Why Not Listen to Everything?

I have been haunted for 15 years by these words: "Very often if I was given the choice of listening to a piece of music I really liked or listening to nothing at all, I would choose nothing at all. ... These days I don't listen to a lot of music, and I find a lot of pleasure in no music. There's a kind of silence and just hearing some conversation from outside, or hearing a police car in the distance, just these fragments of daily life are very poetic and very peaceful somehow."

They were spoken by Britisher David Toop (footnote 1), confirmed music-head, someone who has spent his life playing, listening to, and writing about music. Why would a person who amassed such a dragon's hoard of obscure releases that a documentary was made about it—who tried to listen to every darn thing ever recorded—at the end of the day prefer regular sounds that would not even fit the dictionary definition of music? I could see no possibility of ever coming around to his point of view, or ever wanting to, but Toop's words stayed with me, like a riddle I could neither solve nor forget.

Music is how I navigated life. I approached each album as a privileged view inside another person's mind. What had they learned, what had they seen, that I had not? I would be hijacked by a song, a band, an obscure subgenre, by the sound of a Hammond organ pouring like rainbow velvet magma out of a station wagon driven by an uncle. Looking back, my 30-year path seems clear enough: from Top 40 pop to grunge to indie rock to post rock. To IDM to anything electronic. To ambient, to the fringe of musique concrete, to questioning what music even is. To an empty field, a stainless steel mixing bowl accidentally struck while making breakfast, ringing like a temple bell. To the woods, an autumn beach, not worrying anymore but psyche dissolving in raw sound.

I swam toward the deep end, sinking into the most bizarre and powerful records and assembling an increasingly esoteric vinyl-based apparatus with which to hear them. But as my hi-fi system became more lifelike, as it became better at doing what a hi-fi system is intended to do, I was pulled away from it, as if caught in an alien tractor beam, toward real-life sound. Instead of being inspired to go see and hear live music, I was inspired to sit in city parks and listen to breezes rustling tree leaves, a crow, the unique Doppler-effect signature of each passing car. In comparison to the wide-open expanse of unrestricted bandwidth that is an outdoor soundscape, my precisely positioned boutique speakers started to sound canned and tinny.

I fought the process. I couldn't just sit in my living room with the window open on a quiet morning and lose myself in the gentle squeal of a garbage truck's brakes as my obsessively curated records sat unplayed in my dedicated, acoustically treated basement listening room—could I? Yet here it was, all around me, full-spectrum, 360° immersive surround sound, utterly real, more analog than analog, more fi than hi-fi, occurring in this precise way for a single moment then disappearing utterly. The perfect sounds I had been seeking were already there, more compelling than the painstakingly arranged and recorded music in my collection, the guitar players and singers and drummers so eager to showcase their talents, their songs heavily laden with human intent.

One afternoon, after I came to a stop in a parking lot, I cracked the car window and heard a hip-hop song from across the pavement, low-pass filtered by distance so that it was mostly kickdrum; I heard church bells from across an intersection, and the ticking of metal as my car's engine cooled—all melding into a tearjerkingly beautiful soundscape.

All I had to do was stop and listen. I could pull into the same spot in the same lot every day for 1000 years and never hear that same poignant trio. To imagine that any soundscape anywhere, in any moment, is the song of the universe playing itself is to open the door to a never-ending supply of stunningly beautiful—or horrific, or bittersweet—performances. As I kept listening—to cicadas, children's voices, guitars and synthesizers as I played them, footsteps in dry leaves, and closing doors—Nietzsche's contention that "Without music, life would be a mistake" slowly turned into "Life without music would be okay, but life without sound would be impossible." Heinrich Heine's statement that "Where words leave off, music begins" could be extended to, "Where music leaves off, silence begins." But aren't words sound, and isn't music sound, and wasn't the silence there before the words or the music?

A scientific explanation of sound excludes the subjective, psychological impact and ignores the fact that sound passes through the whole body. The quivering intestines of anyone listening at a SunnO))) concert, or to thunder or a passing train up close, will realize we experience sound through our bodies and not our ears alone. I am drawn, like Toop, to the experience of visceral sound in real time, sounds I'm not in control of: The blissful sound of light rain on concrete interrupted without warning by the vicious barking of a toaster-sized designer mongrel. A leaf blower can only whine so long before silence returns like water in the desert. Real sound in each flowing moment—may I hear it and love it before it turns into something else!

The trouble with reproduced sound is that it is reproduced. An infinite amount of time and money could be spent in a never-ending quest to flawlessly recreate what can never be flawlessly recreated. No matter how lifelike the hi-fi, it will never have the energy, the punch, the mysterious chi, the vibe of life itself, expressing itself in natural, constant, unamplified sound.

Why not listen to everything?—Casey Miller (footnote 2)

Footnote 1: Toop is an English musician, author, curator, emeritus professor, and a member of the Flying Lizards. His books include Rap Attack, an early book on hip-hop, from 1984, and Sinister Resonance: The Mediumship of the Listener.

Footnote 2: Casey Miller tells Dad jokes and fights a losing battle with a fluffy cat for occupancy of a comfy chair in Champaign, Illinois.

