Shuffling through the soundtrack of my life

I was walking to the train station one day, listening through my headphones to “Space Oddity” by David Bowie, when I passed a confused looking pigeon standing in the exact centre of a very small whirlwind of leaves and debris. The pigeon looked around like it didn’t quite know what to do with itself then, all of a sudden, it seemed to remember that it was a bird and promptly flew away. With the pigeon gone, the whirlwind dissipated, as if it somehow knew that its work was done. The complete sequence, which lasted all of four seconds, felt like the universe had staged it exclusively for my benefit, and the element that helped it across the line from amusing into memorable was the accompanying musical score.

One of my favourite things about personal music players, from the Walkman to the iPod and beyond, is that they give my life something that movies and television have conditioned me since childhood to believe that it needs – a soundtrack. Without backing music, my “wind vs pigeon” encounter would have been a scene from a wildlife documentary, albeit an odd one. With Bowie playing as the incident unfolded, it was cinema.

Personal soundtrack moments can take several forms. First, you have the self-programmed moments, like playing “Eye Of The Tiger” while you work out, or “Let’s Get It On” while you get it on, or “Up Where We Belong” while you carry Debra Winger through a factory.

Next, you have the opportunistic moments, like when you pause for half a second before entering a room so you can fling the door open on a big bad cymbal splash, or when “Stayin’ Alive” comes up in your shuffle as you’re walking down the street and you change your pace ever so slightly to walk in time with the music.

Then there are those moments of pure brilliant coincidence, like when the girl trying to get somebody’s attention across the street looks for all the world as though she’s dancing to your song, or when the dog on the corner winks at you and nods along with your beat.

Sometimes I play a game where I make up a scenario for my character based on the music that’s playing through my headphones at the time. If “Back In Black” comes on while I’m walking through the city then I’m the loose-cannon cop on my way to the hostage negotiation. If “Hallelujah” comes on while I’m sitting on a train then I’m the loose-cannon cop on my way to the funeral. If the “Oompa Loompa” song comes on while I’m driving my car then I’m the loose-cannon cop on my way to the chocolate factory.

Personal soundtrack moments can imprint themselves onto your brain. One line from a song can trigger memories that whisk you back to another time and place.

Sometimes the connections are obvious. “Let’s Stay Together”, for example, makes me think of my wedding day because it was playing as I danced with my beautiful new bride.

Other times, the connections seem arbitrary. “Losing My Religion” makes me think of ordering a kebab, because I was ordering a kebab during one of the hundreds of times that I’ve heard that song since 1991, and my inscrutable brain decided that this would be the one special moment that warranted a permanent association.

Sometimes the connections are buried deep in your subconscious. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band makes me think of hula hoops and a Yorkshire terrier, for reasons that I cannot fathom but almost certainly involve alcohol.

Digital music players were a massive leap forward in the world of personal soundtracks. In the olden days, you picked out a couple of tapes for your Walkman in the morning and if you didn’t choose appropriately then every activity for the rest of the day – from jogging to shopping to walking along the beach with your sweetheart – had to be performed to a track from “Straight Outta Compton” or “Use Your Illusion II”. Now you can have your whole music collection at your fingertips and the possibilities are endless. You can walk along the beach with your sweetheart to anything at all from the entire Guns ‘N Roses back catalogue.

I wonder what the future will bring. Will I one day be walking around with a web-cam strapped to my head and a symphony orchestra somewhere in India spontaneously scoring my every move via a 99 cent iPhone app? It almost seems inevitable, doesn’t it? But until then, I’ll continue to live my life at the mercy of the shuffle. And if you happen to be around when “Unchained Melody” comes on then you’d better have a change of clothes on hand ’cause things are gonna get messy.

Do your headphones make you feel like a movie star? Leave a comment and tell me all about it. And don’t forget to subscribe for more incoherent ramblings direct to your Inbox or RSS feed.

One Response to 'Shuffling through the soundtrack of my life'

  1. Mark says:

    Yes! Like the way that the line “or would you rather be a fish” from “Would You LIke to Swing on a Star” makes me think of the movie Hudson Hawk and then I can’t stop screaming until I lose my voice…

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