27 Mar The Music in My Head

I solved a musical mystery today. The mystery was this: every time I visited a certain bathroom at my place of work, I would leave humming Black Cow by Steely Dan. About the third time it happened, I stopped dead in my tracks and said, What the hell? If it weren’t so funny, it might have freaked me out. When it kept happening, I figured it was just me, not the mystery bathroom. For some reason known only to the deepest recesses of my psyche, that bathroom was always going to be my Steely Dan Black Cow trigger. But this morning I was in this same bathroom and then, when I reached for the automatic paper towel dispenser, I heard it: the dispenser whined the first two notes of Black Cow’s distinctive opening.

I was relieved about this (no pun). I like to know where my music comes from. My head is always filled with music. I mean, I have a sound track playing all the time. And it’s a good one, though limited to the music I’ve heard most often. Although I don’t have perfect pitch, I have a sharp ear for sounds and, as a result, I hear tunes exactly as they sound on the radio or an MP3 player. This may explain why I don’t walk around listening to an MP3 player.

In elementary school music class, which met once a week, I was made aware of my sensitivity to sound when we were told to listen to recorded instruments and guess what they were. After our initial introduction to each instrument — everything from oboe to mouth harp — I never guessed wrong. Even when listening to a symphony, I could pick out which instrument was playing each part. Had I been given some encouragement, I might have played an instrument other than the drums. But our music teacher, the notorious child-hating Mr. Harvey, encouraged nobody to do anything.

My head is full of hymns too. These are Protestant hymns from my childhood. They come to me unbidden and, really, I don’t mind them. One from my recent playlist is “My Father’s World.” Its lyrics are fitted to a traditional English tune. The age of the tune probably accounts for its strength. Here’s a traditional example, if you care to listen. And here’s Christian pop star Amy Grant’s version.

I have long assumed that everybody has a non-stop music player in his or her head. But is this true? Maybe you have something different. I can’t really turn mine off. It’s just there, ever playing. I can change the selection but not always, like the other day when the Bee Gees’ “You Should Be Dancing” was stuck in there for too long. Sometimes I have to give in and sing the song — loudly. The good thing is that I can update my selections. One of my favorite fairly recent additions is Nada Surf’s “Always Love.”

I should add that my internal player is no match for the real thing. By “real,” I mean full spectrum sound that comes from a CD on a good stereo system. I recall the days when my friends and I would simply sit for hours and listen to music on the stereo. It was our work, actually — what you were supposed to do as a teenager. I’m not sure what youngsters do nowadays. That is, I don’t imagine they gather to listen to music like this because nowadays each is in his or her own pod. Is that a good thing?

My parents didn’t listen to music, though my mother played piano and has a lovely singing voice. I got the impression that, once you were a grown-up, you were supposed to give up music. We Baby Boomers defide that rule. I still buy CDs to support the bands I like. And I compress them for portable play too, though I don’t like the MP3 format. I’m happy to say that, when I’m listening to music outside my head, the player inside goes silent.