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Possibly the best way to listen to music: First listen to silence

Use silence to give your ears and brain a rest, and your music might sound better.

I was intrigued by an episode of Manoush Zomorodi's always terrific WNYC Radio podcast, "Note To Self," where performance artist Marina Abramović had an audience sit in total silence wearing noise-canceling headphones for 30 minutes before a live performance of J.S. Bach's "The Goldberg Variations." Abramović asserted that the silence would allow the listeners to clear their minds and allow them to focus more intently on the experience. Zomorodi went, and heard celebrated pianist Igor Levit do the Bach piece at the Park Avenue Armory in New York City in late December of last year. Zomorodi was shocked how fast the 30-minute silent period flew by, so when the music started she was ready.


The silent treatment might work wonders

Steve Guttenberg/CNET

I didn't attend the concert, but I was eager to try to simulate the experiment at home. I don't own any noise-canceling headphones, but I have something even better, a set of Sensaphonic ER custom-molded earplugs, which I use every day on the NYC subway to hush the din. So I figured the earplugs would do a great job creating a quiet zone inside my apartment before listening to pianist Glenn Gould's legendary 1955 performance of "The Goldberg Variations" (I used a special 2007 "Zenph re-performance" of the album).

The goal here with the silent treatment is to mentally prepare yourself to experience music without the distractions of modern life. It's a reboot, a refresh where you can settle into the stillness. To get started I set my kitchen timer for a half an hour, popped in the earplugs, turned off my phone, and sat on my couch with my eyes closed. When the timer went off, I started playing "The Goldberg Variations" SACD.

I sat there, expecting epiphanies, but no revelations appeared, nothing out of the ordinary happened. Undaunted, I repeated the silent treatment and played Miles Davis Quintet's "Live in Europe, 1967" CD and immediately felt a stronger connection to this music than before. The way Davis on trumpet and his young drummer Tony Williams were urging each other on, daring each other to take the music somewhere new that night, the feeling was palpable. Pianist Herbie Hancock and bassist Ron Carter were doing a similar dance, pushing each other to explore something new, even though the set list didn't change all that much from night to night. I was listening to music from nearly a half century ago, but it was fully alive in my Brooklyn loft!

The half hour of quiet time made a difference; it let me be more open to the music, hear deeper into it. So if you have noise-canceling headphones, a set of earplugs, or a very quiet room, ditch your smartphone, and try a half hour of silence to clear your head, and see if you hear music in a different way than before.