Listening to Music Is Better When It’s a Conversation Among Friends

If you are the type of person who bides your time waiting for any conversation to pivot to music, who scrabbles through the dollar-record bins of junk shops or mudlarks around the streaming playlists of your favorite musicians hunting for rarities, you might be a Golden Ear. You almost certainly love music, but odds are, you are listening to it alone. The Golden Ears are devoted to listening to music together.

Most weeks we gather in Tivoli, our little hamlet on the Hudson, to share songs. It began about 15 years ago, after a few music-minded friends moved up from the city. We schlepped book bags of precious vinyl and congregated around our hi-fi stereos. There would be casual chitchat, but once the needle descended, we would listen, quietly, to the end of each person’s carefully chosen song. This shared attentiveness — being social without talking, an intimate act usually reserved for married couples and Zen monks — felt precious. A surprising focus replaced the pressure to make conversation, like a shooting star silencing a cookout. At one of our first sessions, someone laid down a 45-r.p.m. record of Doris Troy’s “What’cha Gonna Do About It?”: one minute and 52 seconds of the purest, pulsing promise of American music, a jaunty, saucy, sashaying tiptoe of soul, almost impossible to not do the monkey to. When it ended, cheers erupted.

By now we’re used to listening to music for one another, in a way that privileges adventure over taste.

Certain norms have materialized. There is no set time limit between songs, and who gets to play what next is an open question (unless a member we call the Proctor is present, when a consistent order must be followed). Tracks are generally short, five minutes or less. No genre is verboten. Themes (“Songs About Songwriting,” “Beatles Adjacency,” “Songs You Want Played at Your Funeral”) emerge or don’t. Bold provocations and special prompts have led to an evolving nomenclature. For example, “the Sanborn” is the spinning of a song by an artist no one has heard of, while everyone pens a one-line review. There is plenty to exhort, and lots of talk between songs. For Golden Ears, talking about music is a sacred chance to kibitz over what we’ve stumbled upon in obtuse liner notes or an out-of-print autobiography.

The pandemic was very hard on us. Of all the alonenesses the pandemic spawned, no longer listening with my friends was among the hardest. Once Dr. Fauci said we could, we went outside with Bluetooth speakers. Not wanting to bother anyone, we set up a fire pit deep in the woods and strung up lights. The first song we played there was Count Basie’s “Li’l Darlin’,” a tune so confident and leisurely that it felt as if Basie himself were leaning down from the bandstand, telling us in that dark moment that everything would be all right.

We named the clearing after the song, and the music we play there trends toward emotional and contemplative uplift. Sitting by the fire after one of these gorgeous plays, someone will often break the silence with a sly, “Sorry, Officer!” — imagining a state trooper showing up to find a ring of middle-aged adults in Adirondack chairs listening to Jimmy Giuffre.

For almost four years we’ve assembled there, through snow and summer cicadas, listening to exquisite music accompanied by caroling coyotes. There have been changes. Being outdoors meant embracing Spotify over record players, and playing music from our phones brought new possibilities and pitfalls. No one looking at their phone is actually listening to anyone or anything else, so we have regulated phone use to the period when the next player is searching for a song. For lifetime record scroungers, switching to streaming services at first felt gravityless; there was too much choice. But being able to improvise responses to one another’s songs in the moment from a vast grab bag of recorded music made the game of collective listening more playful.

As the official Li’l Darlin’ streaming playlist expands (it is currently over 127 hours long) and we have had to quest further afield to discover unexpected nuggets, we find ourselves freed from the tyranny of our own taste. One autumn night I played a ridiculously funny (and funky) song from 1979 called “Answering Machine,” in which a desperate lover has his voice-mail marriage proposal cut off by an answering-machine beep. It’s by Rupert Holmes, the crafty songsmith mostly known for a similar sonic rom-com about placing a personal ad. (Holmes once said, “I have a feeling that if I saved an entire orphanage from a fire and carried the last child out on my shoulders, as I stood there charred and smoking, they’d say, Aren’t you the guy who wrote the ‘Piña Colada Song’?”) “Answering Machine” is not cool. It’s somehow both overly sincere and too clever.

I wasn’t worried that it might offend the Golden Ears’ impeccable taste, though. By now we’re used to listening to music for one another, in a way that privileges adventure over taste. The Professor brings in pop-punk masterpieces and obscurities of musical theater. The Proctor favors funky grooves and tone poems. The Turk arrives with Mediterranean treats in eccentric time signatures. Shazam loves Duke Ellington and blue-eyed soul. Doodles is a curator of beatnik obscurities. I count on their open-eared acuity. Having a listening group as a sounding board of directors turns the sprawl of music history into a rolling conversation with friends, a renewable resource, an endless delight.

Tim Davis is a photographer and associate professor of photography at Bard College.

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