Dear Music: Spare My Innocent Ears!

By Yu Kwang-chung 余光中[1]

Translated by Sunny Tien and Ivan Wong

MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright April 2020)

Once when the famous Chinese vocalist Xi Mude was traveling by taxi, popular music was playing loudly in the car. When she asked the driver to turn down the volume, he asked, “You don’t like music?” to which Xi Mude said, “No, I don’t like music.” It’s rather ironic for a vocalist to face such a question. First, there are many types of music. The prevalent loud noise that plagues Taiwan, though also called “music,” is not appreciated by true music lovers. Second, the beauty or quality of music is not determined by its volume. Some “aficionados” of popular music seem more interested in the machinery than the music itself. In the tight confines of a taxicab, such loud music is simply excessive. Further, music is not like air, to be taken in at every moment. Must music be forced upon us every time we enter a taxi? People with ceaseless tunes in their ears aren’t necessarily true lovers of music.

Taiwanese society is awash with “music,” and those who claim to love it. My deepest sympathy goes to my friends in the music industry. Like the French poet Baudelaire, I don’t know much about music theory, but I love music. I am confident that I have sensitive ears, but I loathe mediocre music. In Taiwan, my ears are assaulted every time I go out, sometimes even when I’m at home. Over time, I have almost come to fear all kinds of music. Such noise is inescapable in Taiwan, and often labeled “music”. While we were created with self-defense systems, they’re rather imbalanced. Faced with unpleasant sights, we can simply close our eyes, but we can hardly block out this ever-present music. As an amateur music lover, I feel utterly trapped and disturbed by this constant barrage of sounds. It’s a miracle that professional musicians can survive it at all.

Of all the cities I have visited, the taxis in Taiwan are the rowdiest, with two loudspeakers blasting the passenger from inches away. In the past I would have just forced myself to ignore this noise, thinking I wouldn’t be in the taxi forever, but recently, emboldened by the campaign against secondhand smoke, I have launched a campaign of my own against unwelcome music, and now I simply ask the driver to turn it off. Such music irritates and distracts, making it impossible for passengers to rest, hold conversations, or make requests to the driver. Truly a menace to be avoided.

In the United States, Europe, and Japan, music is not played in taxis by default. The same is true on trains, Spain being the only exception. In all the countries where I have traveled by train―Sweden, Denmark, West Germany, France, the UK, the US, Canada, and Japan―loudspeakers on trains were used only to announce stops, and had nothing to do with music. But for some reason, music is always played on trains in Taiwan. The genre jumps between traditional Chinese music, lighter Western fare, and popular Taiwanese songs of the day, mingled as in a poorly made cocktail. The volume, though not excessive, still deprives one of peace and quiet, preventing sleep or introspection.

I once heard that when C.T. Hsia was chatting with another writer on the Tze-Chiang Express in Taiwan, he asked the conductress to turn down the music because he found it disruptive. She was occupied at the time and did not respond to his request. Driven to desperation, Hsia knelt before her and pleaded again. The volume was finally turned down, and the two writers happily resumed their discussion. But soon the noise returned, so Hsia said to his fellow writer, “It’s your turn to kneel.”

Although Hsia is known for his eccentricities, it is doubtful whether he was erratic enough to kneel on a train to have the music turned down. Perhaps the story had been exaggerated, or perhaps he threatened the conductress with something like, “If you don’t turn the music off, I’ll beg on my knees.” But one can imagine how unbearable certain kinds of music can be. This story may not be true, but the sentiment is not unrelatable. It’s quite contradictory that the announcements on the trains ask passengers to restrain their children and stop them from shouting, while the music blares non-stop. I try to tolerate the music on trains by plugging my ears with tissue paper, but that merely reduces the volume, without eliminating it entirely. Recently, while on a train myself, my patience ran out, and in the spirit of rejecting secondhand smoke, I passed the following note to the conductor:

Dear Conductor,
The music has been non-stop all the way from Kaohsiung to Chiayi, and I cannot sleep or think. Would you mind turning down the volume, so the passengers can rest their ears?

Three minutes later, the music went off altogether, and I was blessed with silence all the way to Taipei. I had signed the note, but I don’t know whether to credit that blissful train ride to my name or the conductor’s willingness to hear reason. Although I was grateful, I still hope the Railways Administration would consider eliminating music broadcasts on trains, so that I wouldn’t have to ask every time to have it turned down. If music is considered indispensable for long-distance passenger trains, why are there no requests for music from passengers on long flights, trapped on an airplane for hours and hours?

In case any reader is left with the impression that I hate music, that cannot be further from the truth. I am, in fact, a disciple of music, revering it with not only passion, but faith and devotion. I appreciate the elegance of traditional Chinese music, the majesty of Western classical music, the innocence of folk music, the boldness of rock-and-roll, and the relaxed freedom of jazz. From the passionate compositions of southern Europe to the psychedelic melodies of the Middle East and India―all fill me with excitement and emotion. Thus, I am a proponent of listening to music properly, with respect and reverence. Misusing music in the wrong setting is not only disrespectful to music, but also rude to those who don’t want to hear it. I would claim that any good piece of music, whether instrumental or vocal, is worth a dedicated audience, and worth listening to without the distraction of multitasking. Music has its inherent value and can have a positive influence on our temperament, character, and state of mind. However, today’s society treats music as a mere distraction for the bored, its function often equivalent to a piece of chewing gum. Other times, music is treated as a mood-making decoration, little more than neon lights.

