Monday, September 2, 2013

Tuning In To The Noise

Today I'd like to share with you an essay I recently wrote. It's a reflection back to my time in New York and my thoughts on the noises and sounds of the city that I so love. A slightly different version was published last week on PolicyMic, which you can find here. I hope you enjoy it!

City-dwellers across the world no longer have to just accept the constant honking of car horns and the screams of ambulance sirens. No longer are we forced to be privy to the personal conversation happening right next to us on the subway. In this age of earbuds and iPods, we can deal with city noises by simply blocking them out. We cultivate our own sound worlds, and we are able to commute and walk and eat and live to the beat of a personalized soundtrack.

In cities today, seeing someone with little white wires leading from their ears to their pocket is just as common as seeing someone wearing black hipster glasses or a scarf on a chilly day, but having the ability to ignore the sounds around us by putting on headphones is a relatively new phenomenon. It certainly can be wonderful to have our music always at our fingertips, and it’s nice to be able to tune in to a favorite album as an alternative to listening to traffic noises. But I believe that if we are constantly closing our ears off to the things happening around us we are missing out on something important. We are missing out on the stuff of real, unadulterated, urban life, and we are denying ourselves the chance to be unexpectedly touched by sound.

When I first moved to New York right after college, I tried listening to music on my morning walk to work and whenever I was taking public transportation. I actually enjoyed the hustle and bustle of the city after living for four years in a fairly quiet, midwestern university town, but it just seemed like the thing to do. A way to stay occupied during the constant walking, traveling, and commuting that you do in cities.

I soon decided, however, that having my headphones in all the time really wasn’t for me.  First of all, there were the safety concerns. Call me neurotic but I wanted to be able to hear  the footsteps of the stranger creeping up behind me. I didn’t want my heels grazed as I walked across Broadway because I couldn’t hear the cab driver’s warning honk. The least I could do as a young woman in the city, I thought, was be aware of my surroundings.

But it was more than that. I also decided (in part, subconsciously) that I was depriving myself by always avoiding the noise around me. I don’t think I knew exactly what I was missing out on, but I remember having the acute feeling that perhaps I shouldn’t block out the world, perhaps I shouldn’t try to cultivate my own personal sound environment. Perhaps I should tune in to the noise.

Free of headphones, I noticed the foreign languages being spoken all around me, sometimes recognizing up to four or five different tongues in a single day. I overheard sweet conversations on the bus, spoken by young children to their moms and dads, little observations that gave me a glimpse of what New York must look like from the eyes of a 3-year-old. Once, I got choked up as I listened to the long-haired guitarist at my subway stop sing words that happened to really speak to me.

One especially poignant experience I had with the sounds of New York took place every time I was in New York’s Port Authority Bus Terminal. If you’ve ever been to Port Authority you know that outside and in, it’s a pretty garish building. It’s modern and ugly and dark. To make things worse, it’s always crowded and full of grumpy, busy people who rose at the crack of dawn and are now running (often into you) to make their connection.

But you know what? Port Authority has a saving grace that consistently made my time there so much more peaceful than I expected it to be: their stereo system plays classical music.

I think the first time I heard it I found it so unusual (most big public places play pop hits) that I assumed it was a one-time thing. Maybe it was a special arts appreciation gesture, I thought. But the next time I was there, as I braced myself and prepared to be stressed and flustered as I made my way to the gate, the sounds of a lovely Mozart piano trio washed over me as soon as I walked in the door. I was yet again pleasantly surprised.

I eventually came to realize that Port Authority Bus Terminal is always playing classical music. And pretty much without fail, I’ve taken note of it and it has made my experience there calmer—at times, even beautiful. As it turns out, there’s something sort of wonderful about listening to music that was written several hundred years ago being piped over loudspeakers as people from all over the world race around and bump into each other and make their way through their busy, 21st-century lives. Had I imagined and assumed the worst, had I put up my defenses and popped in my earbuds before entering the terminal to block out the noise and stress, I’m sure I would have never known this.

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with putting on headphones to kill some time as you wait out a long commute, or to keep you company on the subway after a hard day at work. I just wonder if there’s something to be said for choosing to save the music-listening for home, if there’s something to be said for opening your eyes and ears to the grittiness and the beauty in city life, in the hopes that you’ll experience something unexpected and memorable.


  1. Beautifully said! I've always felt the same way. There's just something natural about being attuned to your environment. It's not always beautiful or exciting and you don't always overhear something interesting, but you always experience *something*--even if it's just pure boredom. I don't think there's anything wrong with experiencing boredom. Boredom might give your mind and soul a rest. Or it might lead your mind to think about those distant family members you're always forgetting to pray for. I love listening to music, but I believe there's a time and place for it, too.

  2. Totally! Love your take on this. You're right, it is "natural" as you say to listen to your environment rather than trying to control it. And I agree that "boredom" or just not thinking too hard about anything can be really healthy.

  3. This is a great piece! I'm often one to try and tune out my surroundings by diving into my own personalized music world. Sometimes it's a blessing to keep the mood upbeat. But there are many times when I find myself blanking as I think about my day and surroundings. Simple questions such as did I close the door to the car or did I say thank you to the person who held the door open for me today; it makes me nervous that I didn't take the time to live in focus and present for the day. A grey reminder that I often should live in the moment no matter what. After all, you can find beauty by being in the moment. I'll remember this essay next time I make a move like that.

    Simply Akshara

  4. Lovely! I couldn't agree more. People may turn off the "noise" of city life but they also turn off social encounters and being able to interact with people. Even if it's just a nod of acknowledgement or a smile because of what you heard. Sometimes I think it's good to be still, too. -So cool to hear that the Port Authority plays classical music!! Wish more venues would add beauty like that.

  5. Thanks Akshara, I think you're right. It's hard to remember to be attentive and polite when we are zoned out listening to music! Great point.

  6. Definitely. I also found that since I was around music ALL day long, I really needed time without music to just listen to whatever was happening around me and be still, as you say.

  7. This post especially resonated with me today, as I spent the long weekend in the city and was immersed in all of those lovely city sounds. A couple of years ago, I used to listen to my iPod when I walked from the metro to my office, but eventually I found that the constant noise, even when it was music that I liked, made me feel more stressed and keyed up. It was too chaotic to have all of those sounds jostling around in my ears, and I've since come to find peace in cultivating my own silence as I absorb the city sounds around me. Sometimes the sound of shoes on pavement or the swish of cars splashing through puddles can be musical, and it's nice to free up my ears to hear it all happen.

  8. I love this, Kate! I've stopped listening to headphones as often as I used to while running. Whether I'm running in the busy city or along the beach, I now appreciate being more present to and aware of my surroundings.

  9. Oh I'm jealous you were in New York. And I really agree with you--it always felt chaotic to me also to listen to headphones while out and about. (Not to mention the logistics...I was always having to juggle a million things like bags and metro cards and phones, and an iPod became a nuisance!)

  10. I'm so glad, Jules. Putting on headphones can definitely be a nice distraction (especially when running, I'm sure) but good for you for taking breaks from it now and then! Plus you live in such a gorgeous area...I imagine it's so peaceful running along the beach in Maine.


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