Everyone I know uses music differently.

I can think of the friend who is focused, who cannot do anything but listen. They need all their attention to be on the lyrics and how it sounds, possibly laying still in bed with their eyes closed, paralyzed, absorbing every single detail and appreciating it all.

This astounds me.

The other friends, they will listen while doing homework or working. They’re always filling up empty space by occupying their ears and burning through what seems to be the required listening for the month. Keeping up to date with culture and ambiently consuming what they find whether they like it or not. I’ve done the same, but not recently.

Through the last three summers, I noticed a shift within myself. I was no longer actively seeking out new releases, or paying much mind to how the present culture sounds. Instead, I found music that decorated my present. With headphones in, the world I saw was also what I heard. Music evokes, and it only makes sense to pair it with your immediate surroundings. For sounds from the ’80s post punk scene (artists like the Au Pairs, Maximum Joy, ESG, Delta 5) there were midnight bike rides, racing through the bright fluorescent lights of the medical complex, a constructed paranoia coursing through my veins. For modern Americana, (Waxahatchee, Faye Webster, Arthur Russell) there were the quick trips through idyllic neighborhood streets. These lived-in corridors guided me toward the small parks filled with life: the life of the dog walkers chasing after a still-attached leash, their pet running to greet the small children playing pretend away from chattering parents, dragging a knobby stick twice their height in the dirt of the unused baseball diamond. Each and every one is absorbed by their own problems, their own life.

In the moment, a song can enhance your emotions and your hope that where you find yourself and what you find yourself doing is exactly what is supposed to be. Through your own eyes, you can look at your surroundings much like a painting. You are aestheticizing your perception, and therefore appreciating the beauty inherent in each aspect of your sphere. Art is often just representing that which exists already, so why not just feel the original?

Again, music lends itself nicely to viewing your life as a movie — the requisite soundtrack residing in our heads. One could suppose that the biggest shift in our collective perception was when we were able to bring music with us (the boombox, the headphones, etc.). These technologies lifted us from unfettered reality, perpetually preoccupying one of our senses with something unreal — the aural equivalent of VR goggles. We live with an augmentation of our experiences that is taken for granted. In the distant past, we solely had conversation to drown out the deadening silence of our rooms, or in nature, the vague sounds that lay in our distant periphery. But conversation is still part of our physical environment. The people talking and being talked to are right there with you. It just acts like music in that it allows us to neglect fully accepting the sensory tutelage nature constantly extends. 

Music, experienced in a space as insular as headphones, deceives us. It fills our head with an individualistic outlook, giving the feeling of superiority over our surroundings, allowing the mind to fester in its ideations of a larger narrative we are fated to fulfill. The complexity of this expands with the time spent in this state, while in reality trapped in the form of fable. Life spent speculating in the realm of the unreal will never accomplish what it invents, because life remains physically unlived.

I’ve been guilty of these “transgressions.” I’ve always been a daydreamer through and through, escaping life in the face of any sort of boredom. And while what I’ve written above seemingly makes the act of simply listening to music a crime, that’s not what I believe. We all wade through time anyway we can, so as long as what we do fulfills us, there’s only one question that matters.

Why not?

Daily Arts Writer Vivian Istomin can be reached at

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