Wednesday, 28 July 2010

On Background Noise

Whenever I walk anywhere I'm inclined to take my music with me. This helps avoid boredom and makes time pass quicker. Alas, last night I left my iPod at work and while I realised almost as soon as I left the office, I couldn't be bothered to walk back up five flights of stairs to get it. After a moment of panic, I decided to continue sans Pod. To soldier on. To bravely go where no member of Generation I has been for a long time. To walk - in silence. For the first few minutes I found myself longing for my trusty portable record collection - I missed how the shuffle feature can make me question my own musical taste. I couldn't decide how fast to walk without the tempo of the song 'now playing' dictating my pace [a slow stroll for a ballad, a power walk for anything more upbeat]. My decision to undergo a whole journey without my protective musical bubble was a rather big one. Had I made a mistake? Should I go back?

Then it hit me. I was reacquainted, all of a sudden, with an old friend; Background Noise. I had feared a silent journey; what I got was anything but. I was surrounded by noise; the briefest snippets of other people's conversations, warnings of [the usual] tube delays, car horns, sirens, white noise from other people's headphones [RAGE]. In short, I could actually hear the city around me - nothing out of the ordinary, nothing you wouldn't hear anywhere else, but a world that has become alien to me since the iPod stole my soul - and I enjoyed it. In particular, I enjoyed eavesdropping, despite the fact that the conversations I overheard all revolved around incredibly mundane topics. "I go away for three weeks. Three weeks. And he's hired some fucking clown to be in my team," said one hard-faced old trout. "I just don't get it though, everything was fine last night but today he's acting like such a moron," whined a chavette into her phone. And they weren't all miserable, I promise - I overheard laughing, joking, reminiscing.

It came as a shock after so long lost in my own little world that you can tune into so much if you're nosey enough. I'd obviously never assumed that the world fell silent the moment I put my earphones in and turned up the volume, but I had forgotten what it's like to listen to the world around me. My Pod-less commute reminded me that there's so much happening here, to so many different people in countless different situations, moods and even languages. I couldn't help but feel dwarfed by the immensity of it and confused by the mind-boggling array of options, choices and possibilities.

And so this evening I tried to resist the temptation to immerse myself in music. As a result, I was able to hear the man with the suitcase shout 'WAIT' as he ran for the tube as the doors were closing. Having heard his cry, I could move out of his way in time. While he did manage to get on, there were a few seconds of acute awkwardness as we waited for the doors that had shut on his leg to open again and let the rest of his body, and suitcase, onto the carriage. It was all a bit Sliding Doors now I come to think of it - perhaps ignoring the world around me allows for as many different possibilities as listening to it.


  1. Sometimes I elect to turn the ipod off and it's always a nice, comfortable silence(ish).

  2. It's true, you know? You become unintentionally unaware of the world around you when you have an iPod.

    Don't you find yourself singing in your head over and over again the entire day when you're in an iPod in the morning? I'm kinda like that. So I tried to learn to avoid it. LOL

  3. Last year I traveled to Egypt with a large group of people and purposely left my iPod at home so that I wouldn't miss a thing. I hoped that maybe it would force me to actually talk to other people and pay attention to my surroundings during all the traveling time. I quickly discovered that everyone else on the trip liked to be plugged into their iPods during all the bus rides/train rides/plane trips. It was hard at first not to regret my decision to be unplugged. But as the trip wore on, it was kind of nice. I noticed things other people didn't. I made friends with the bus driver. I had completely bizarre, screenplay-worthy conversations with strangers on planes that I wouldn't have had otherwise. It was kind of liberating not having to keep track of that tiny piece of technology. And every once in awhile, when I really needed a music fix, I borrowed the iPod of my seat partner. This gave me the opportunity to listen to and come to appreciate music I wouldn't have touched with a ten foot pole at the time (she was black and her entire iPod was hip hop/rap).
    Anyway, I'm rambling here, but I totally understand how easy it is to become so dependent on an iPod and how strange/liberating it is to reconnect with the background noise of reality.

  4. Oh - you're so deep! I love eavesdropping on people, but I hate the noise earphones make.

  5. Wow, I so know how that feels. I started using the ipod when I moved to London, and because I can't live without music, I adopted it as my new favourite life companion. I love London more than I can say, and I couldn't believe it when, after moving back to Italy and only getting a chance to visit it every so often as a tourist, I fell in love with it all over again by becoming aware of that background noise I had escaped for so long.

  6. T,

    Let me tell you a secret: sometimes; on trains and trams and subways in Europe* I put my earphones on and 'forget' to turn the music on. It lets me listen in and peer into peoples' lives, their conversations, their soul-baring stories. It makes me feel connected to the world, as though my bubble was bigger than just me.

    *I do it in other places too, of course. Just easier in Europe...not as much chaos and crazy background noise to filter out/ drive you up the wall.

    Also, did you know Rainer Maria Rilke had a word for this? Geräusch. And to quote from this utterly apt article I was reading: "Geräusch, the crackle of the universe, angels dancing in the static." (

  7. @ Adria - this is true, especially if you've gotten used to the music blaring. Makes a nice change!

    @ Gnetch - I was doing that today to M.I.A.'s XXXO. Literally all morning. We had to turn the radio on so I could change the soundtrack in my brain.

    @ Lauren - an Ipodless success story. I love it. I do worry that I'm missing out on exactly that sort of random encounter by wiring myself up. And was that?!

    @ Alexandra - thanks :) I don't think I'm deep though, I think I'm just a bit mad maybe? The earphone noise is among the most irritating thing in the world, I completely agree.

    @ Serena - exactly! It's like another layer to the city that you completely miss if you block it out, things like church bells chiming and the rain hitting the pavement. Where in Italy do you live? *he says in a completely non-stalker-like manner*

    @ Risha - your comments are always such an education. I love them. I do the same thing with the earphones - partly because I'm afraid of irritating people next to me with the white noise, and partly because I'm incredibly nosey :)