My wife jumps as I start the car. I scramble to turn the stereo down, like a teenager shoving nudie mags under the bed.
“Do you listen that loud when you’re alone?” she asks.
I cannot lie; this is standard practice for me. Yacht rock, hard bop, ‘80s pop, indie slop: it all sounds better cranked up. So, I cover up my sin with the brash front of a lifelong aural hedonist: “I can’t feel it unless it’s rattling my skull around.”
My listening ritual is both pleasure and penance and I am willing to suffer the punishment due. It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly when the ringing started. Or, to be more exact, I cannot remember when my ears wouldn’t cease ringing after exposure to excessive volume. I don’t pay much attention anymore. Unless it’s nearly silent and ——————-
There. I stop for a moment to listen. There it is. If I had to guess, I’d place the central pitch at E 440. But then, like a spectroscope does with color, the ringing subdivides itself, until all the notes of the chromatic scale are present at once: a glorious dissonance. This new sustaining tone knows no end and no beginning. In it, exist the remnants of every song and sound that have ever passed through my ears. It coalesces around one bell-like tone much higher than the rest. It’s the vertex, the crest of the wave. Was it always this pronounced?
There are plenty of explanations for how my tinnitus got here: every concert, good, bad, middling; countless late-night walks with earphones cranked; hours spent in front of crash cymbals and amplifiers.
As a young man, I could never get my Walkman loud enough, so I pushed the ripped foam ear coverings against the sides of my head to feel the bass, unwilling to let even a small amount of sound escape. Sensory overload was crucial to my musical experience. This was self-administered shock therapy.
Later, in adolescence, the blueish-grey tones of distorted guitar seduced me. I wrote my parents an IOU note for two full amplifier stacks—sixteen twelve-inch speakers in total—so I could blow out my own mind.
I liken my listening practice to swimming in sound, being cocooned by repetition and tonal texture. Like building a taste for complex coffee or unusually spiced food, there was a slow immersion period. At first, I only knew I liked how it felt departing a venue after a concert: all those nerve endings turned on, eardrums beautifully battered. Like so many other risks I was to indulge, exposed listening became an addiction. I was certain it was bad for me, but it felt too good to give up.
Everyone begged me to wear earplugs. Even my musician friends touted the high-quality ones that mold to your ear canals. Sure, I used wadded-up napkins or a two-dollar pair from the bartender, but only to soften unwelcome opening acts. The good stuff I savored without protection—guilt washed away by grace.
My mother, a physician, lectured me, citing geriatric patients who couldn’t hear a word anymore. Typical teenage ingrate, I laughed off her warnings. Still, despite my cavalier attitude, I harbored a secret fear of ending up like Grandpa, isolated as he advanced into dementia.
“I hear what I want to hear,” Grandpa said.
So did I.
My writing life accommodates extremes; when I’m not bombarding myself, I seek silence. Vocals in my ears can make writing harder, particularly the lyrical loop de loops of my favorite MCs. Thelonious Monk or Philip Glass often do the trick. One day’s formula will be a non-starter the next; I am fickle and difficult to please. I accept this.
My music student Caleb has been working on the same hip-hop track for weeks. It has gobs of thick low end and the brash EQ choices of a novice producer. I wonder if he will ever finish it but appreciate his artistic struggle.
“It’s done,” he announces one day, unprompted.
I smile and turn the volume up…loUD. Louder than he ever imagined I’d allow in class. It’s the most visceral way to show my approval. Caleb hasn’t heard his music sound like this: programmed thirty-second-note hi-hats coasting above the rumbling tectonics of his half-time kick pattern, spreading into every corner of the classroom. The vibrations of the speakers add menace undetected during the weeks of low-level playback. His eyes widen with delight.
“Do you listen that loud when you’re alone?” he asks.
Whenever I can.