Perhaps I am a crotchety old man.
On my way home, I observed a young, fashionable woman speedily walking to her apartment. I had an urge to call out to her, but social decency told me not to.
What’s the hurry?
I don’t know her business, and for her privacy maybe it’s best that I don’t, but her pace left me curious. Then I noticed she was wearing headphones – white Apple-style ear buds, and I became annoyed. Why did this annoy me? What business is it of mine if she walks around listening to music or not, and why should I care?
I used to own a portable CD player before music existed in mp3 form, and I would take that everywhere and constantly listen to music wherever I was, cycling through the five or six CDs I happened to own. Then one day, I stopped. It no longer became important to me to be constantly listening to music. In fact, now looking back, the prospect of constantly listening to music is irritating. Somehow, to me, constant music defeats the purpose of music.
I am not the authority on proper listening, nor am I of the position to judge other people for their approach to music (but I will anyway). To me, music is a discourse or a narrative. It is not a distraction. When I listen to music, I want to listen to the themes and harmonies and how they interact and challenge each other throughout the course of an abstract story told through pure emotion harnessed by sound. Good music deserves my attention and my deliberation, and I have neither the time nor the emotional energy to dedicate myself to it all day…
…which is unfortunate, because I have to listen to it all day. It’s everywhere constantly. It’s in the gym, it’s in the grocery store, it’s playing out of people’s cars… when I’m driving with someone I have to listen to it on peskily low volumes, and when I see people all around me with headphones, it just reminds me of our society-wide saturation with music. This saturation, wrongfully or justly, I see as a devaluation of the musical experience.
Imagine this: you live in a pre-recording society. There are no records, there are no speakers. You have two options for music: play it yourself, or listen to someone else play it, so really you spend your daily existence not listening to anything, ever (except on rare occasion). This void of music, which would seem uncomfortable to us, is business as usual. It’s how things are.
You’ve been hearing good things about this guy named Beethoven, so one day, because you’re wealthy and able, you decide to attend a performance of his Ninth Symphony. Suddenly, out of your existence of silence, your eternal void, you hear the universe assemble, and out of the assembling universe, you hear an earth-shattering pounding that brings you to the creation of man, and with the creation of man comes the creation of anger and fury. And now that you know anger and fury, you experience beauty, and now that you’ve experienced beauty, you can experience Joy. It’s a sublime joy unlike any you’ve ever heard.
And you will never hear it again. The concert is over. There is no recording. You fall back into the lifetime of silence from which you crawled. Only the memory of it will exist, and it will leave you in tears when you think about it’s unbearable beauty, because all you know now is an empty void. In your mind, you recreate the experience; you hum the melodies to your friends because they want to hear it, and they will treasure your hum.
Think about how much spiritual power there must’ve been behind church hymns if that was all you heard for the week.
Music is everywhere now, and we are numb to it. Yes, we enjoy it, and we are moved by it at select moments with specific works, but on the whole, we wear it like it’s just another piece of jewelry.
Noise is everywhere too. Take a moment to listen. Do you hear a refrigerator? How about air conditioning? Maybe the high-pitched hum of electricity? Birds chirping outside? Surely your computer is buzzing.
Let me rewind to the moments after my annoyance with the fast-paced woman: I am approaching my apartment. A truck downshifts behind me. A leaf blower roars to my left. My thoughts are drowning. My footsteps are being reduced, soon to be lost in the noise. Are they actually happening? I take my house keys out of my pocket, and they don’t make a sound. I can see them and I can feel them, but there is no jingle, as if an illusion in a bad dream.
I was being deprived of the sensations surrounding my existence. Was I breathing?
Noise causes you to lose yourself – to gradually disappear.
The eeriest sensation about being isolated in the desert is the silence. I choose the desert because forest trees still howl in the wind, and oceans still roar. In deserts, you only hear the wind against your own ears. The sound of your footstep against the rocky ground is a deafening crunch. The words you quietly utter can be heard for miles. The sound of your breath fills your head. Your smallest actions gain weight, meaning, consequence. You hear yourself. You feel yourself. You are aware of yourself.
Silence allows you to become intimate with yourself.