The story of Austin Chapman provides an awesome basis for discussion. If you haven’t seen this, take two minutes to read it before going on:
Being able to hear music for the first time ever.
Let me give you a glimpse of the deaf world. With his old hearing aids in, Chapman could hear some sounds. His telling suggests that his pitch range was something like the lowest 40% of a normal person’s. Below, I’ve given you clips of two songs you probably know, but in each one the upper 60% of the range is cut out† for the first 30 seconds and returns for the next 30 seconds.
Pretty wild, huh? I can’t give you the experience of being deaf, but hopefully that lends some perspective.
So when Chapman’s new hearing aids opened his ears, he started exploring. Close friends chaperoned his early exposure, and then it was off to the races as the entire internet was called in for an emergency consultation: I can hear music for the first time ever, what should I listen to?
Let’s jump in here. The Redditors’ suggestions, to my mind, fall broadly into three categories.
- The historical approach. Though none of the top comments provides a lengthy list of songs as a year-by-year guide, the basic idea of “Introducing an Alien to the music of Earth” clearly caught Chapman’s attention.
- The stylistic approach. Spread all the genres out on a buffet line and sample a little bit of everything, then come back for more of the tastiest bits.
- The absolutist approach. This song, this album, this genre, is music. Whatever else you do, listen to this.
The merits of (1) are obvious. It’s a simple idea that opens up an everlasting pathway. Easily grasped, the guiding principle provides for a Tour de Musique that is guaranteed to provide as much academic interest as aural enjoyment.
Method (2) attacks from a different angle, as if responding to a separate prompt altogether. Chapman ought to pursue (1) if he wants to know about music and (2) if he wants to find a kind of music he likes best. So what is his goal?
“I’m asking you to give me the name of the most beautiful songs to you.”
As useful as (1) and (2) will surely be for Chapman, and as much as (3) leads to a motley hit-or-miss assortment of unqualified recommendations, at least (3) is on topic!
But seriously, all three approaches have benefits and there’s no sense in really criticizing any of them—de gustibus non est disputandum. What I will offer is a caveat on crowdsourcing music recommendations from a particular community: diversity will be limited!
Despite outliers with their own concepts of what counts as music, the most frequent and most upvoted offerings are predominantly classic rock, post-rock, and classical composition. More than half of it is what I’d call “long attention span” music, not because you can’t put it on in the background, but because it doesn’t hit you early and often with hooks and sing-along choruses. This seems silly to me because of the first thing Chapman says in his article:
“My whole life I’ve seen hearing people make a fool of themselves singing their favorite song or gyrating on the dance floor.”
What image does this conjure up in your head? You and your sorority sisters cutting loose to Shostakovich’s 5th symphony? That awesome Thursday-night karaoke place that has the entire Explosions in the Sky back catalogue in stock?
Or is it the road trip you spent yelling Kelly Clarkson out the window, your family crooning along with Garth Brooks, and the crowd on fire at the Lil Jon concert?
Granted, Chapman’s parents’ generation has made fools of themselves screaming and “gyrating” to the Rolling Stones, and sometimes we all have; but the lack of modern pop, country, and hip hop is misrepresentative. Most of America‡ grew up without deafness, has had access to all kinds of music, and has settled on all that popular “junk” (if that’s what you’d call it) as what they like to listen to. That’s meaningful! I’d be quicker to say that it’s all worth trying than that everybody who listens to hit radio is dumb.
Another consideration getting overlooked is the importance of personal experience. The music we love is so often tied to people we share it with or memories it recalls. Consider Chapman’s initial list of favorites: three of them have deep significance for him uniquely. The most accurate (but least helpful) response he could’ve received is something like, “Wait and see what songs happen to be playing at the most important times in your life!”
Now, if I can squeeze in a quick comment that deserves many pages of elaboration, it’s clear that Chapman can’t and won’t listen to every song suggested to him. Even though I was never deaf, the same applies to me and to you. Nobody can hear everything! Armchair philosophers may need to contemplate how the universal obligation to be selective should influence how they go about selecting and come to terms with their inability to examine the entire field. Those less moved to deep thought can carry on and enjoy themselves.
Oh, and Chapman? Word of warning: all your music comes from recommendations you found on the internet, and there’s no Top 40 in your Top 5. You’ve only been able to hear music for a month and you’re already a hipster.
†I’m ballparking human hearing as spanning 20 Hz to 20 kHz, and on a log scale that puts the 40% mark at about 317 Hz. On a linear scale it’s more like 8 kHz, but testing suggested to me that this is probably not what was meant. For these files, I applied a low-pass filter at 317 Hz with a 48-dB-per-octave rolloff—which is magically easy to do with Audacity. Pick up the free software or something similar if you want to play around on your own.
‡I recognize that there’s a cultural world outside of America, but I’m more sure that Chapman is a native of this country than I am that he’s a native of the Reddit community, so I’m more comfortable forcing him into the former box than the latter.