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Is TV soundtracking our age of distraction?

Paolo Pietropaolo

We live in an age of distraction.

We’re always looking at one screen or another — in our hands, on our laps, or illuminating our faces from a desktop. Our screens hold us captive, and it must be said: we seem like willing captives.

Our thumbs scroll down, looking for the next perfect distraction that will give us that little jolt of dopamine that neuroscientists tell us we crave. We watch shows on streaming services, serial shows that keep us hanging, and when one episode is over, it’s all too easy to just start watching the next one.

There’s a new kind of music that perfectly captures this, our age of distraction. You hear it on TV shows: music like the theme for The Crown.

Or Game of Thrones.

Or Downton Abbey.

It’s music that, by the nature of its harmonies, pulls you along. It tells you something is going to happen, just you wait, oh yes it will. And with its slowly unfolding rhythmic repetitions, it has a kind of momentum that gets you to lean forward a little bit in your seat.

But ironically, the singular characteristic of this kind of music is that, because the harmonies are set up to keep on cycling, it doesn’t end up going anywhere. It could just keep going forever, like a Facebook feed or a Twitter feed. Theoretically, you could scroll down until the end of time.

Like social media, it has a built-in contradiction: it keeps you hooked, but it never gives you the resolution you’re looking for. You keep wanting more.

This style has its roots in the minimalism of composers like Steve Reich and Philip Glass, but it’s less frenetic and more aimless.

Let’s call it meanderism: meditative minimalism for the age of distraction.

I don’t know if music really can capture the essence of its times, but it does feel as though this endlessly meandering style is a musical manifestation of our plugged-in but zoned-out society.

I’m not saying this to disparage meanderism. There’s a lot to like about it, and it obviously holds deep appeal. Two of its main proponents are composers Ludovico Einaudi and Max Richter, both among the most-streamed classical artists worldwide.

But sometimes, like when I’ve unwittingly lost myself in a social media vortex, the music leaves me feeling just a little bit empty.

How does it make you feel?

Tune in to CBC Music's In Concert on Feb. 18 from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. (11:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. NT). Host Pietropaolo will turn the spotlight on the popular ensemble La Pieta led by Angele Dubeau with a concert of music by Vivaldi, Saint-Saëns, Einaudi, Richter and Glass.

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