Dear Bass Boy,
I didn’t notice them at first, the strains of bass filtering through the ceiling, not realizing that my suite came with its own background music. It wasn’t long until I realized you were there. It always happened as I was going to bed. I would be curled up in bed at around one o’clock, about to fall asleep, and I would hear intermittent rumbling descending from the ceiling. After a while, I began to recognize the songs. One night, it wasn’t just you, Bass Boy; there were more instruments, and singing! Bass Boy had a band. I didn’t always notice when you played, but I know it happened often. That’s not to say that the music was a nuisance. It certainly wasn’t bad. Your music wasn’t always welcome, but it often lulled me to sleep. But after two semesters, it has brought unexpected revelations about how I experience music.
The way we listen to music has fundamentally changed in the era of music streaming. I can listen to any song I want whenever I want from my computer, and I can also stop listening to it whenever I want. We are losing the experience of being exposed to music that we know nothing about– no name, no artist, no context. When live music was the only option, every song was unknown, a mystery to be uncovered with opening notes. Rite of Spring could not have started a riot if the crowd expected what was to come. The shock of hearing it without expectations created the mass frenzy that followed. In the same way, Tchaikovsky’s cannons shocked his audience when they fired in the 1812 overture.
When radio dominated, the mystery lingered, with listeners having no idea what song would come next. Now, we have so much control. We can pick all our music, curate any playlist to our liking, and easily find the name of almost any song. Then we can listen to it at any time, for very little money, without needing the leisure time or money to see it live. Listening to music without knowing anything about it eliminates that control. We can no longer detach music from the context of its creation. It is impossible to enjoy music without thinking about it, but now, with all the information that is available, it is not possible to escape the context. Hearing music without preconceived notions about it, the reason for its existence, or the context in which it was created allows us to assign personal meaning to it, uninfluenced by outside information, letting the music speak by itself. An artist attaches their identity to their music and has personal intentions when they create it, but familiarity with them changes how they reach the listener. I’ve often found that knowing the context makes the music better in some ways. I love learning why someone chose to create a piece I love. But there is value in listening without context and I don’t know if I would have found it if I had never heard yours. I’ve never heard your music outside of my room, never made an effort to figure out who you are or what kind of music your band makes. That would ruin the mystery.
Most of the music we listen to is invited in some way. When someone goes to a concert, they are consenting to being exposed to something that might be unfamiliar. And with websites that list setlists and apps like Shazam, that can identify any song from a few notes, no song is a mystery even if it wants to be. The only times when we are exposed to music we don’t choose are in public spaces—a coffee shop with the radio playing, or walking by a busker on the street. In public, we expect to hear music that isn’t invited, so we are prepared, but in a private space like a bedroom, it is not invited, nor is it always welcome. A dorm is a private space, for both of us. As I didn’t expect to hear your music, Bass Boy, you don’t know who’s hearing your music. I’m sure the music I’m hearing is not the finished version, but the hundreds of practice sessions that build up to the final product.
The same song could be experienced in different ways: carefully selected by the listener, surrounding the listener in a public space, and an invasion into a private space. Each invites a different perception of the song. A well-liked song heard unexpectedly is like seeing a friend out of nowhere. In a private space, unexpected music can take on an almost ethereal quality, like the background music to my own movie. Yet, characters in movies don’t traditionally hear the background music.
I don’t know who you are and you know even less about me. I know you play the bass and are in a band, what building you live in, and that you go to sleep late. And I know you make good music. I like knowing the context in which music that I enjoy was created, the intentions and history surrounding it. But I’m grateful to have the the chance to experience music without that information, without any context at all. Though what I’ve heard is certainly not the finished product, it is unlikely I’ll ever experience music the way I experience yours again. To me, the music is both your creation and your identity. I know so little about you that the music must speak for you.