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Wake Up and Smell the Music

Music is central to every single civilization that we know of, with dozens of different uses: there’s religious music, martial music, work songs, play songs. Music is a very powerful force for bonding people together.
–Oliver Sacks

If you walk past a school near my house at the right time on the right day — today at about 4:30 pm, for example — then you will find a man standing on the schoolyard steps playing a small wooden flute. The reedy tones will reach you before you catch sight of the flautist, and the other sounds of the city — news choppers overhead monitoring freeway traffic, the engines of cars roaring down nearby Park Boulevard, dogs barking from behind fences or windows — will fade, if only a little, into the background. The man never has an audience except for the occasional passerby, and he does not seem to desire one; while he will silently acknowledge a wave if one is offered, he is playing for himself, perhaps liking the way the melodies sound in the open air, or appreciating the break from a hectic life at home.

There is music everywhere, for those who wish to hear it. It might be concert violinist Joshua Bell playing for spare change in the Washington D.C. Metro station, as he did in 2007 as part of an experiment for the Washington Post. It might be Wynton Marsalis outside your window playing “When the Saints Go Marching in” as he leads a jazz funeral down your street to the Cotton Club, as happened to me in 2002 after Lionel Hampton died. It might be an unknown busker trying to put together some money for lunch or train fare outside a BART station.

The window is open today
And the air pours in with piano notes
In its skirts, as though to say, “Look, John,
I’ve brought these and these”—that is,
A few Beethovens, some Brahmses,
A few choice Poulenc notes…

— John Ashbery

Often, it will just be a neighbor playing for the sake of playing. Many afternoons towards dusk, a man walks to the pergola at Lake Merritt and plays his saxophone for the setting sun and anyone else who cares to listen. When I lived farther from the lake, off 14th Avenue, a neighbor would sit on his fire escape on warm evenings and play the banjo, with one knee raised to cradle the instrument. In my old building in New York, a soprano on some higher floor would practice scales and arias, her notes tumbling down like falling leaves and slipping in my open windows uninvited.

The desire to create music, and the pleasure to be had from listening to it, may be unique to human beings. There are some people who are left entirely cold by music, including synaesthete Vladimir Nabokov, who wrote that music affected him “merely as an arbitrary succession of more or less irritating sounds” (in one of life’s ironies, his only child became an opera singer). Most people, however, respond to music in a visceral way, dancing along with beats, discovering that catchy melodies routinely make hostages of their brains, or paying more than a day’s wage to squeeze into a room with thousands of strangers to partake of a communal aural experience.

Hey, Mr. Tambourine Man, play a song for me,
I’m not sleepy and there is no place I’m going to.
Hey, My. Tambourine Man, play a song for me,
In the jingle jangle morning I’ll come following you.

–Bob Dylan

You might think, given music’s nearly universal appeal, that we would stop short and take note when we stumble upon someone making music solely for his or her pleasure, and ours. We are very good at tuning things out, however, including tunes themselves, and all too often the music around us barely registers, if at all. So keep your ears open for songs wafting through the air as you go about your life, and when you hear them, go following them sometimes — even if there is someplace you’re going to.