Very soon after I acquired my first iPod, back in 2005, I realized that I’d unwittingly given my life a soundtrack. I had long ago discarded the practice of carrying around a Walkman, I had never bought a Discman, and my cellphone at the time could barely make calls, let alone juggle playlists. So the iPod was my reintroduction, after a decade, to having music with me wherever I was. What made the experience even more novel was that I’d bought a Shuffle. If my life was a film, I’d hired Fate as a music director, given her a large stash of songs, and asked her to surprise me.
24x7: Music at your fingertips.
The argument against perennially listening to music—in doctors’ waiting rooms, or in buses or autorickshaws, or at work—has it that the habit diminishes the music, and that we appreciate and understand the music less. Perhaps this is true. But my defence would point to how this can weave the music more tightly into your life than sitting in a sterile music room or a concert hall ever could. Suddenly your music is accompanying a situation, adjusting a mood, binding to an emotion, gilding a moment.
As a result, my music plays itself to me within context, bringing with it the memory of the time and place when I most memorably heard it. I remember a Sanjay Subrahmanyan concert, for instance, because it had started to play just as I was leaving to attend a class, and because I had decided to skip the class and listen to the concert, basking in the joy of stolen time. I remember a song in Amritavarshini, the raga that is supposed to produce rain, because every time it played during my first summer in Delhi, I would play it back at least three times in succession out of heat-induced despair. I remember Lalgudi Jayaraman playing the raga Shanmukhapriya as my father drove me to the airport for an early morning flight, the violin’s sound deep and sad, probably reflecting my own sense of melancholy about leaving home.
My most remarkable example, however, isn’t from the Carnatic world. Last summer, I was standing in a New York subway station, a little tense about the meeting ahead, waiting for a train. The platform was nearly empty, so when a busker struck up The Beatles’ With a Little Help from My Friends on his guitar, the notes sounded forlorn, evaporating into the tunnel.
But then a group of school students clattered down the stairs and moved almost magnetically towards the busker. Until the train came, they stood around him, humming along under their breath like a small, shy chorus. The busker, energized, now really started to throw himself into the song, so it was a shame that when he’d got to “Would you believe in love at first sight”, the train rolled in and I had to get on. The doors closed, shutting out the music. I dug out my Shuffle and plugged its earphones into my head. And like one of those scenes in the movies where an actor’s rendition of a song gives way to the swelling original on the soundtrack, the Shuffle began its uncanny choice: With a Little Help from My Friends.
Write to Samanth Subramanian at firstname.lastname@example.org