I often find myself in the throes of public transportation: buses from New York to Philadelphia, trains from Long Island to Manhattan, subways from uptown to downtown. And as soon as I board these vehicles and the seemingly endless commute roars into motion, there’s typically one thing I realize I’ve forgotten to bring along: headphones.
It’s at this moment (after a sigh and a tangled mutter of words) that my eardrums seem to tune into the surrounding volume, and I realize that I’ll be required to listen to the humming of the passing conductor, or the cries of a nearby toddler, or the end of a cellphone call from the teenage girl to my left, arguing with her boyfriend about who should hang up first.
This past weekend, while riding the A and L trains across Manhattan, I stumbled upon those little black headphones tucked into the crevices of my bag. After watching the beautiful images of album art dance across the touch screen of my iPhone, I went for my default option when I can’t decide on a starting song: shuffle.
‘Mr. Brightside’ (The Killers) sweeps into my ears as I swipe my Metrocard and walk through the turnstile, as I maneuver the hallway twists and turns while searching for the correct platform, as I bound down the stairs and slide through the closing A train doors. ‘Assassin’ (John Mayer) steadily beats as the train snakes through perpetually dark tunnels, as the people in the seats across from me sway with the motion of the car. ‘Letters from the Sky’ (Civil Twilight) starts up as the doors open to reveal the 8th avenue stop and pounds into it’s climatic beat as I scrunch into the mass of passengers on the L train. ‘Midnight Bottle’ (Colbie Caillat) sneaks into the playlist as the train lurches, causing one passenger to drop their coffee cup, while another snickers at the article he’s reading in the Times. ‘O. Lover’ (Jason Mraz) dances into my ears as I exit the train, right before it makes its way into Brooklyn, and the heated rhythm climbs to a pivotal point as I emerge from the underground, back into the sunlight of a gorgeous Sunday.
Although I’ve realized that life can be much enhanced when moving through with favored lyrics, the discovery of the headphones in my bag is only one part of this post.
I recently started reading Jodi Picoult’s novel SING YOU HOME, in which the main character is a music therapist. While explaining the session route she takes with patients, the following bit of text is written:
“Every life has a soundtrack. There is a tune that makes me think of the summer I spent rubbing baby oil on my stomach in pursuit of the perfect tan. There’s another that reminds me of tagging along with my father on Sunday mornings to pick up the New York Times. There’s the song that reminds me of using fake ID to get into a nightclub; and the one that brings back my cousin Isobel’s sweet sixteen, where I played Seven Minutes in Heaven with a boy whose breath smelled like tomato soup…If you ask me, music is the language of memory…In brains scans, music lights up the medical prefrontal cortex and triggers a memory that starts playing in your mind. All of a sudden you can see a place, a person, an incident. The strongest responses to music–the ones that elicit vivid memories–cause the greatest activity on brain scans.” (5-6)
There was a soundtrack to my Sunday afternoon downtown commute. There is a soundtrack as I type this blog post. There’s a soundtrack for my morning routine, for my long drives back home, for baking cookies late at night and dancing around on the tile floor. There is a song that makes me think of walking into my cousin’s reception as a member of the wedding party. There’s another that reminds me of lying on a bed with my best friend and crying, tears that were formed by equal parts of laughter and sadness. There are the songs that take me back to sitting on brown shag carpeting in my childhood home while cassettes of Pink Floyd and The Who played on my dad’s vintage home audio system; and the all-time treasured one that brings back rides to elementary school with my grandfather, who never let anyone else touch his radio dial.
We all have a soundtrack to our lives, but sometimes the “shuffle” song results are the most memorable. Sometimes they surprise you.