that most performers and listeners actively engage one of these three modes when dealing with a piece of music.
In teaching music theory, I occasionally hear from students that pulling a piece of music apart to see what makes it tick–identifying all the Roman numerals–takes all the fun out of it. This, of course, isn’t the point. We teach music theory because after a certain point, if we are to talk about, think about and delve deeply into music, we must establish a common vocabulary, and we must understand what makes Beethoven different from Mahler or Marenzio or Mendelssohn. All four of these composers may make us feel the same way (or not), on the emotional and physical level, but intellectually, they have great differences–a fact which is obvious from even the first hearing of their music.
So–to address your question–how is the listener (or performer) who is not trained in the intellectual understanding of music deal with the technological changes being wrought on the musical world by mp3s, easy access to recording technology and the rest?
First, this is only the next step in an experiment we have been running since the development of the phonograph and grammophone. What happens when average people gain steadily more and more access to higher- and higher-quality recorded music? Where even five years ago most of us were at the mercy of the record companies, the Internet has made such a deluge of music available to us (both free and for a price, both legal and pirated) that no one can possibly hear it all, let alone become an expert. It has gotten to the point where I feel, as someone with a doctorate in music, that I can’t even scratch the surface of what is out there. My solution has been, mostly, to hide behind a “canon” of western music, and to dig deeply into that music, while hearing whatever contemporary music I can. All the music in the world is there, but that doesn’t make Beethoven or Mahler any less great.
Second, my hope is that the availability of home recording, and access to the Internet, can do what it seems to be doing–making the means of production available to many more. It has always been difficult to make a living from music, but few people actually stop playing music because of that. It just becomes their hobby. I know many medical doctors, lawyers, executives and the rest who are fine musicians–one of the best violinists I know is an optometrist–but not everyone can have that career in music. The beauty is that there is still plenty to be had from music when it is an avocation. More and more people seem to be realizing this, and are learning guitar, singing in their church choir, or dusting off that old saxophone and joining a community band.
Third, a certain number of people will never go toward the intellectual undertstanding of music needed to read notation or master an instrument (these are not mutually inclusive, of course). They will continue to be surrounded by music–this apparently doesn’t bother most people the way it bothers me, perhaps because they don’t think about all the music they hear. I, on the other hand, can’t ignore the canned music in the airport, the mall, the restaurant… my intellectual training won’t let me. Those who merely “appreciate” music will be able to do as they have always done, only now with more choices than ever. With a little luck, the difference will be like broadcast TV of the 1970s when compared to cable or satellite TV of the mid-2000s. While I hate to admit it, I think TV has actually gotten better–more varied, more nuanced, perhaps even smarter.
While the record “industry” seems to be in trouble (probably just being superseded the way the sheet music industry was to a large extent after 1930 or so; I would expect that commercial recordings will always be there in some form), I think the real endangered species is silence. Look at the money people pay for quiet cars and noise-cancelling headphones: someone or something is always imposing on the ear. Does that answer the question?