Sounds and Silence: Listening (Alone)

My brother recently posted about many of the advantages of playing music on a record player instead of one of the many other forms available. Among those he listed that you have probably heard before is that vinyl records provide a superior sound quality to ever other form. Now, that may sound pretentious and it may remind you of many a record store denizen who looks down his nose at the kids buying Lady Gaga CDs, but the fact is that analog recordings are superior in many ways as long as the playback device is of high enough quality to allow the listener to tell the difference.

Beautiful, sexy curves

Beautiful, sexy curves

The problem is that most modern audio recordings have been done through digital equipment which means that the advantage of the analog playback is lost. See. digital transformation reduces the curvature of sound waves to a series of smaller right angles (to simplify the idea a bit). So, while most of the material is preserved, it is a lower quality copy of the real sound. When digital playback is looped through analog forms, the separation from the original sound is even more severe.

My brother is right that the sound should be better, but for a lot of recordings in the 1990’s it just doesn’t matter. Where my brother really hits the nail on the head (or, let’s say he drops the nail in the groove) is his focus on the communal aspect of music listening and the nearly ritualistic process of using a record. I want to hit each of these in turn.

The reason vinylphiles often annoy people is that they too often affect the same sense of superiority that you may get from jazz afficionados. But, especially when they are young, they can seem like strange anachronisms, longing for something that was obsolete before they were even born.

Yeah, this one is a little too obvious

Now, all of this sounds like I am dissing my brother, but the fact is that he is right about the fact that you get more from listening to music with people–you participate in an experience that creates a shared presence and shared memory for the future, a moment that unites two or more people in something however briefly bigger than either alone. You learn from watching others react. You hear different things when you hear them with others.

This may seem strange as hell, but it will make sense shortly

My brother also rightly points out that the process of using a record slows down the experience of a music and forces you to value it more. And he couldn’t be more correct–the digital age has killed the album, made song lists and mix tapes way too easy and, ultimately, has made popular music more ephemeral and disposable than it ever was before.

EmpireStrikesThe only thing I can say that my brother has missed is that the ritual and the communal nature of the record was also a part of what used to make radio so attractive as well. Even though there are only seven years between us, my brother did not grow up in a house (1) without cable or (2) with a record player as a primary means of entertainment. So, he is romantic about the record player as an object of already anachronistic nostalgia. I remember it from childhood.

Before my brother was born and soon thereafter we would regularly borrow albums from the local library. In those halcyon days, we listened to disney albums because there was no such thing as a VCR. I keenly remember listening to The Jungle Book over and over again. When the visual and aural coincide, the visual always dominates. When we deprive our senses, we are forced to use the others more keenly.

Another one of my favorite records was the album of Robin Hood. I remember listening to both whenever my mother surrendered control and relented from a rotation of Kenny Rogers and Neil Diamond albums.

But one of my strongest memories of this period is of waiting to listen to the radio play of Empire Strikes Back. I remember the dark wood and yellow wall paper of our first home, along with the smell of woodsmoke. Listening to the story of the movie required my imagination and fired my passion for the story more than any number of toys, advertisements or repeated watchings of the films ever could.

When I tell students about this memory, they look at me as if I were born three generations ago instead of three decades. The truth is that I hold this memory and this experience precious because I wasn’t ‘corrupted’ by cable television and video games, because my parents made music a ritualistic and imaginative experience, and because my serendipitous birth in between eras has allowed me to enjoy the best of both.

And I am thankful to my brother for making me remember it.

What about you, my brother? Do you remember when our parents game home unexpectedly with the Sony CD player for the first time?

10 comments on “Sounds and Silence: Listening (Alone)

  1. Madison says:

    Hi! You have a really great site! I’m glad to have stumbled upon it! I’m trying to find an email address to contact you on to ask if you would please consider adding a link. Thanks and have a great day!

