How Do You Listen to Music?

Ransom Riggs

When was the last time you sat down in front of a stereo -- especially a real stereo, not just an iPod dock with the speakers six inches apart -- and did nothing but listen to music? When was the last time that a song was your sole focus -- the main event? I started thinking about this on a flight across the country yesterday, on one of the few airlines that don't put a video screen in the back of every headrest. It was just me, my five square feet of thrombosis-inducing personal space, and my iPod, and for the first time in a long time I just closed my eyes and gave all my concentration to music. Listening to songs I'd heard a hundred times before, I kept hearing subtleties, quiet lyrics and background sounds and unusual harmonies, that I had never noticed before. And I thought: this is fun. Why don't I do this anymore?

I think it's because the place of music in our lives has shifted. Purists might argue that music's been demoted -- these days, music always seems to play second fiddle to some other activity: exercising, driving, eating in a restaurant, hanging out at a party. Music's become an accompaniment, a background filler. A way to kill silence. The strongest evidence for this might be the devices we use consume it: no longer the fussy stereo systems of the past, once the centerpiece of any home entertainment system, sales of which have been in decline for years. Music is no longer allowed to be stationary, to fill a single room only. We want it inside our heads -- which is essentially where earbuds put it -- and we don't seem to mind much the loss of sound quality that comes with that, or with the generally inferior format most of us have adopted, the MP3, which turns the bassy parts into mud and the brassy clash of a cymbal into a sibilant mess.

I guess what I'm arguing is this: we still love music, just not the way we used to. What do you think?