Musical Context

For years, I lis­tened to music based on my mood. Playlists were well suit­ed for this. I had one full of sad songs for my sad days, days that would last months at a time. I had one with only quick-paced, aggres­sive gui­tar riffs and lung-spit­ting screams, for the pock­ets of rage I’d encounter every now and then. One that was most­ly elec­tron­ic inspi­ra­tion — songs that would move me when I need­ed to move. One for the par­tic­u­lar­ly dif­fi­cult days, con­sist­ing of sto­ic melodies that could fill me with grit deter­mi­na­tion. There was even one for the bit­ter­sweet moments, per­fect for a post-show buzz. Every song served a par­tic­u­lar pur­pose.

This mot­ley group­ing of sin­gle tracks may have been the result of the way I dis­cov­ered new music. Tenaciously, with ears always open, I would record as much as I could that caught my fan­cy, jot­ting down any dis­cernible lyrics I could use as a basis for a search, and nev­er stop­ping until I could find the song. Hysteria, by Muse, is just one exam­ple, which I hap­pened to dis­cov­er while watch­ing an awards show. For a long time, it remained a song I’ve enjoyed on my for it’s sub­tle build-up, and ener­getic, near­ly chaot­ic, synth-inspired bass lines.

Things changed when I lived with Trolley. He exposed me to bands of dif­fer­ent gen­res, and being a musi­cal col­lec­tor, this expo­sure took the form of com­plete albums. One of them hap­pened to be Absolution.

Now that I have the entire album, Hysteria is known to me as track 7, com­ing after the pen­sive Interlude, but before the gen­tle, ethe­re­al, Blackout. In this con­text, pre­ced­ed and suc­ceed­ed by two equal­ly sig­nif­i­cant tracks, the song does­n’t sound the same.

Eventually, none of my playlists were appro­pri­ate for what I was feel­ing. At first, I thought that this was the result of increas­ing­ly sub­tle or com­plex emo­tions, but I’ve come to real­ize that it’s sim­ply because I’ve matured, and as a result, my emo­tions have evened out. With the wis­dom and seren­i­ty asso­ci­at­ed with grow­ing old­er, came the loss of emo­tion­al highs and lows that would inspire me.

Now it’s become dif­fi­cult to lis­ten to a song in a playlist. Every album has an order. Every track has its place. Listening to a song out of its musi­cal con­text may be hard, but lis­ten­ing to music with­out the rush of inspi­ra­tion is hard­er.

And this has become my musi­cal con­text.


  1. It’s inter­est­ing that you should make a post like this. I’ve nev­er real­ly thought about the WHY very much, but I’ve nev­er liked ‘playlists’. Music always had an order as it came on the album — and if it was out of order it was­n’t the same, and real­ly unen­joy­able for me. When I hear a song I like, I *always* get the whole album, antic­i­pat­ing some­thing more excit­ing that may also be there along­side it, and the way the pro­duc­er ordered the songs on the album mak­ing them sound bet­ter togeth­er. Even when I don’t imme­di­ate­ly like the oth­er songs, there’s the antic­i­pa­tion of hear­ing what I want to hear if I don’t jump right to it, and the album grows on me. Well, this was per­haps a bit of a dif­fer­ent tan­gent than your orig­i­nal post, but I thought I’d do a thought dump after see­ing it. :)

  2. I can total­ly see your point. From my per­spec­tive, there are way too many albums with just one or two good tracks on it, so I usu­al­ly nev­er look for the entire album. I do find that cer­tain songs that I don’t like at first can grow on me though, so it’s worth it to keep all of them (espe­cial­ly when I can’t even fill up my iPod).

  3. My 8GB juke­box is per­pet­u­al­ly filled, and hav­ing a Rhapsody account makes it real­ly easy to try new music out while I’m on the bus ride to work. There’s alot of albums that will nev­er make their way off of there how­ev­er…

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