That Which Cannot Be Avoided

“[B]y playing loud, fast music, patrons talked less, consumed more and left quickly […] When the bar’s music was 72 decibels, people ordered an average of 2.6 drinks and took 14.5 minutes to finish one. But when the volume was turned up to 88 decibels, customers ordered an average of 3.4 drinks and took 11.5 minutes to finish each one.”

—Cara Buckley, “Working or Playing Indoors, New Yorkers Face an Unabated RoarNew York Times, July 19, 2012.

Everyone knows that there are few things that I enjoy more than subjecting myself to a new experience, particularly a music-related one. I use the word “subjecting” with intent here, but also somewhat carefully since I know that for some people it will seem like a strange word choice.

As I’ve stated before, for me, listening is an act of submission; it’s about tuning myself out in order to experience something else on its own terms to the best of my ability. So that means turning off my own conversation. (As a blabbermouth child, this was a painfully difficult lesson for me to learn, but I eventually did and I’m troubled that some people nowadays seem to think this is not a skill everyone necessarily needs to acquire. I think not being able to stop talking bodes ill for a democratic society.) Perhaps as importantly, it means turning off my own inner thoughts. (This is still a struggle for the very reasons that one commenter opined about last week; I’ve constantly got my own music running through my head, especially when I’m in the middle of a composition.) More important than either, I think, is turning off your preconceptions and the inevitable judgments they induce. So often I find I’m not really listening to something if I carry any preconceived baggage about what it is, could be, or should be. Rather, I’m listening to myself. I still don’t think I’m always able to effectively channel out these preconceptions as much as I want to; it’s a lifelong project.

All that said, I want to make it clear that this “act of submission” cannot be a selfless one; it requires a desire to do so. Listening is ultimately an act of willful submission. It’s voluntary; if it’s involuntary, it doesn’t really work. I also realize that music surrounds us in so many contexts that it is impossible to pay undivided attention to all of it.

Case in point, the other night my wife Trudy and I were eating in one of the restaurants in our neighborhood. There was a live musician there. This is something I’m extremely in favor of as a matter of principle—any opportunity for people to be able to express themselves in a creative way and, one would, hope be remunerated for their efforts, is an inherently good thing. And I was happy to listen to him, to a point (not my ideal focused listening, since I wanted to engage in some dinner conversation and of course needed to communicate with waiters, etc., during the performer’s set). We sat as far away from him as we possibly could so as not to disturb him. As luck had it, however, I couldn’t possibly have disturbed him because he was so heavily amplified that I was barely able to hear myself speak, so I know he couldn’t possibly have heard me. When he was done with his set, the pre-recorded background music was cranked up even louder than he was. Not only was I unable to hear myself talk; I really couldn’t hear myself think, either. Yet, surprisingly, despite my total immersion (albeit unwillingly) in the music emanating from that restaurant, I can’t remember anything I heard that night. This is ambient music with a vengeance—foregrounded ambience. Its goal is not to get you to pay attention to it, but for you not to be able to pay attention to anything else. Much as I love the food at this place, I’m not eager to return.

According to the New York Times report I cited at the onset of these paragraphs, many bars, restaurants, and clothing stores maintain speaker volumes that are louder than power mowers or oncoming trains. It is potentially causing irreversible hearing loss to the people who work in these environments and can cause collateral damage to patrons. I’m also concerned that it is also reducing our ability to actually listen in a meaningful way.

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