#148: Too much music
On unmuting the world
I remember the first time I consciously experienced main character syndrome. I was walking through the quad of my high school with the new portable CD player I’d gotten for Christmas. I’d figured out how to store it in my backpack and snake my headphone cord through the front zipper pocket, and this unobtrusiveness, combined with the now-silent scene of my peers milling around me, gave my music the feeling of a soundtrack. I pretended I was in a movie, and suddenly I felt more beautiful and important, like the dramas of my life might interest other people, even strangers. The mundane was immediately rendered magical, and every glance became heavy with meaning. This was nothing like listening to music in the car with my family, or in my room. Right then I was in public, but somehow also in private, and that contradiction felt euphoric.
Following that awakening, there was a long stretch of my life during which I believed almost every scenario could be made better—more special, more charged—by music. Showering, studying, driving, partying, cooking, cleaning, walking to class, making out. Technology, of course, had an enabling effect: from CD players to iPods to iPhones, to streaming anything, anywhere, any time, it became easier and easier to soundtrack my existence. I don’t think I had a single sexual encounter in college without some stupid song playing in the background. I made sure of this in a semi-maniacal fashion, as if hooking up in silence might reveal how little I cared to be there. (Drunkenness played a similar role.) It wasn’t until my mid-twenties that I realized my fixation with using music to cultivate a mood could be construed as a form of hiding, or avoidance. I tried to get more comfortable with silence. Years later, I’m only a little better at it.
I think of this obsession as vibe-engineering, and I suspect modern culture is addicted to it, too. There’s the near-ubiquity of wearing headphones in public now, and the Spotify playlists to accommodate every scenario: “intimate dinner party,” “songs to sing in the shower,” “sad girl starter pack.” Most on-screen entertainment, whether scripted or unscripted, scarcely features an un-scored scene anymore; it’s mostly music from title card to credits. Meanwhile, social media takes this tool to its logical extreme. It’s genuinely difficult to find a video that isn’t set to music these days: your friend’s reel of their trip to Italy, a tour of a remodeled house, a celebrity interview, a tutorial about how to cut an onion. Sometimes I’d really like to hear the sound of the knife slicing through the onion on the wooden cutting board, but it’s always muted. The whole world seems to be muted these days, then set to music.
When I watched Tár a few months ago, the first thing I noticed was how unusually quiet it was. Particularly in the opening scenes, when Cate Blanchett’s character Lydia Tár is having long, drawn-out conversations with only realistic background murmurs. The editing feels all but absent. The dialogue is full of pauses, pleasantries, and asides. Almost none of the fat was trimmed. These choices gave the scenes an eerie sense of realism. They felt cold and withdrawn, like Tár herself. A little boring, too. The rest of the movie’s score was similarly restrained, lending the diegetic orchestral music its memorable impact. I wasn’t obsessed with Tár, but I loved this aspect of it. It’s the same rare quality that drew me to Phantom Thread and Portrait of a Lady on Fire, both filled with pin-dropping tension.
In an interview with Tár’s sound designer Todd Field, writer Zach Schonfeld tells him: “When I saw Tár at an AMC multiplex, the sound design was so quiet that I could hear explosion sounds coming from whatever movie was playing next door.” Field replies: “It would have been absurd to underscore someone’s life who makes music for a living. People have done it recently in several films. But I don’t know why one would do that. It seems like a gigantic missed opportunity because the interesting part, for me, in someone’s life, are the in-between places. And if they’re making music, then the in-between places become really important.”
Music is one of the better parts of being alive, I still believe that. It has a fascinating power to set a mood, corral attention, and create or deepen meaning. But I think we underestimate, in our unbridled infatuation with it, the value of other sounds, and other types of presence. There’s a certain godliness to soundscapes that occur organically, and the meanings they convey. In a 2019 essay by Drew Austin called “Always In,” he writes that headphones encourage us to withdraw from these sounds, and thus retreat from public life. “Though the AirPod experience appears strictly solitary and a matter of personal choice, the headphones in fact reshape social behavior for everyone around them, whether those others have their own pair or not,” he writes. “In other words, AirPods have externalities—penalizing non-wearers while confining the value they generate to their individual users.” This reinforces the idea that we find meaning only as isolated individuals, rather than as a collective in a shared space.
What do we lose when we lose shared sound? In a book titled The Soundscape (1977) by the composer and environmentalist Raymond Schafer, he describes two types of communal sounds: keynotes and soundmarks. Keynote sounds “are those created by [a place’s] geography and climate: water, wind, forests, plains, birds, insects and animals.” He writes that these sounds outline the character of the people living among them. In fact, they may imprint so deeply on those people “that life without them would be sensed as a distinct impoverishment.” A soundmark, meanwhile, “refers to a community sound which is unique or possesses qualities which make it specially regarded or noticed by the people in that community.” I think similar terms can apply to all kinds of environments: kitchens, homes, classrooms. It’s easy to understand why we might block out these quotidian soundscapes in favor of brain-tickling melodies, but a little harder to imagine what we lose when we do.
The Soundscape was recommended to me by Avi’s cousin Soumya, who is fascinated by how the Walkman forever changed our relationship to ambiance. He’s a physicist who recently did an art installation using the medium of soundwaves. His goal with the installation was to remove all visual stimuli and encourage people to tap into their other senses. He thinks we over-rely on what we see, happily replacing the sounds around us with whatever we’d prefer to hear at a given time. In the book, Schafer writes that it wasn’t until the Renaissance and the advent of the printing press that the eye was considered “the most important gatherer of information.” Up to then, hearing was more vital. “It was not until the Renaissance that God became portraiture,” he writes. “Previously he had been conceived as sound or vibration.”
Just the other day while walking to the train, I heard the church bells on Throop Avenue ring out across the neighborhood. Without my headphones blocking them out, I felt so grateful for those bells, for their indiscriminate generosity and flamboyant way of keeping time for all of us. A soundmark of a city. They gave me an immediate sense of calm and place—not as an individual, but as a participant. I’m not a Christian or a churchgoer, but right then I almost believed. “Public space in the physical world can be a source of a sense of freedom and serendipity,” Drew Austin writes, “a place where self-interest can be subordinated to other social interests.” Private soundtracks draw us away from that.
In the same way headphones rob us of a sense, I think music itself—for all its depth, vitality, and ability to bring us together—can have a displacing effect. We may use it to distract ourselves or manufacture the ideal mood or vibe, but we can only do those things by overriding naturally-occurring phenomena: the thoughts, moods, or vibes we’d otherwise experience organically. There’s a hedonism to this instinct, and a hubris. Who’s to say we always know what we need to hear or feel? Or that we should always be in control of that? If we weren’t the main characters, and our days were nothing like the movies, I think it’s worth considering what would give our lives meaning anyway.
My favorite article I read last week was “Generation Connie,” by Connie Wang for The New York Times, about all the Asian girls named after the news anchor Connie Chung in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Made me cry in the end! (You might remember I had Connie on my podcast in 2021. I’m excited to read her new memoir Oh My Mother!)
Last Friday’s 15 things also included my favorite place to buy dresses, a party idea, the chore I finally tackled after two years, and more. The rec of the week was great cafes around New York for doing laptop work. I’m going to make a map!
Hope you have a nice Sunday,