Thoughts on Background Music

And other stuff…

One of my new year resolutions is to be more honest. That means, for the purpose of this article, admitting that I used to watch daily soaps when I was younger. However repulsive you might find daily soaps once you grow up, I have realized that it is actually quite difficult to escape its traumatic clutches when you are young and growing up in an Indian home. I remember daily soaps being those few hours of everyday-celebrations as the family sat in front of the bulky television (back when bulky televisions were a thing), staring at that convex screen that showed moving images with unrealistic dialogues and overly-dramatic editing. What stood out to me, though, was the music of these shows.

Of course, If I dare to go back to these shows now, I will most probably find the music repetitive and generic. But at that age, perhaps I was just beginning to grasp the concept of Background Music being an instrument to accentuate emotions. It fascinated me that there was a different type of music for every person and every emotion. There was a specific type of music that played when the people were angry and tensions were high. There was a specific type of music that played when a character was emotional and tears streamed down their faces without spoiling their makeup. If I could be reductionist for a moment, that was my first introduction to leitmotifs. (Yes, I do know that it is not fair to compare the background scores of television soaps to the wonderful idea of leitmotif.)

For those who are not aware of what leitmotif is, I recommend the following Nerdwriter video.

But this music made me realize that there exists such a thing as Background Music and in my naive mind it was not only restricted to the convex screens. To me, Background Music was something that played out in the world when you were sad or happy or highly emotional or tense. It was an integral part of the reality that we lived in. So naturally, I wondered, when I went through similar emotions, what my Background Music was. When I discovered that there was no preset Background Music in reality, I came to the obvious conclusion. I was supposed to choose the Background Music of my life.

Granted, all of this is pretty embarrassing and I would have loved to just forget about the realization of my younger self. But more than a decade later, on a cold late-January evening, as I stood waiting for an Uber in front of the building where I worked, I had my earphones plugged in. In those long moments of waiting, I experienced something strange. I could call it an epiphany, but the term epiphany is usually reserved for a sudden spark of some truly great life insights, isn’t it? Maybe it should not be. The term should not be for the discovery of some great insights, rather the internalization of these insights. In those moments, as three songs that I’d heard about a hundred times played in my ears again, I internalized something that I’d known for a long time.

The world reacted to my Background Music. The traffic changed its pace as the tempo of the songs changed. The diverse groups of people who are perennially present in the background of any cosmopolis changed their moods depending on the song that played in my ears. Their laughter was tragic when I was listening to a sad song. With the change in the mood of the song, the same laughter changed to an infectious charming entity that left a smile on my face too. The motorcycle that stood in front of me, lonely, waiting for its rider to finish his cigarette, became an engine that was roaring with life, whose mission in life was to make sure that its rider reached home safely. In those moments, as the songs changed, it no longer looked lonely. Instead, it felt as if it was standing in the solitude basking in its power.

During the ride back home, I thought about the internalization that I had somehow, without invitation, stumbled upon. Turns out, my Background Music was not only applicable to me. It did not exist solely to accentuate my feelings and emotions. It existed to make the world around me the part of the same drama that I was participating in. In retrospect, it makes so much sense. If I started singing and dancing in crowded elevators (which I usually only do when they are empty), I would look insane. If there is a viewer watching me, the moment would lose its impact if the person does not have access to the same music that plays in my ears.

After all, how can people be happy when we have faced rejection and love seems like a concept that only exists in fleeting glimpses. And how can there be sadness in the world when we have finally achieved something that we have worked truly genuinely very hard for. Like the moment on the movie screen where the protagonist falls to his knees in the rain and looks up at the sky that has just begun to clear out with tears in his eyes and hope for a newer and better tomorrow, how can such powerful moments that happen to us not affect the other people in the slightest? And how can they carry on with their own lives and their own stories as if nothing has really changed? Background Music tells you that the people who exist in this drama along with you, exist because you want them to. They exist to support you, because you, my dear reader, are the only true protagonist.

We literally cannot envision a world of which we are not the absolute center of. We are the most real entity that exists in the universe and everything does, in fact, revolve around us. Being a protagonist extends beyond the realm of music. It affects everything that we do, every decision that we make. And that is evident in the rise of the wedding shoots and Tick-Tock videos and Instagram filters. We want to be the protagonists and we manifest it in reality the only way we know how to. By creating art. We see the movies and read the stories and listen to the music and look at the art that tells us about the authors and the musicians and the artists who created them. Maybe that is why we create things. Maybe that is why we document things. We tell stories, verbally or by writing them down, not just about ourselves, about anything, about life. Perhaps that is why it is such an enchanting idea to have someone share their playlist with you. Or better yet, to have them add a song that you like to their playlist. We know that it is not just about sharing the music. It becomes an equivalent of sharing the way you view the world with someone. In a certain sense, it becomes a nakedness of thought.

Maybe we do all of this and create all of this because the ultimate purpose of life is to assimilate into a story. We strive to become a part of the stories that we create. And all through our long complicated lives, every decision we take is in the service of these stories. We want our ideas and our thoughts and our perspective to be recognized and get embedded into the fabric of society. Because good stories survive for a far far far longer period than humans do. And because we are wired in a way that we see the world as it materializes around us, non-existence is not something that we react very well to. So the way Dylan Thomas says, in our (real or metaphorical) old age, we burn and rave at close of day. We display rage, rage against the dying of the light because we do not want to go gentle into that good night.

But let me take it even further. The reason why we actually do want to become these stories is because it is necessary for survival. Maybe what we are really trying to accomplish, collectively, is to solve the puzzle that is the universe. (And, of course, all the other questions that usually accompany the quest to understand the universe.) It is so utterly beyond our comprehension that we all work as individuals trying to unfold it. One story at a time. One perspective at a time. We do this with the idea of understanding all of it. Yet, if we cannot do it, the least that we can do is to pass off our knowledge to everyone else by becoming stories. And that is no secret. We are all in on it. By becoming stories, we want our children, who will also become stories someday, to understand this truth. Because if we cannot figure the universe out, we surely want our stories to do so.

Listening to music, and discovering it, and sharing it, and creating it, in that sense, become facets of achieving the goal that we have all set out to achieve. It becomes a language for a collective communication that echoes around the world. It connects us all with the intention of making all of us a part of the shared drama rather than the infinite dramas that exist in the infinite heads of each of the individuals that exist. And as it continues to play in the background of our long lives, we attempt to pull the world a little closer to us and whisper all of our secrets to it one by one, in the hopes that perhaps, someday, it will do the same.

When I listen to those songs now, the music does not sound the same. The words uttered are the same, but they no longer mean the same thing. There seems to be something hidden in them, something perhaps not even intended by the musicians who created them. Maybe it means that I am supposed to understand that depth, if I am ever to understand the universe. Or maybe it just means that that younger me needs to learn how to tone down that Background Music and pay attention to the foreground every once in a while.

I write about things that do not exist. If that sounds too pretentious, complain here: mail.alayshah@gmail.com