It’s a brutal story, but as music, “Hangman” is easy to live with. It’s the perfect song to take on a walk. Its momentum feels steady, but its rhythm feels light — so instead of matching your footfalls to Blake’s phrasing, you can set your own pace, experiencing two distinct tempos as you move through space and time. That’s how walking with music becomes a creative act. You’re creating a polyrhythm and a path.
In her book “Wanderlust: A History of Walking,” Rebecca Solnit writes that “walking is a mode of making the world as well as being in it.” What a terrific definition for listening, too. Listening to music requires imagination — and listening to it while walking gives you the rare opportunity to move through three places at once: your mind, the song and your route. Somehow, instead of ripping your psyche to shreds, your brain synchronizes all three worlds effortlessly.
We’ve been fluent in that triple-consciousness since the birth of the Walkman, but we were physical listeners long before that. And while the current pandemic lockdown prevents us from stepping out into the nightlife and feeling communal decibels roll over our bodies, we can still cultivate our physical listening habits in isolation. Whether you’re walking, dancing, standing up or lying down, now is a good time to pay attention to yourself. Your body can teach your mind how it listens.
I'm dancing in my living room to "Heal Yourself and Move," a house track from 1998 by Theo Parrish, the Detroit producer and underground national treasure. I've danced to this song solo in the darkest shadows of clubland, probably more than once — but dancing anonymously and dancing alone are not the same thing, and when you're spinning around on a low-pile area rug after midnight with the lights on, you can feel the difference.
For starters, there’s no peacocking. Dancing in the solitude of your home means you’re not communicating with anyone outside of your imagination. It’s all you.
That means you’re opening communication lines within yourself, indulging your kinesthetic instincts while sharpening your attention. Your body responds freely to what it hears; your brain makes a note of the motion after the fact. Before long, you’re developing a vocabulary, or maybe even a metric. When we listen with our bodies, what better way to measure a song’s greatness than by how many muscle groups it activates?
“Heal Yourself and Move” addresses that idea explicitly with its titular mantra-refrain, promising spiritual restoration through physical improvisation. It’s an uncomplicated song that invites an infinite range of movement, but your easiest way into the music is to mimic the song’s recurring finger snaps.
The muscles in your hand will get to work without ever consulting your brain, and with every fleshy collision, the invisible music that surrounds you makes a tactile connection to your material being, one that radiates out toward your extremities like a ripple in a pond. With the snap of a finger, you feel the edges of who you are.
I'm in the living room again, listening to a record by the Dixie Hummingbirds, standing up, trying to keep the music from toppling me. The legendary gospel group is singing "See About Me (Lord, Come See About Me)" with dizzying finesse, and it's difficult to tell how many voices are harmonizing, or when. The album jacket contains no recording information No names, no years.
On its own, this immaculate swirl of a cappella voices clarifies one mystery, at least: Why we perceive pitch as “high” and “low.” On a piano, the low notes are to the left, the high notes are to the right. On the neck of a guitar or violin, low is far, high is near. But in the human body — the original musical instrument — high is high and low is low. Our falsetto flutters up near our sinuses. Our bass notes resonate down in the diaphragm. We’re constantly assigning music an altitude in our minds, and it’s rooted in the fact that we’re bipedal creatures who stand upright.
In a world that’s always shaking our bodies with sound, there’s no such thing as standing still. The Dixie Hummingbirds will remind you of this in the final moments of “See About Me,” when the singers’ voices scatter to their highest and lowest registers, shooting harmony up and down the length of your body, perpendicular to heaven and earth.
Now I'm lying down, listening to the London Chamber Orchestra perform Steve Reich's "Eight Lines" — a surging performance of the minimalist composition, recorded in 1990. When I first encountered this piece as a teenager, I'd sprawl out on the floor with the stereo cranked, wondering what the future would be like. Now, the future is here, but "Eight Lines" still feels urgent and unresolved in my head. So there's one lesson this teeming music has been teaching me for 20-plus years: Another future is always coming.
Here’s another lesson: Recumbent listening is not a passive activity. “Eight Lines” is built out of intricate, overlapping repetitions; its steadiness is spiked with melodic shifts that blur your sense of propulsion and anticipation. Here, your attention is a resource, and by maximizing your stillness you have more to draw on. Listen to “Eight Lines” flat on your back and the music flows heavily and horizontally, like a river you’ve sunk to the bottom of.
Getting to the bottom of things. That’s a good reason to listen lying down, even if it feels like you’re lying around, wasting time. Can time ever be wasted on music? When I’m listening to “Eight Lines” on the floor, the answer is always no. This music — and all music — confirms that so long as we’re listening, we’re living.