I’ll never forget the first time I put on headphones for my CD player. I was in high school and I’m pretty sure the CD was Moulin Rouge, the movie musical with Ewan McGregor and Nicole Kidman.
In all likelihood I was at home in my bedroom and I put on that first track of music and was completely taken away. The world around me disappeared and all I could hear and feel was the sound inside my ears. Later that week, I took my new portable CD player on the marching band bus to our latest band competition, and on the way home, in the dark, as I sat next to a stack of band uniforms, I looked out the window and heard only the sounds of that serenade, Come What May.
It was a brave new world.
Since then, sound has of course come a long way. Headphones are better. Speakers are better. Earbuds became standardized; the Tony Awards started (and stopped (and resumed)) awarding sound designers a category of their own. And along the way, noise-cancelling headphones became mainstream.
I’ve listened to them in passing, of course. At the mall, or at some random Sony or Samsung or Apple store when we are killing time. Even at home, from time to time, my husband has thrown a pair on my head and had me listen to a track he was working on at work.
But oddly enough, I’ve never used them in an environment that really put their sound-proofing quality to the test. Until today. On the way home from dinner tonight, while waiting for the subway, my husband turned to me and asked, “Want to hear something magical?” Of course, who would say no to that?
He opened up his bag and put a pair of new headphones around my ears, and all of the sudden, all of the foot traffic, the squeaky rails, the street drummer’s beats, and the subway announcer faded into nothing. I could hear only the world around me at 10% the volume. I felt like I had been thrust into the middle of Inception the movie and was re-watching myself in a dream. The muffling and silence was luxuriating in the midst of a loud, crowded, and raucous subway car.
A few stops later (after I refused to take off the headphones), I asked him to play me a song. If the quiet reverie wasn’t special enough, the music took it to a whole other level. All at once, I was not only in a world of my own, but floating on another dimension. I haven’t felt that way about an audio listening experience since my very first time listening to music on my very first set of crappy headphones when I was 16 years old.
We have five senses, but the sense of hearing isn’t one we tend to quite as often. It’s often more difficult to tune in to it, or to recognize “good” from “great,” but an all-star listening experience can be just as much of a sensory delighter as tasting an incredible cookie or looking at a beautiful sunset.
After all, it’s not just what you hear, but how you hear it.