JGonzo's picture

32 Sounds | Official Trailer - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JwnIGxwVwlM

cognoscente's picture

We have acoustic unamplified live music and we have electrically amplified music. Does this article, this thought and conclusion apply to both? And in equal measure?

Of course, recorded reproduced music remains recorded reproduced music. With our hi-fi set we only try to get as close as possible to the original within the available resources. I think that's what it's about, that's the fun of our hobby, getting as close as possible to the original with the available resources, knowing that it's never the original but only an approximation.

And for the rest, I don't listen to much music, just as I don't drink much wine. Wine only in company with a plate of good food. I listen to music 1 or 2 times a week and only if I really have the time / focus for it, then I listen for about one and a half to two hours. So I don't listen to music while working or traveling or whatever. Listening to music is an exclusive moment, or a "sacred" moment if you like.

And no I don't have to listen to everything, I don't stream either so my choice is limited to what I bought. Life is too short to be afraid of missing something (fear of missing something is in fact fear of death) and therefore, by not wanting to miss anything, to miss everything by wanting too much but losing sight of quality. Less is more. Select and limit yourself.

Anton's picture

"...breezes rustling tree leaves, a crow, the unique Doppler-effect signature of each passing car..."

Life is a John Cage song.

Doctor Fine's picture

I find the composers of what I call "music" are able to bridge a connection between the finite and the infinite. My neighbor farting doesn't do it for me. This article is written by an intellectual. And I have never understood why intellectuals bother with music. Their intellects are so perfect and egotistically flawless-why bother? Yup. In his case---I totally get it. The inside of his head is what really mattered all along. And just hearing the garbage truck down the road is a revelation. Compared to listening to his head go on and on. Got it.

By the way. I listen to music for hours every night and all through the day. Have for decades. I rush to the set with eager ears. I simply can not get enough great music. As long as I have the time it will be used hanging around Beethoven, Monk and Miles. Sorry writer. I don't have your problem as I am not an intellectual. I use my senses more than listen to my brain go on about drivel it finds important. Using my senses instead of my brain never gets old!

ChrisS's picture


You must think roses grow up your ass.

Doctor Fine's picture

Your comment says it all.

ChrisS's picture

So does yours.


ChrisS's picture

... https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x2g5Vw2qpdc

For you, Doctor Fine!

Glotz's picture

I feel that Casey's essay was a bit too jaded and intellectual for belief. I think tube gear would bring back a bit of excitement he craves from music, but only finds in the real world.

And I love experimental and ambient music- I think Casey misses the salve for his soul here a bit.

ChrisS's picture

Try pulling this one out of your ass for 4 hours!


Anton's picture

It's called, "We Used To Think The Freeway Sounded Like A River."

The name is evocative for me. Sometimes the wind in the forest sounds just like a waterfall, or changing air pressure or wind direction changes the sound of something else.

It's all part of simply listening to stuff. There are probably loads of things most people can sit and enjoy the sound of without some composer having had to wrap it up for us. I took the author to simply be saying how interesting the sounds of life can be.

It's not being overly intellectual; more like being mindful.

How do people here feel about Brian Eno's ambient works?

ChrisS's picture

Nice one, Anton, thanks!

Glotz's picture

and Eno still has the knack to create a time and place like no other.

I also really love quite a bit from Kompakt Records. Their Pop Ambient 20xx Series is something I get every year on vinyl.

ok's picture

..and I certainly feel your personal view. I never listen to headphones out in the street or nature where so much interesting sounds happen all the time. However I believe that it is our familiarity with music that shapes our appreciation of random noise, the same way that language and art allow us humans to attach meaning and beauty to waters and stones. It is also interesting that hifi experiences made you more sensitive to "real" sounds. Heidegger thought that art lets things be what they really are and hifi reproduction is definitely a form of fine art.

Anton's picture

Thanks for that!

When you think of all the time us audiophiles spend listening to the "space" in a recording, or how we cue into spatial cues in what we listen to, it's not a big leap to comment on the sound of actual spaces, as well. This happens, probably, to all of all almost all the time.

Jonti's picture

Toop's "Ocean of Sound" is my favourite of his books, but "Haunted Weather" (also excellent) is the one that goes into great detail on notions of silence, appreciation of environmental sound, etc.

Anton's picture

Just wanted to say thank you for that post and I’m going to check that out!

Joe Whip's picture

Article. I do not share Casey’s opinion though on listening to music. I do enjoy the sounds of nature. I would never wear ear buds or headphones when I am out and about not because I want to hear everything out of enjoyment, but because I do not want to get run over by a car or truck.

Doctor Fine's picture

Not listening to music. Listening to everyday noises instead. Begs the question of "what IS music and why should you care to listen to it?"

IME music comes from only one place. A place where time is suspended and veils are lifted. Not talking about "Commercial POP" music. Pop can be very thin and transitory. It can be a song that is just a gimmick and entertaining.

But serious "music" is more substantial and offers a glimpse of something wonderful and special about life. Call it "soul" if you must use a word for it.

If you can get all that just from listening to your dog fart bless your pea pickin little heart. Somebody should have told Miles to make dog fart noises with his trumpet to amuse you. Heck, what a great idea!