Welcome to the home of Noah Brier. I'm the co-founder of Variance and general internet tinkerer. Most of my writing these days is happening over at Why is this interesting?, a daily email full of interesting stuff. This site has been around since 2004. Feel free to get in touch. Good places to get started are my Framework of the Day posts or my favorite books and podcasts. Get in touch.

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Listening Sans Lyrics

I listen to a lot of music. It’s just what I do. I carry my MP3 player around everywhere I go and love to discover the next musical thing. All that may or may not interest you (I’m going to assume not), but this may: When I listen to music I listen sounds, not words. I pay no attention to lyrics. That extends even to the most lyrical music (Elliot Smith, Fiona Apple, Mountain Goats), groups that hardly exist without the lyrical handiwork of their lead singer. I’ve talked to a few people about this and never really run into anyone who shares my listening style.

My method has its advantages, though. For instance, it’s easy to get the gist of music while not giving it your full attention and I can quickly dispose of albums with sounds I’m not into. Most importantly, though, it allows me to make recommendations to people that usually accurately match their musical tastes. This is probably because rather than paying close attention to lyrical intricacies I’m more aware of general trends in sound, which makes it easy to match one sound to another (they key to making music recommendations).

With all that said, it was with much interest that I read the following passage in a New York Times magazine profile of Nic Harcourt, host and DJ of KCRW’s Morning Becomes Eclectic:

Many people would love to know what exactly Harcourt is listening for, but he is unable to provide a simple answer. Surprisingly for someone who plays so much emotional, personal music, Harcourt rarely pays attention to lyrics. What he listens for, he says, is primarily a sound and a feeling — part of the reason he’s so willing to play music in foreign languages — rather than literary content.

That’s it, in words, finally. Though fairly non-descriptive, I couldn’t agree more. It’s a feeling I’m listening for, something that attracts me to the music, invites me in, makes me want to keep listening. There are sounds I know others will like, even sounds I know will make a mainstream splash, as well as those sounds that will always be reserved for my ears only. People find it hard to believe that I can be a music fan and ignore lyrics like this, but I think it’s exactly that that allows me to be a music fan who’s tastes range from one end of the spectrum to the other.

It’s nice to know there’s someone else out there.

July 5, 2005