Why is Music So Intimate?

headphones class

“Do you want to use the classroom speakers?” I ask the student about to use his headphones during classwork.

No longer a student but a deer in the headlights, his first movement is to make a quick sidelong glance at me. He doesn’t say it out loud, but he’s asking if I’m serious…

Quiet classrooms are quite boring. Some people remain convinced that Capital-L Learning can only take place when the audio levels are equivalent to a library housed in a mausoleum, but I need that low-level of background music to muffle the nervous coughs and clacks of the keyboards, or even general levels of conversation about texts and classwork. Why does the best writers always park themselves in busily percolating coffee shops, after all? And I’m sure I’m not the only one. I’m assuming every one of my students plays music during their private study.

For me, however, the actual music that’s playing doesn’t actually matter. In fact, if I recognize the music, it will likely be distracting. I’d rather my subconscious be taken over by the secondhand sounds that float through the room. And because it doesn’t matter, I’ll suggest that some student share their music over the classroom speakers rather than to hear my eclectic internet radio every day.    

So why does Mr. Student not want to share? What is it about his personal playlist that’s so embarrassing? Perhaps there is too many swears? The song has something sexual in nature? Is swearing and sex somehow ok for personal consumption but not public? And if so, then how does it get airplay in the first place? Where is the fine line between private art and public?

And to paraphrase High Fidelity, the 2000 film directed by Stephen Frears, “People everywhere are worried about children playing with guns or watching violent videos, like some culture of violence will take them over, but nobody is worried about kids listening to thousands, literally thousands, of pop songs about… misery.” Or about love, sex, misogyny, rebellion, drug use, or any of the countless other topics expressed through our music, and by extension, embraced by way of our music.

In some ways, creating a playlist is like trying to find resonance with something unexpressed by our own soul, and by sharing it with another, you are sharing in some subconscious way the way you see the world. Is it any wonder then, that the somewhat-forgotten art of making a mix tape has lost its poignance? What an intimate gesture that once was. It’s not quite the same sending a link to a YouTube playlist, or a one-off click on a Like button.

So I applaud the student that speaks up after I catch one deer in the headlights. “I’ll do it!” he gladly offers.

Now, if only I can explain about how mixing audio levels should work…

Room 616, Hellcircle High School


“Virgil, are you sure this is the First Circle? I thought we were descending into Hell?”

“This is actually a shortcut. This hallway intersects pretty much all the Circles, and even Real Life. It’s quite accessible, in fact. Most people find themselves in here at some point in their lives without ever noticing it.”

“It looks like a high school hallway,” Dante said, observing the hand-painted banner with thick tempura block letters announcing the upcoming Halloween-o-Grams sale.

“Exactly.” Virgil looked into room 616 and saw the gaunt faces of withdrawn, disengaged Sophomores. “Poor motherfuckers. Pardon my Italian.”

Virgil opened the door and motioned for Dante to follow. They could cut their journey even more short by crossing the room through the far door, where some student work still haunted the faded blue bulletin board, mournfully displaying a study unit that no one would remember.

As Dante and his guide passed rows of students sitting dutifully, if a bit lackadaisical, at their desks, one of the living dead students raised his hand. Without really looking directly at Dante, he asked, “Do we really have to do this?”

“Uhm, yes?” Dante guessed.

“UGH!” the student raised his chest with the whine, in order to dramatically flop forward over his desk. Rolling over to his left, he remained laying prone on his arm while still trying to make marks on the worksheet with a pencil with his right.

Dante glanced over at Virgil, who waved a hand to give Dante some silent permission to continue. Dante then took the worksheet away from the student, who sighed again, then sat back up. His pencil continued to work as if writing automatically, but with nothing else to scribble on but the desktop, it began to make an edgy, chickenscratch representation of a penis.

Looking over the worksheet, it seemed to just require some basic repetition. “Well,” Dante said, “why don’t you just tell me the answers out loud, instead. If you finish your busy work, you can be excused, right?”

“Fine, whatever.”

Dante considered the paper before him. “Okay. Uh, ‘Emperor Justinian displayed a virtue of ambition but failed to also display the virtue of’ … what?”

