Saturday, August 23, 2014

The sound of music

It's not that I bear any ill will towards Julie Andrews.
 
She has that peculiar British pluck, that surprising worldly-wise wry sense of humor that her stately demeanor belies. Those are traits that I really do appreciate and greatly admire. If I am completely honest, there are even one or two tunes from My Fair Lady that I do enjoy when I happen to hear them, or, more likely, when they rise briefly from memory to play in my mind's ear. Admittedly that is, thankfully, a very, very rare occurrence nowadays.

You see, when I was a young'un, things were very different. Before the internet, before cable, before CDs, when HiFi not WiFi was the state of the art. In those distant times, still as sharp in my mind as the point of a tack, Julie Andrews show tunes including Camelot, My Fair Lady, The Sound of Music, and, of course, (shudder) Mary Poppins, were mercilessly etched into the neural pathways of my brain. Those LPs played and played relentlessly in our house, courtesy of one or two members of my family who shall remain nameless. They know who they are.
 
Just as my father-in-law, rest his soul, learned to despise even the sweetest, most succulent August corn, fresh from the harvest, its only crime being that it, and it alone, sustained his life through the unbearable hardships of World War II, I despise the sound, the merest suggestion even, of the vast majority of Julie Andrew's remarkable body of work, and chief among them, the sweet treacly Sound of Music.

It's a small wonder then that I appreciate music at all. But I truly do.
 
Jazz moves me, almost unfailingly. And the blues, well, nothing resonates more agreeably than a really good blues track.

Oddly, counter-intutively, the place I enjoy the music I love the most, is on the road, playing in my helmet, as I cruise along. That's the sound of music I'm talking about.
 
Wednesday morning was one of those mornings. I came to work through Outremont, south over the eastern shoulder of the mountain on Park, west up Pine Avenue to Peel, then south again sweeping down Peel past the McGill Faculty of Law, right on de Maisonneuve, left on Mountain and into the underground parking at 1350 René-Lévesque. That last bit was accompanied by Colin James' rendition of Three Hours Past Midnight.

If you have a Sena SMH10, synched to an iPhone, and you wear ear plugs (yes ear plugs), you know what I mean. Man oh man!

If I had to make a list of the most surprising things I have experienced since I began riding a motorbike, that experience easily tops the list as the most surprising, the most unexpected, the most inexplicably marvelous.

It is the confluence of things that, by themselves, taken individually, you would never expect could yield such a pleasurable result. I certainly never would have believed it.
 
Take ear plugs to start. Ear plugs are born of pain, suffering, and fear. Certainly not pleasure by any means. I had read that some riders wore ear plugs. I had read forum posts by experienced riders exhorting fellow riders to wear them. Even offering free ear plugs to anyone willing to try them out. Nuts I thought. Crazy what people think. Ear plugs? I want to hear the idiot coming at me thanks very much! Sheesh!
 
And then I cut my windshield to an unfortunate height. The deep rumbling turbulence drummed maddeningly in my ears. I truly feared irreversible loss of hearing. I met a rider whose loud pipes had so far saved his life, but sadly largely destroyed his hearing. And so I resorted to ear plugs. Yuck. It took forever for my tender ears to accept them without pain. I hated my footsteps resonating in my skull with every stride I took. It felt terrible. But at least I wasn't going slowly deaf.

By the time I recut the windshield to a more sensible height that eliminated the sonic cranial assault, a curious thing had happened. I was accustomed to wearing ear plugs. I could still hear surrounding traffic just fine. It was the harsh sounds of riding that were pleasantly muted. The wind tearing at my ears had become a pleasant rush, the sound of my bike had acquired a nice soothing tone, I felt more attuned to the traffic around me, more immersed in the ride, less distracted by the clatter of the commute. It was a revelation. The first revelation. Riding without ear plugs was harsh.

And then the Sena happened. I got it as a Christmas gift for my road trip with Bob and Karen. I was after the intercom. The phone connectivity was a bonus, maybe. And the sound of music a very, very distant consideration, if at all. I worried that the Sena protruding on the left side of my helmet would emit more troublesome turbulence. I wondered if I could still wear ear plugs and be able to use the Sena effectively. I was sure there would be painful trade-offs to endure.
 
But the ability to communicate effectively on a road trip was worth the hassle.
 
Let me say now that the unexpected result of combining these elements that individually have potentially noxious features, is heaven. There is no turbulence from the Sena. And the Sena is fine with ear plugs. More than fine. By some accoustic black art, ear plugs raise the Sena to sound studio perfection. Phone calls and the intercom are crystal clear, like a Star Trek communicator. Completely impossibly perfect. As if I am government agent with a million dollar communications system at my disposal. It's that good. People are amazed that I'm riding at 100 kilometers an hour while we chat.
 
And the music... the sound of music... bliss inducing. That's the only way I can describe it.
 
Can I still hear the traffic? Absolutely. Am I distracted? Not one little bit.
 
The music playing has an insulating effect similar to the earplugs. My ability to focus on the traffic is improved. The music soothes, calms my mind, eliminates the need to rush, the impulse to dart. It gives me a serene environment where cool thought focuses my attention on what's truly important, the traffic that surrounds me, the distance I'm maintaining from the vehicle in front of me, the intentions of the drivers in adjacent lanes, and the rest of my commuter's world.
 
That's my sound of music.
 
If I've piqued your curiosity, and you think you might give ear plugs a try, I suggest ordering a trial pack of earplugs from the Aerostitch catalog. For under $20 you'll get a grab bag of different high-quality ear plugs in assorted sizes, shapes and colours. The likelihood is that you'll find a pair or two in the lot that will work for you. Or you can pick some up in the hardware store where the safety equipment is sold, or at your local pharmacy. Ordering from legendary Aerostich is just plain fun all by itself though.
 
