It’s never been easier to share music with each other: Here’s a link, there’s a playlist, and off you go. At the same time, my experience of music has become more and more private, more and more mediated by headphones.
Unless I’m at a gig or a concert, it’s rare that I listen to music in the presence of other people. There’s background music, sure, but that feels different—I’m not really listening. Here in New York, there’s always live music on subway platforms, but we don’t listen by choice (and while it’s often great, it can also grate).
Listening to music with others need not be limited to experiences of live music, though. Deliberately listening to recorded music with other people can be a magical experience. That’s especially true if you’re hearing it in a context that's a little unexpected, such as a conference room.
It’s a luxury to be in the same space as others and not need to talk—to just be present.
In our New York studio, we’ve been gathering for a series of shared listening sessions, called the Sonic Shower. It’s a really simple format:
• every month or so
• we spend 15 minutes
• first thing in the morning
• listening to 3 to 5 pieces of recorded music
• from around the world
• that are selected and ordered around a theme
• and played on speakers in a room
• while people listen over coffee
• and glance at light program notes, if they so choose
It’s just a lovely thing to start the day with music. And it’s lovely to be in the company of colleagues without the pressures of drumming up conversation. Listening together creates a delicate, light experience of community that works for everyone, even if you don’t feel much like chatting first thing in the morning.
At IDEO, it’s our job to seek inspiration wherever we can find it. It fuels great design by keeping our teams engaged. We’re great at hunting down visual inspiration in art, type, and digital experiments. But it’s easy to forget to open our ears up in the same way—to expose our brains and hearts to sounds we’ve never encountered before. Music is sonic storytelling—it opens up imaginative doors that we’d be crazy not to go through. Each Sonic Shower is a mix of songs that are somewhat easy (or familiar) and somewhat challenging (or likely different to what you might normally hear).
In so much of our work, we’re interrogating experiences—figuring out what underpins them and picking out aspects that we can replicate or evolve. But during a Sonic Shower we just listen to the music. We don’t feel an obligation to discuss it or derive meaning from it there and then. It’s a luxury to be in the same space as others and not need to talk—to just be present. And, while it does help our work, we don’t treat the Sonic Shower like work. That gives us permission to receive the music as a precious gift. And gratitude feels good.
Cover art from the Sonic Shower playlist.
Here’s what we listened to at a winter-themed session in December. You can find the music on Spotify here.
Hvild (2009) by Hugi Gudmundsson
Now based in Denmark, Gudmundsson is one of the bright lights of contemporary Icelandic composition. A few years ago, in a neat nod to IDEO, he was awarded one of the country’s most prestigious arts prizes: the Optimism Award.
Hvild means "rest." It was written for a friend’s funeral and includes text about carrying water over a mountain...
Snow (1954) by Irving Berlin; performed by Rosemary Clooney and The Mellomen
This is one of the stand-out songs from Bing Crosby’s White Christmas. The movie version features the four leads—Clooney, Crosby, Danny Kaye, and Vera-Ellen—singing the song together on a train. As you do.
Der Leiermann (1828) music by Franz Schubert; poem by Wilhelm Müller; performed by Jonas Kaufmann (tenor) and Helmut Deutsch (piano)
This is the final song of Winterreise (Winter Journey), Schubert’s monumental song cycle for voice and piano. Grab a whisky and listen to the whole thing sometime—it’s an intimate, crystalline marvel.
Der Leiermann translates as "The Hurdy-Gurdy Man." The hurdy-gurdy is an instrument where, to produce notes, you crank a handle that turns a greased wheel against its strings. Here’s the text of the song:
Behind the village stands a hurdy-gurdy man, cranking his instrument with frozen fingers. His begging bowl is always empty; no one listens to his music, and the dogs growl at him. But his playing never stops. “Strange old man. Shall I come with you? Will you play your hurdy-gurdy to accompany my songs?”
The piano does so much more than simply accompany the voice. Elsewhere in the cycle, it becomes a powerful storm, the rush of water beneath ice, a creaking weathervane, and much more. Listen for how, in this song, it conjures up the sparse drone of the hurdy-gurdy.
Winter Darkness (2014) performed by Nils Økland (Hardanger fiddle) and Georg Buljo (voice)
The Hardanger fiddle is a traditional stringed instrument from Norway. Contemporary players such as Økland have coaxed the fiddle into modern music, working with collaborators near and far.
Buljo has done much the same with joik (pronounced ‘yoyk’), one of the oldest vocal traditions in Europe. A joik is both a style and a song form, deeply rooted in the Sami culture of Sweden, Norway, and northern Finland.
All that said, this is a pretty traditional piece—but modern, close recording lets us hear every crack in Buljo’s voice and every bow across the strings.
Does it sound like "winter darkness" to you?