modes of listening 2: the sentimental mode

 

When I was a young boy in the 1950’s and 60’s, my parents, children of the Great Depression, often, perhaps usually, played records from the era of their young adulthood; in their case, the great swing era big bands of Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, and Woody Herman, midcentury torch songs from Peggy Lee and Lena Horne. They would reminisce about the era, and the music would evoke their own, often romantic, memories, along with the broader social upheavals of World War II and the postwar period. I call this mode of listening the sentimental mode, because in this mode the music is situated in a rich network of narrative and emotional memories.  The sentimental mode provides the soundtrack for the most significant moments in our lives, and its no wonder that we encounter many listeners who are satisfied to listen only to this music, so the nostalgia of the past can be preserved and re-experienced. As one ages with music, the cumulative emotional power of the sentimental mode increases, as one compiles more and more memories through our own loves, families, children, and other significant events. The sentimental mode of listening, being so unique personal and bound up in our biographies, eludes an example which appeals to all of us. On the other hand, we have a word for an excess of the sentimental mode; schmalz, a Yiddish term originally referring to rendered chicken fat. Music that is schmalzy or mawkish is vapidly nostalgic, discouraging listening in the additional modes.

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