For those of us who can’t afford the luxury of a portable orchestra with an impressive repertoire, I hope most would agree that music is always, always better with headphones. There are variations in style, to be sure: the earbud, the over-ear, on-ear, wraparound, and so on. Yet, regardless of how they are worn, we must admit that pushing music directly into our ears is quite a fantastic experience. Headphones immerse us in the experience of listening. As soon as I slip into mine, the outer world is closed, and I sink into the still waters of one that pools at the back of my mind. Below the surface, I imagine as the music plays.
As a writer, I learned a long time ago that I need music while I work. I can’t resist a soundtrack, I suppose. The genre is mostly irrelevant; the feel of the sound, the colors it suggests, the people it casts as characters—those are the things that lead to my decision. The music comes on, and I’m out of the world that wants me to pay rent and worry about the future and into that Elsewhere where imagination makes those things into shapes—more importantly, though, makes them into stories. And I understand stories.
The story is already there, it seems, suggesting and creating itself in each note. From the first measure, I already know if this will be a tragedy, a romance, an anecdote, or the kind of thoughtful mix of all of these that makes a song arrive in your soul. It is one thing to listen to music as it plays at the coffee shop, from the shower radio, in the oddly acoustic confines of a car, but with headphones, you are surrounded. Each sound— piano keys striking, violins and synthesizer swelling like sunrise, atmosphere swirling around each chord change like mist on stone steps— places me in the center of something larger than I can comprehend. This is where imagination plays, painting cities of clouds and galaxies bending over fields of endless flowers. Lovers, friends, strangers, sometimes even me act through these scenes in stories that I listen to again and again just to see if this time I can understand a little more of what this song is saying.
Today, I’m writing something new. As I sit here in my chair, I find myself listening to music that is rising, full of anticipation, fingers counting time on doorframes, and floodlights flashing up on a dark stage. In these songs, there are slow steps up stairs, maybe a few backward looks and echoes, but this is a beginning. The volume is turned up; maybe I’ll lose doubt inside the decibels and find confidence in those subtle progressions. The headphones direct it all in—no apologies, no distractions—and while I’m here, my life, my own story, makes a little more sense to me.
When I take them off and go back into the sounds of the everyday, I have that satisfying, ear-ringing sensitivity as a reminder that the music is still there. I just have to listen a little more carefully.