      • theyoungerj says:

        I vaguely remember a Laser Disk of Star Wars coming home, but do not remember the Jungle Book. I see what you are saying about both the sound waves and how I don’t even remember when records were the predominant form of audio entertainment. I do have War of the Worlds somewhere ad Phil Lynott from Thin Lizzy as a character, I will have to dig it up.

      • theelderj says:

        Laser Disk? What does god need with a starship!

        I wasn’t trying to mock your vinyl-philia, it just made me think so strongly of a time when vinyl was the only thing…and, it also made me think about the distinct differences between our experiences growing up.

      • theyoungerj says:

        I just read in my ed lit book about kids born after 1990 have a completely different interaction with technology than I do being born in 1985. I have students that never even saw the 90’s.

      • theelderj says:

        See, cognitive difference! We grew up without screens in front of us 95% of the time. This affects how brains work.

  2. T.A. Gerolami says:

    I recall when my brother’s album of James Bond songs, various Muppets and Sesame Street records and a set of “sounds of sci-fi” records were prime ways to recall movies (and the John Denver/Muppets Christmas special) before we had a VCR, not to mention those little Disney records that came with a booklet of the movie. I had tons of those. I can also remember my brother using a tape recorder to tape the sound of movies while they were on TV so he could listen to them later. To his frustration, his little tapes often featured my father and I prominently talking over his movies, but I think he successfully taped Flash Gordon and used the tape to recall the movie for years (it wasn’t available on VHS for a long time and it was only rarely shown on TV).

    Speaking of radio shows forcing you to use your imagination-my brother had multiple records of “scary” stories when I was little. Just thinking of “The Golden Arm” still gives me a few goosebumps, though I know it is basically a cheap set up for a jump scare. Later he got into old radio shows, and thus I got into them, and the best (and only the best) really make excellent use of the imagination effect. I’ve taken to listening to them again on my commute back and forth to work and there were several times I recall driving home from my evening shift, held in great suspense as I awaited the final twist or horrible ending to a horror tale. They used to play the Mercury Theater’s version of the Christmas Carol on Christmas morning around 5am when I delivered papers, and that one was just as effective as the horror tales at really conjuring up a place in your mind’s eye.

    • theelderj says:

      Man, those are some great memories. I especially love the idea of your brother audio-recording Flash Gordon. That seems insane by today’s standards, right?

      I think that since we as humans are so visually oriented, the oral-tale is so much more challenging and dynamic. For this reason I do keep listening to audio books to replicate that experience I am so nostalgic for.

      But I worry about my children. Is there any way to give them even roughly similar experiences?

      • T.A. Gerolami says:

        It was pretty insane then! It never worked because how do you get your 4-5 year old brother to shut up!

        I do listen to audio books, and like them, but for some reason I always gravitate back to old radio shows. I think I tell myself it’s because they were meant to be listened to, while a lot of modern books weren’t necessarily meant to be read aloud, but that’s dumb on many levels. I think I just like the radio shows and that’s a good time to listen. 🙂

        I think every generation is going to have different nostalgic cultural touchstones. I mean, my siblings remember going to the drive-in to watch movies; I don’t, and we’re only 5 and 7 years apart. My parents, when those same radio shows come up, their experience with them was always different…the deep kind of nostalgia people our age reserve for things like music videos on MTV being all MTV did.

        Some of it is a function of what you grew up with, though. Old black and white movies and, say, John Ford Westerns give me fits of nostalgia that a lot of people my age don’t get, because I watched those with my parents. BVH, meanwhile, waxes nostalgic over musicals, because in her family people sang the songs, and played the music, and watched the movies. I think the experiences parents provide can be just as powerful as the ones from the culture around them.

        So I think if you are reading to them, and playing them these things, at least some of it will stick. Maybe not all of it, but a lot of it.

  3. […] we grow old, the truth is that ‘home‘ is a shifting concept, a moving notion. The ‘home’ I long for really […]

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