The student blew a sigh through pursed lips, attempted a thought, and looked suddenly as if he were pricked by a needle. “Ah,” he trailed off, then quickly said, as if it were one word, “I dunno.”

Virgil shrugged, indicating it was just as expected. Dante was incredulous. “Well, it’s obvious he does know. It just might take him a bit of time to answer.”

“It’s time no one wants to spend,” Virgil said. “Much easier to just say ‘I dunno.'”

The student rolled his head to the side, his neck clearly deficient from centuries of desk-made posture. “Ugh. Just tell me. I say ‘I dunno’ and you tell me.” Then he added, as if to assure Dante and make everything okay: “I’ll write it down.”

“So you just want to fill out this worksheet?” Dante handed it back.

“It’s fine, whatever. I’ll even wait until a few minutes before it’s due and still turn it in on time, okay?”

“Well, it would be better if you actually learn it.”

“How am I supposed to get points that way?”

Virgil motioned to Dante; it was a lost soul. “C’mon. Let’s get out of here.”

“Can’t we take them with us? There’s nothing really keeping them here, right?”

“Nothing substantial. It’s more one of those ‘hell-of-your-own-making’ kind of things.”

Dante lowered himself to look at the student. “Come with us. Do you really need to finish this?”

The student blinked, but did manage to look at Dante for the first time. “Is this not going to be on the test?”

Dante considered, “Well, maybe. But also maybe one test won’t matter. As long as you’re learning stuff, I mean.”

The student looked pained once again. “Ooh, I don’t know. I’m getting a 94 percent right now. So a test would be pretty important.”

Dante stood back up. “Oh my God,” he said, but Virgil shushed that kind of talk.

The student took up the worksheet again, laying his head back on his left arm as usual. “I have to do good. I’m a good person. I need to get a good job someday.”

Dante threw his hands out. “Those things aren’t even related! I mean … any of those things!”

Virgil had to put his arms around Dante and try to lead him to the door. “Some people get it; some people never leave here.” Then he observed, “Beyond ourselves we hope our meaning be laid / But what be meaning without weight or grade?”

“Where is the teacher?” Dante realized.

“Oh, there’s a whole ‘nother circle for them. Right near Sisyphus. Come on, I’ll show you.”

“Wait! How much is this worth?!” the student cried out, as Virgil and Dante slipped out the door.

The Same Typical High School Musings That Everyone Has Ever

highschoolmusing I’m sitting in the classroom; the bell’s about to ring.
I know what the teacher’s going to say; the agenda’s on the board.
The perfect paragraph form, the ratio of force and acceleration,
Bacterial walls, project your voice, don’t read from the PowerPoint.
Use the Scientific Method even though even that may not be found in the real world.
If it were recess for me, I could be outside with the third grade.

Instead of an agenda, why not have a giant rock fall from the sky riddled with answers to what I really need to know?
Please, Sky Rock. Solve for x, find the thesis, and conclude a p value of statistical certainty.
There are too many apps, too many episodes, too many things to clean, not enough free time for any of that.

And while you’re at it Sky Rock, the what about the extra credit that’s not on the test but makes my grade?
What should I have for lunch? Will I ever find true love?
What should I do with my life? Do I want kids or not?
Is there really purpose to it all?
Thanks, Srock.
I can’t think, myself.
Apps, episodes.

All those are first, second, third thoughts. Final and fourth, forget it.
What would I really do with that? How relaxing would it really be?
If I would no longer worry about deep human thoughts, would I merely be no longer deep, or would I no longer be … something more fundamental?

So fifthly and first again. I will think. Can’t help it. They will swirl around my head, lingering like some bad secondhand smoke just faintly tainting the air, without really being able to do anything about it.

Besides, the bell’s about to ring.
And I have to teach the class soon; I put the agenda on the board.

CREDITS:  http://images.google.com/hosted/life/dd74dc67436ed1b9.html 
Photographer Peter Stackpole; Actress Elizabeth Taylor, 18, (Feb. 27), at graduation time, posing at desk in classroom at Hollywood’s University High School. 19 Jan 1950