I was driving around town on Saturday running errands and listening to one of my favorite summer albums. Perhaps this is pathetic, but I found myself thinking about the impact that little volume knob has on how I hear music.

Now, I’m not going to declare the Volume Knob to be a Great Evil of Society, so hear me out. At low volume, Nickel Creek sounds vaguely like bluegrass. Cranked up a little, you  feel the bass line and start noticing ornamentation, meter shifts, and harmonic turns that really aren’t like bluegrass at all. It actually gets exciting.

It’s not unlike sitting next to the group playing it live.

Relegated to our aural background, really great music becomes unimpressive, and we miss out. In fact, I’d say that the volume knob might be a factor in deciding whether you respond to the Faure Requiem with a “whoa” or a “hm, sounds like a large choir.” You just can’t hear (or appreciate) what’s going on until you can actually hear what’s going on.

It all happened again yesterday, when I cranked something up while doing dishes–I was struck by all kinds of artistic touches in the piece’s instrumentation that I’d never noticed in 30 previous listens (that came from, go figure, my laptop speakers). Perhaps our struggle to appreciate music example x is connected with the fact that we’ve never heard it loud enough that we couldn’t ignore it.

So if you can’t listen live, at least turn up the volume.

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