The personal computer. The cell phone. The Internet. These are some of the inventions of the past fifty years that have changed our lives in major ways. Almost as important, at least for me, has been the personal music player. Since Sony’s Walkman came out in 1979, it’s been possible to take our music with us and listen to it anywhere without bothering other people. Having a symphony orchestra with me whenever I want it is an accomplishment that would have astounded the people of Haydn’s time as much as any other modern technology.
When I listen to music, I focus on it. I can’t do other tasks requiring much mental effort and pay attention to music at the same time. While I often sit down and just listen to CDs, it makes me restless. I can walk around or drive in light traffic while listening, though, and the music often adds to and colors my experience. The general mood of a piece is one part of it, but it goes beyond that. When you’re looking for it, it’s remarkable how often significant thematic shifts and returns in a piece coincide with transitions in your surroundings; or maybe it’s the music that helps me to notice the significance of details. Listening to “The Blue Danube” in Mine Falls Park can’t turn the Nashua River into the Danube, but it makes the experience stand out more, including the ducks. (Warner Brothers cartoon fans will understand the last point.) A good piece of music progresses in a definite way and gives a sense of progression to whatever activity it goes with. Some pieces, such as “Bénédiction de Dieu dans la Solitude,” just seem made for walking through quiet places, even though that was impossible for Liszt.
A side benefit is the almost complete disappearance of the “boom boxes” that were once painfully prevalent. People can now deafen just themselves and leave others mostly undisturbed (though I still shudder when I can heard someone’s headphones from five feet away). Spock knew how to deal with those boxes and the people who played them at top volume.
Today I can carry hours and hours of music around in my pocket and pick what I want to hear for the occasion. I thank all the engineers who developed these devices, from the Walkman to the iPod and beyond.