For the longest time, 53-year-old Mrs Josephine Teng has performed the same ritual when she arrives at work every morning.
First, she switches on the lights in her office. Then, she quickly turns on the radio before making herself a cup of coffee. Only when all of this is done – in this precise order – does she finally sit down to begin her day proper.
For all the time she spends in her office with the radio on, Mrs Teng only really listens to music for about five minutes each day. Somewhere in the constant hum of noise, is a cocoon of familiarity in which she feels the most comfortable. Everything seems manageable and her stress level drops significantly.
Interestingly, Mrs Teng is just one of the many Singaporeans who share the same peculiar relationship with sound. Unlike those who plug their headphones in to appreciate good music, or those who give their undivided attention to a show they’re watching, people like her deliberately leave something on in the background while they go about accomplishing other tasks.
Personally, I’ve never understood the phenomenon. As someone who finds peace whenever the world shuts up, I can never understand why anyone would want more noise in their life.
If you’re not even paying attention to what’s playing, what’s the bloody point?
Upon hearing his wife’s predicament, Mrs Teng’s husband suggested she bring the largely-unused radio they had at home to work, hoping that listening to a bit of music would relax her.
He was right, although not in the way he might’ve expected. After all, she wasn’t listening to whatever was playing. The mere fact that the radio was an object from home was enough to imbue its sound with a sense of homely familiarity. It probably also helped that it was, in a way, symbolic of her husband’s support.
The result: this constant murmur of sound made her feel less stressed or alone. Suddenly, difficult tasks seemed less daunting, and she didn’t feel as suffocated or anxious anymore.
Elsewhere, others who spend the majority of their lives in the office point out that background music also helps them remain focused whenever boredom comes a-knocking.
It keeps a part of their brain entertained, ensuring their minds don’t go wandering off to “bad thoughts”. The temptation to fiddle with their phones or strike up conversations with colleagues is kept at bay, and they’re better able soldier on with the task at hand.
In some odd way, the background noise they put on gives them greater control over their own behaviour. It allows them to remain in their bubble; because they’re not seriously paying attention to whatever’s playing, productivity not only isn’t affected, but increased.
On any given day, thousands of them get their work done in the great hive of productivity known as Starbucks, sipping Java Chip frappucinos whilst listening to the latest hits. But being able to concentrate on differentiation whilst Arianna Venti plays in the background? Please.
As is so often the case though, I was wrong. And not because I suck at math.
21-year-old Charissa Lee shares that background music is necessary for her to focus when she studies in public spaces because the predictability and volume of her music masks the ambient noise in the café. It creates a uniform, aural blanket which for her, is much easier to tune out.
More than that though, Charissa and other students I spoke to explain that it’s the ability to control what’s playing that is absolutely crucial. Obligated to spend hours with their nose to the grind, listening to their favourite tunes makes them feel more comfortable whenever they do their revision.
Scientifically, this is because listening to music we like causes the release of dopamine, the “pleasure chemical” responsible for making mankind’s favourite activities such as sex, eating, and listening to music so damn enjoyable. By way of association, studying also becomes more ahem, fun, when you play the music you like in the background.
Take 27-year-old Cheryl Chong for instance. As soon as she gets home from the office, she puts an episode of Friends on before reading a book or scrolling through Instagram. Again, she’s not exactly paying attention to Ross and Rachel breaking up for the hundredth time, but using the noise to distract her from feeling the effects of her own break up.
In the same way Charissa uses music to create a wall of sound that blocks out ambient noise, Cheryl does the same to manage her emotions. Even though it’s been eight months, her pain hasn’t subsided and still creeps in occasionally. She thus needs the background noise to occupy her mind.
When this noise is layered on top of whatever else she’s chosen to actively engage in, Cheryl no longer has the mental capacity to feel or think about anything else.
The ability to process sound happens in the primary auditory cortex in the temporal lobe of our brains, and emotions are processed in the amygdala (which resides in the frontal portion of the temporal lobe). This means that she effectively overloads the part of her brain responsible for emotions to the point where doesn’t have the mental capacity to think about or experience the onslaught of her shitty feelings.
For anyone who’s ever needed to block out negative emotions, you’ll know that background noise serves as a perfect defence.
From being in crowded, uncomfortable spaces (ie. public transport) to dealing with foreign, unfamiliar feelings, this ability to impose on our surroundings a layer of predictable and pleasurable sound allow us to direct our attention inwards.
In other words, it’s all about being able to create your own vibe. We end up focusing on ourselves, rather than on the world that’s out there.
Yet for all the practical applications background noise has, what really seems to be at the heart of it all is our relationship with silence—both literally and metaphorically.
We fear silence and dread feeling alone because when everything’s quiet, all the insecurities, fears, and shortcomings we’ve kept buried deep in the recesses of our minds suddenly rocket to the forefront of our consciousness.
Perhaps more importantly, when that happens, we feel as if we’re losing control.
In a world where multi-tasking has become the normal way of life, and being hyper-organised makes you a god amongst men, feeling lost because we haven’t figured out how to deal with our innermost feelings can be deeply disconcerting.
We therefore resort to anything, even if they don’t exactly sound logical—such as leaving something on in the background—to escape the negative emotions and that feeling of helplessness. By selecting music or videos that make us feel comfortable, we dictate our environment through sound and impose what little control we can. In these moments, the lack of direction and uncertainty fades away.
That said, in a world where our attention is dominated by a constant stream of bite-sized viral content, TV shows, social media, work, and of course life in general, finding the time and headspace to confront our fear of silence (and everything it represents) can be a lot easier said than done.
Given that this is now the new normal, and we’re all constantly distracted, is there even still value in spending the time to just sit with this discomfort?
I would love to say yes, but I honestly don’t know. What I do know is that I now have to go put something on to drown out the voices in my head.