The Sound-Centric Individual


I mean something altogether basic and elemental: the pleasure some receive from the raptures of music or the sounds of the human voice.

One way to grasp the increased importance of auditory content in the lives of Americans is to appreciate the huge numbers who could be fairly called sound centric. This inexact but suggestive characterization represents a mixture of individuals on life different paths who are consistently driven to find fulfillment in the creation or consumption of auditory media: mostly music, but not exclusively so. With podcasts and portable music so ubiquitous, there is some truth to Amazon’s marketing slogan for its audiobook division:“Listening Is The New Reading.”

We could generate some faux psychological metrics to try to explain this tendency. But there are some advantages in not placing so valuable a human asset in the hands of clinicians and the inevitable reductive theories of neurology. I mean something altogether more basic and elemental: the pleasure a person receives from the raptures of music or the sounds of the human voice. If you find yourself usually waking up in the morning with an “ear worm” of a song heard the previous day, you may share this trait.

These individuals are spread across the population.  In the past, sound archivists like Tony Schwartz, reveled in the recorded voices of his family and the myriad noises of the city. The portable tape recorder was Schwartz’ talisman. What he was able to capture gave significance to everything he encountered. When it first came into exist, he notes, tape-recorded “sound made me feel much closer when I heard it than a black and white still photo [of my family] did.”  His 30,000 recordings of moments from everyday life are now housed in the Library of Congress. He was not unlike folklorists Chris Strachwitz, Allen Lomax and Moses Asch. All used their resources to record indigenous folk and roots music mostly beyond the interest of bigger record labels. Asch’s Folkways Records became its own Smithsonian library.

In 2017 Americans in the aggregate listened to music over 32 hours a week.

Their affinities for recorded sound were not so different from the DJ and writer Jonathan Schwartz, who remembers his earlier years assessing every moment through music, including future partners. He played his records and they listened. “I was wooing, working, waiting. I was presenting myself in the music. That is who I am. I am those songs, those string quartets, I am Nelson Riddle’s muted trumpet.” Nor was Schwartz much different than the music obsessives represented by the erstwhile record store employees in Nick Hornby’s popular novel, High Fidelity.  They were only slightly less exotic versions of the opera-lover in Fitzcarraldo (1982), Werner Herzog’s epic film documents the story of a plantation owner intent on building an opera house in the Peruvian jungle, dragging a steamship over a mountain as part of the plan. Actor Klaus Kinski’s co-star is a Victrola scratching its way through a stack of Caruso recordings: a case of common sense overtaken by inexorable passion.

According to the market-analysis firm Nielsen, in 2017 Americans in the aggregate listened to just music over 32 hours a week, with more each year curating their own playlists of favorites. The trade publication Billboard estimates that 125 million are paying for at least one music streaming service that can be customized to a person’s preferences. To be sure, not everyone represented in these large numbers is sound-centric. But the enthusiasm represented by the term is one that many Americans can recognize in themselves or others.