Local Current Blog

Learning—and relearning—how to listen

Hymie's Vintage Records in Minneapolis. Photo by Jennifer Simonson/MPR.

At some point every day, when I stop for a moment between refreshing my Twitter feed, checking my Facebook messages, answering emails, typing up blog posts, sifting through CDs, and otherwise toggling through all the little tasks that add up to my weird life, I’ll look around and realize that, while I’ve been sitting at my desk with my headphones plugged in and the foam covering my ears, no actual sound is coming out.

Maybe I will have just finished watching a YouTube video and haven’t bothered to cue up any other audio, or maybe it’s been 45 minutes or longer since I started a new album on Spotify or clicked onto somebody’s SoundCloud page. Regardless, there I am again: sitting in silence and blissing out on the sweet, muffled stillness that fills my ears before I remember to press play again.

In jazz, there’s an old adage that claims that it’s the notes that you don’t play that make the difference. And after studying jazz for a few years, I have absolutely found that old saying to be true. When soloing, there is a temptation to pack as many notes as possible into a passage and shred through scales and arpeggios, but a melody without any space between different ideas can seem blurry and dizzying.

I think the same is true for all of the other sources of stimulation that we encounter on a day-to-day basis. In these constantly plugged in and pinging times, it’s rare that an hour goes by without some new notification demanding our attention. What is this onslaught of information, opinions, news, media, and flashing pixels doing to our poor brains? And more specifically, how is it affecting the way we digest and enjoy music?

A few weeks back I wrote about how so much of the rock and pop that’s championed these days seems to be rooted in the past, and that the general lack of any forward-thinking or subversive sounds has been boring me to tears. What interested me the most out of all the thoughtful comments I received on that post (who even knew that was still possible?) was the notion that maybe the musical trends aren’t the problem. Maybe we’re so overrun with all of the different artists, downloads, and fresh tracks at our fingertips that we can’t even make out the trees in the middle of all this forest.

“I think what it all comes down to is paralysis caused by choice,” wrote one commenter who went by the name Nate. “We’re inundated by ‘new.'”

To be honest, it’s difficult for me to untangle the time when I started listening to more music for “work” as part of my budding career as a music journalist from the period where we were collectively inundated with more music thanks to the internet. These two phenomena seemed to grab ahold of me around the same time, and sent me on a downward spiral of anxiety, oversaturation, and ennui. At the end of each calendar year, I’m perennially inundated by demands to list all of my favorite albums and make definitive claims about the music that has been released in the previous 12 months. But how could I—no, how can anyone—listen to enough music in a year to proclaim anything the “best”?

Hence the retreat back into my cone of silence, where the headphones play only white noise. There is something so comforting about this space in between the notes; the pause before the next big idea, the moments of solitude where we gather up our thoughts. It’s occurred to me recently that maybe the disconnect I’m feeling between the music I love and the life I’m swimming through is that I’m not doing all that good of a job at actually listening. Which is why I think I relish seeing a live show so much more than I do hearing a new record—and why I’ve gotten into the habit of buying all of the albums I love most on vinyl, that old-fashioned excuse to just sit around and flip records and think about music above anything else.

These are trying times: emotionally wrought, divisive, wounded, frantic. Maybe what we need the most isn’t yet another thing to add to the din. Maybe what we need to do now is relearn what it means to hold still and listen.

  • Matthew Knudson

    Thank you for this.