Be warned though, the eventual pleasure that ear plugs promise, comes with some short term pain. A little like new shoes, or leather flip-flops that cause pain for a while before making friends with your body. I suggest you bear with it. Ear plugs will surely pay dividends over time by saving your hearing, but surprisingly will reward you in the near term too, by increasing your riding pleasure.
 

19 comments:

  1. David, I have never been in favour of ear plugs, they hurt after a while. But it seems enough to wear a beanie or a bandana under the helmet to protect my hearing, because after all these years of riding I hear better than my husband would like it ;-)
    I am not into music while riding (at least not in Germany), you will need all your senses for the road.

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    1. Sonja that is a very funny remark. I guess Roland will not be buying you custom ear plugs for Christmas or your birthday, or any other occasion for that matter.

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  2. I wear ear plugs on longer trips but rarely on my short commute. I had picked up a custom made set at a BMWMOA rally and they are comfortable for all day riding. And make a huge difference in reducing fatigue.

    For me, the sound from the Sena is muted with earplugs and the high frequencies are lost. I also only listen to music, audiobooks and podcasts on longer trips but find it somewhat distracting.

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    1. Right now I'm using a pair of silicone ear plugs from the bunch I got from Aerostitch. I think they might be Etymotics. They are not as comfortable as custom fitted no doubt, but work well for my commute. My commute is 30 kms each way and I take the expressway about half the time. If I plan to stay on the surface streets I sometimes forego the earplugs.

      With the ear plugs in I crank the Sena up to the top end of the volume range. I guess I don't miss the highs.

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  3. A good post David.

    I always wear earplugs, although it wasn't always so. It was hard to find some small enough that didn't hurt.

    I don't listen to music or have a smart phone to interrupt me when riding. I prefer to sing in my helmet, although with the intercom on voice activated hubby might not prefer it. :-)

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    1. Thanks Brandy.

      I've only used the intercom when riding with Bob. Neither of us used the voice activation. I find the touch to talk feature works really well. Plus I didn't have to listen to Bob sing (or sneeze).

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  4. David, ear plugs for me have always been part of "all the gear." The research shows they reduce your risk of hearing damage due to wind noise and reduce rider fatigue making you a safer rider. Like Trobairitz I found the little foam cheapies really difficult, they would continually pop out so for years now I've been wearing custom made plugs. Like Richard attested to, you can wear them all day. I really notice something is wrong if I forget to put them in, even on a short trip. I rarely listen to music (there are already too many dam voices going on in my head to want any more noise =D

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    1. Yup, I would never ride without ear plugs for any length of time. It's weird to me because I came to this situation in such a backwards kind of way.

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  5. Agree David, a very fine Post. Ear Plugs All The Time for me. Like Trobairitz, I'm often making my own music in my head. When non-riders ask me "what do you do when it rains?" I reply "sing show tunes".

    "I'm riding in the rain...just riding in the rain...what a glorious feeling....."

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  6. Doug that's cute. Thanks for that, I've got that tune playing in my mind as I write this.

    Interesting how many of us rock ear plugs and use kill switches.

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  7. I'm no stranger to ear plugs - I use them frequently in the shop - but have never really felt the need when riding. Perhaps when I'm deaf as a post.... As for music, I find it a distraction. The bikes we rented in Vegas last year had full stereos and mine was on for probably 5 minutes during the entire 7 days. Like Coop and Trobairitz I am usually humming or singing (badly) some tune that's stuck in my mind, and if not am more than content to listen to the sounds of the ride.

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  8. Oh, and I forgot to mention, "Riding in the Rain" is a favourite. :)

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    1. Dave come to think of it, I'm much more likely to listen to music during my commute than when I'm riding for fun. I didn't listen to music during the ride in Italy or during the tour last summer. Yet I often do when I'm commuting.

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  9. I use ear plugs when traveling above 70 km/h or so. Below that speed the wind screen with the laminar lip do a good job of keeping things quiet. When I take the Gardiner expressway to/from work, I tuck in behind the wind screen rather than use ear plugs for those 5 to 10
    minutes of riding. BTW, it's amazing how quiet Vespa is at 100 km/h when the wind noise is not there.
    I also have the same Sena set. using it for phone calls when I'm on-call at work. It works well. My coworker couldn't tell I was bombing down Gardiner at over 90km/h when he called. One thing I'm concerned about is when taking the helmet off my head the helmet strap hits the microphone boom and moves it. I hope it won't break it.

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    1. Michael the boom can get in the way. With a modular helmet it tends to get chewed up when you close the helmet. You can get a replacement for the docking - boom mike part for a very reasonable price. It's also very well made. So I wouldn't worry too much.

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  10. I have attempted music while riding but find it more distracting than anything. Maybe because I can't adjust the volume as I ride? I've tried earplugs to cut down on noise although they have yet to become part of my day to day gear.

    I agree with you on jazz but not so much the modern stuff. Strangely the only nice words I have to say about my first wife was she taught me how to truly listen to classical music...and that made me a fan. Ever try to listen to a Vivaldi sonata at 88.5 KMH? It's tough dude!

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    1. Rob, in my twenties and thirties I listened to a lot of classical music, and some jazz. Over time, jazz took over. Blues was always a close second right from my teens to today.

      When Susan and I were in Venice in May, we enjoyed a live performance of Vivaldi's Four Seasons in a church, not far from the Academia bridge. It was one of the most satisfying live performances I have ever attended.

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  11. I totally agree 100% about the earplugs creating a better helmet environment. I found the same thing with my sena and that is made it sound better, I also feral calmer when I ride. Great post David!

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    1. Ear plugs and music is another topic where there are different preferences. I think each combination of bike, helmet and rider produces a unique listening environment.

      We all share a common love of riding though, that's certain.

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