A World of Speculation

I just took a One-Minute Vacation in Jalisco, Mexico. It was fun. I had never been that far into Mexico before, and a couple of guys were playing marimba in the marketplace, with people walking by talking Spanish, and I could almost smell the wares of the food vendors, feel the sweat streaking down my back and see the lacy shadows thrown by the palm trees.

But I don’t want to talk about Mexico. I want to talk about earphones.

What a different experience it is hearing things with stereo headphones from hearing them coming from ordinary speakers, whether I’m listening to a recorded book or music, or a mixture of music and texture such as movie or the one-minute vacation.

With headphones, the sounds seem to come from inside my own head. By contrast, I was listening to a CD this evening as I cleared the kitchen for dinner. The speakers were in the other room, and although I could hear well, the sound seemed more distant than the speakers, as if it wasn’t quite my sound (again, not ownership but relationship). The music was so outside that I had a hard time focusing on it.

Maybe that’s what the rock concert sound techs are aiming for when they turn the volume so high that the audience’s ribs vibrate and what the headache-mobile drivers are aiming for when they set their entire vehicles to buzzing. They’re trying to bring the music inside.

But even though my bones aren’t vibrating as I listen to Avishai Cohen’s disc Unity, as I am this evening, The headphones locates the drums in the back of my head, the piano in my right ear, the guitar in my left, with the sax coming in on the left, the trumpet on the right. Listening is as intimate as if all the musicians have gathered in my brain for a musical dream.

By day, I work in a pod of six people, and our desks are side by side in two rows. It’s a cubicle alternative, and it’s a good arrangement for people who need to work together a lot. But (here’s the relevant part) aside from two who have the concentration powers to shut everything out (and who sit in the front two desks (coincidence?), we use headphones to create cubicles. If others are conversing, and I need to focus, out come the headphones and on goes the radio. In fact, I bring out my headphones first thing in the morning, and put them on and take them off all day. We slip into our musical cubicles, and sometimes we have to wave or “Yoo hoo!” or throw a ball of paper to get someone’s attention.

The point? I know what I’ve gained–an experience of the music so intense that it seems a part of me, an auditory privacy, mood manipulation. As much as I appreciate these things, I wonder what I’ve lost, both by the presence of so much recorded music and by being able to bring it inside myself and myself inside it.

It’s like electric light. We don’t know how dark the nights can be as long as the stars are hidden by the street lights. Of course, I appreciate the hours added to my day and the additional safety of the well-lighted street. But I can go weeks without seeing the stars, and we’ve lost much of our sense that the world is a dangerous place, without, possibly, in the long run having lost the danger.

Similarly, before recordings, music would have been something people made, not just listened to. The quality would have been less polished, but people would have appreciate its presence more. There would have been more participation in music, too. Once upon a time, you didn’t have to be a pro to sing a song. Now you’re distinctly odd if you sing in any venue where anyone else can hear you.

Waiting at a bus stop once, I saw two teen-aged girls coming down the street singing.They stopped after a few bars, giggling and self-conscious and embarrassed at singing in public.

Something lost, something gained. It’s easy to appreciate the gain, but the losses are often much harder to know.