One of my favorite things to do is to sit outside with my golden retriever, Leroy, beside me and just listen to music, and enjoy being out in the elements with my loyal canine within arm’s reach.
I’ll usually wear headphones. Not ear buds, mind you. Headphones. You old-school, vinyl-loving aficionados know what I’m talking about. Not those flimsy things you put in your ear that fall out if a cricket farts in the wrong direction. I’m talking about the ones that form a cushion around your ear to seal in the sonic goodness being emitted from whatever device I happen to be using at the time, usually my iPhone if I’m sitting outside with Leroy.
There is something distinctly different listening to music not just on different devices — whether it be a digital device, a vinyl record player, cassette player, CD player, etc. — but also with certain types of aural equipment. Devices, in my definition, which fit in or around the ear. I hate ear buds. If you’ve ever used them, no explanation is needed. If you’ve never worn a pair, I encourage you to experience their underwhelming nature and failure to capture any aural meaningfulness to convince yourself they are the devil. When your ear is engulfed in the cushiony softness of a quality headphone, the music takes on the quality it was meant to have. The music seems to be transmitted straight from instrument into your ear hole.
Speaking of ear hole, let’s examine this incredible structure for a second, shall we? Sound is essentially “collected” by the outer ear, or auricle. You know, that thing that sticks out from the side of your head, which in some people can be so pronounced as to elicit intolerable nicknames in one’s formative years. At any rate, your auricle funnels sound down your auditory canal to “impact” on your eardrum. The eardrum is a thin membrane that vibrates because of this “impact.” This vibration is then transmitted to your three ossicles, some of the tiniest bones in our body, which then transmit the sound to your inner ear, which is composed of many “parts” and a couple of “organs” that are important to balance and hearing. These organs are made up of hair cells that vibrate to the sound (or position of our body in the case of balance) transmitted through your ear and hearing apparatus described above. These hair cells are then connected by neurons (nerves) to the hearing center of our brain, which allows us to sense the intricacies of the sound being listened to (or tell us our position in space as it pertains to balance). It’s quite a sophisticated system, and one I would hate to lose. Imagine the isolation of complete silence, or a complete lack of equilibrium.
Tonight as I sit with Leroy by my side listening to some John Fahey and Daniel Bachman on my headphones, I’m reminded of that precious sense we share in our ability to hear. What sets us as humans apart from most other animals is that we can impart an emotion to it. That’s not to say other animals don’t experience an emotional response to music, but we, as humans, can impart multiple emotional and conceptual layers of complexity far above any other creature in existence. Everyone has their preference of listening apparatuses. I just like to have a decent music source and headphones. You could throw in optimal type of device, preamplifier, amplifier and speaker or specific set of headphones and I wouldn’t fault you. If you’ve got those things, knock yourself out, but I can get what I need with a good set of headphones and a decent source, primarily a digital device or vinyl record player. Like I said, it’s essentially going from the instrument to your ear hole.
Now, I know that you’re thinking: What about the recording equipment? Yes, yes, I’m aware that the music being emitted from the instrument in the recording environment is going through any number of recording devices and even being manipulated in some instances. That is an argument for another day. What I’m referring to is the finished musical product going from the musical listening device straight to your ear hole. Live music is an entirely different beast and enjoyed in a completely different frame of mind, so we need not go there either.
For me, it’s not specifically about the genre of music, because I like everything from primitive gospel to blues to rock ‘n’ roll to punk and new wave to pop to country to however else you want to classify music. In my mind, there is only “good music” and “bad music” and “never the twain shall meet,” as they say. I know there are varying degrees of goodness and badness, but if you are an individual listener, either you like the music or you don’t. What you think of as “good” you will listen to and, conversely, what you deem “bad” you will not listen to. That’s not to say either category is any less valid, only that you like what you like.
For me, it’s sitting outside, dog in tow, preferably at night with a slight breeze, with a set of good headphones on, listening to Bessie Smith or Charlie Patton or Miles Davis or Mississippi John Hurt or The Doors or Neil Young or Joy Division or The Cure or Firehose or Mule or Daniel Bachman or Alabama Shakes or Shakey Graves or William Tyler or Hiss Golden Messenger or … hell, I could go on and on, but that would be rude of me and cause uncontrollable yawning. If you ever want to sit down and listen to some music, give me and Leroy a holler.
Ashley Coleman is a physician who lives in Jackson, Alabama, and knows a good bit about music the anatomy of the ear.