Why Everyday Sounds Drive Musicians Completely Insane

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A vacuum cleaner in the hallway, television set on in the next room, music playing too loudly in a restaurant, even someone having a conversation behind you while walking in the street.

Nothing gets to a musician more than sound. They hear it all, and it annoys the shit out of them. They try to describe this annoyance to other people, but they don’t really understand, nor should they.

That’s because musicians and people who work with music are trained to hear sounds that ordinary people cannot. Not only do they hear the sound, they also hear specific frequencies; at a granular level, this is like Superman staring at every single thing with x-ray vision. Lastly, they are hearing things within a field of sound — that is, the totality of all sounds in a given location at any period of time.

Musicians aren’t just hearing one thing. They are hearing everything.

It’s very hard to live a normal life like this, and to the laymen, it can appear that the average musician, DJ, producer or sound engineer is a madman. But they are not mad. They are just different. One could even call them special.

The thing is, musicians and people whose ears are trained this way are merely trying to get along well in a world in which natural sounds — or in cities, I should say, unnatural sounds — are rarely in harmony. Basically, the sounds that exist in every day life, the melody and harmony and rhythm of the natural world, does not mix well. It’s like someone singing bad karaoke, drunk and out of tune, all the damn time.

For example, there can be sounds in the lower register, like a car engine revving after a red light turns green. Then sounds in the higher register, like say the beep of an emergency vehicle backing up. And then there are tons of sounds in the middle, like perhaps a loud conversation happening a few feet away from you. Add to that the sound of your own breathing, or whatever it is you’re doing, and you have a really bad mix on your hands.

None of these sounds traditionally belong together, which I guess you could say is a byproduct of industrialization, where all these disparate sounds are slammed together rather haphazardly. But a musician, their approach, typically, is to make sure things aren’t discordant, as the nature of most music is to not have it sound like nails on a chalkboard. Again, the ears are trained for this. They can hear things that do not belong — whether it’s an accompanying instrument not tuned correctly, a wrong note being hit, someone playing too loudly, or rhythm being incorrect.

On a personal level, lately I’ve taken to wearing earplugs. Small and replaceable, I wear them pretty much anywhere I know there is going to be a lot of loud sound. In Manhattan, that’s basically everywhere. Where they get the most usage, however, is in the gym. Now, most people listen to music or watch television in the gym, but sometimes I want to work out in silence, the exercise itself being a state of zen. But I can’t do that, because the gym I go to — a CRUNCH GYM (yes, I’m naming names here) — plays the worst music imaginable, at levels that I’m sure even Helen Keller could hear. And even if they did not, there are still weights hitting the floor, people on their phones, others gabbing their damn heads off on the treadmill.

I know this sounds crazy. You probably think I should just stay inside (not bad advice). But I think it’s the temperament of most artists, not just musicians, that they experience things with a heightened sense of awareness. They see, hear and feel things unlike the average person. There is no sound that they do not hear rather intensely, no wind they do feel rather passionately, and no sunset they do not see rather romantically. Everything hits them, and hits them hard as fuck.

So the next time you see your musician friend cringing, just know they are merely struggling with how to deal with the real world, which to them likely makes no sense at all. They are not mad, not losing their mind. Every sound is merely jumping out at them at once, and their only reaction is wanting to mute or manipulate them all, mixing and EQ’ing along the way, like faders on a mixing board.

get in touch paulcantor@gmail.com

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Wrote for the New York Times, New York Magazine, Esquire, Rolling Stone, Vice, Fader, Vibe, XXL, MTV News, many other places.

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