In audio circles, hi-fi folk often bemoan the decline of critical listening, by which they mean the choice to sit and focus on music, to stop reading, if possible to stop thinking entirely and enter the three-dimensional time portal of music and performance that a good recording can cause to appear before you.
Kids these days, they moan, they have a whole world of music streaming to their phone, they illegally download more albums than we’ll ever own, but it’s all for background — they don’t listen, they don’t focus. How else could it be, when half the time they’re listening on half a pair of white earbuds? 
But I don’t think this is true. Stop a random teenager today and sure, they may already be slightly deaf in one ear (or both), but they’ll happily recite you half a dozen long rap lyrics in something approaching their entirety. Trust me, if you’re of an age where you haven’t indulged in memorising a rap song to the level of reproduction by recitation (I tried recently with Seth Sentry’s excellent ‘Float Away’), it’s on a par with being able to sing along to all of Dylan’s ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ (50 years and I still get tangled up in the third verse somewhere around “Get back / write Braille” — indeed I suspect that Dylan himself was confused when he sang it). 
My point being that no way could they memorise a whole lyric without repeated and focused critical listening — you can bet they know the place of every beat in every bar of the song, too. 
The hi-fi industry’s job is to create a new hi-fi generation by converting that focus into a love of fidelity — better headphones, better wireless speakers, then the power of a full-on audio system. Music has not, sadly, maintained the central role it once had in bedroom budgets, now having to compete with the rise of gaming, of computers in the bedroom (a bad thing, parents tell me), and of course the essential ownership of smart devices. Teenagers heading to college today are more likely to request a Macbook, iPad Air and a PS4 than to ask for the source, amp and speakers that inhabited the coolest digs for my generation of students.
But music has never lost its central role in defining individual and tribal identity, and next time you glance down a line of students waiting for a bus, look how many have chosen to wait within a personal portable world of music (I’m assuming it’s music — they may all be learning a new language or catching up on gardening podcasts, I don’t know). Their eyes are on the floor, semi-glazed as if lost somewhere — the definitive classic look of a critical listener, indeed! So music remains a place to go, a safety zone from physical social interaction. Critical listening is far from dead. People just don’t do it at home so much.
But we should! Endless studies confirm the connection between music and contentedness. At a purely chemical level, music can prompt the brain to release dopamine, rewarding ourselves with temporary happiness. And critical listening plays right into the hot topic of mindfulness (well, it’s hot for those studying brain health, while Buddhists have been banging on about it for millenia). Mindfulness as a specific activity is not so much about simply smelling the roses and dancing in the rain — it describes a specific focus on a particular sense, in order to block and control the negative random thoughts which snowball into the levels of stress suffered by many souls today. 
How to learn mindfulness? An excellent new book by Ruby Wax describes the ideas both accurately and hilariously. Ruby does it sitting on a stool. Buddhists do it cross-legged, with formal meditation on breathing or on a mantra which chases the word-thoughts away. Me, I’d recommend doing it in front of your speakers with a side of your favourite vinyl (I’ll go Zep III) and a glass of your preference. Focus in on the details of each performance — John Bonham has a squeaky bass drum pedal on ‘Since I’ve Been Loving You’. And just relax.
‘Ommm.’ Or something.
Jez Ford,
Editor, Sound+Image