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…