The opposite of music is not silence, but noise. A sharp mind appreciates music and treasures silence. If one cannot enjoy silence, one cannot truly enjoy music. I would suggest that truly great music will always bring the audience unrivaled tranquility. This is why the astronauts in 2001: A Space Odyssey were listening to none other than Bach. Silence is the source of all wisdom. When the Buddhist monk Bodhidharma famously gazed at a wall in meditation, he was faced with the emptiness of silence. When one is left in silence, one must converse with oneself, a frightful situation for many. Therefore, this silence must be broken with some form of sound. On the other hand, masterful or majestic music forces one to face a great soul, also a burden too heavy for most. One is thus forced to find a third alternative to silence and music, also labeled “music” but in truth something between music and noise, a weak, undisciplined distraction.

In The Magic Mountain, Thomas Mann writes that “Music quickens time, she quickens us to the finest enjoyment of time.” He, of course, is referring to masterful music, and only masterful music can provide true enjoyment, with its variety of melodies and rhythms. Conversely, “weak music”―if it can be called music at all― slackens time and our sensitivity to it. I am referring to some pop songs from Taiwan that have shallow themes, juvenile lyrics, and mediocre tunes, lacking development and climax, with little more than prefabricated conclusions. These songs are akin to literature strung together with oft-misused clichés, entirely devoid of authorial creativity. Songs like this have somehow come to dominate popular culture in Taiwan, from popular variety programs on television to karaoke in salons and bars, providing the public with a depressing excuse for music. As Russian composer Mikhail Glinka wisely stated, “A nation creates music―the composer only arranges it.” If it is true that music stems from the nation, we in Taiwan have some serious soul-searching to do as a nation.

Plato voiced this concern about music more than 2,400 years ago. He said, “Music and rhythm brings grace and health to the soul and body, but an excess of music has its perils, like an excess of gymnastics. Gymnastics to the exclusion of all else makes one a barbarian; music to the exclusion of all else leaves one ‘softened beyond use’.” He might not be entirely correct, but an excess of music does have perils worth cautioning against. Taiwan’s abuse of music is like pollution of her air; its harm is beyond repair.

Over the years, enough music has been forced into my ears to last dozens of lifetimes, and yet there will be more tomorrow. If I were to dine out tomorrow, be it at a crowded banquet or a secluded meal with friends, I will likely encounter music. In the worst case, the discord would be so loud that people would have to scream at each other to be heard, exhausting the voices and spirits of all present. Some restaurants and cafes even have live performers on keyboards, with tumultuous melodies and unrefined trills sustaining a cheap, plastic mimicry of music. If I am unlucky enough to encounter a celebration, there might even be a singer performing on stage, introduced by some glib-tongued emcee. On the streets, entire blocks are often invaded by some marriage or funeral, with music looming over the crowds. Sometimes the music comes screeching in the night, drowning entire neighborhoods in a cacophony of pop songs, glove puppetry, and chamber music, as though the city has reached the end times, plunged into a hell of noises. Anyone naïve enough to call the police is bound to be disappointed. We have fallen far as a nation, once known for its etiquette and music. Knowing that this cacophonous hell stems from a few cheap tapes and a loudspeaker, to be summoned at the whim of any cretinous “musician,” simply fills me with rage. With the most advanced technologies to support the most primitive superstitions, this menace grows.

If my friends and I were to find a remote island, where an ideal country could be created, the first article of our constitution would be to ban all loudspeakers from entry. Any smugglers of them would be chemically transmogrified into mice and imprisoned in loudspeakers for life. The second article would prohibit all music players in scenic locales. Gentlemen of old considered acts like yelling in flower fields and raising lamps under the moon to be deplorable. Before the days of Thomas Edison, surely nobody would have taken a phonograph on a trip to the countryside. But today the “music-loving” youths and their electronic devices seem inseparable, as though they would go into withdrawal were they to enter nature without them. If one cannot leave these devices of “civilization” behind and enjoy the sounds and sights of nature in peace, why bother leaving the city at all? Why go through all the trouble, only to force secondhand music on your innocent ears?

Back home, whether its a program or commercial on television, it’s unceasingly accompanied by music, and there are even contests whereby anyone from the elderly to children can grab a microphone and mimic the performances of pop stars, echoing the ill-conceived lyrics of their songs. Night after night, the entire nation engrosses itself in the excess of music Plato had warned us about, the vulgar noise that Confucius feared.

Music accompanying serial dramas is loud and dense to the point of excess, their themes shallow to the point of annoyance. Period martial arts series are somehow paired with romantic Western strings, eschewing traditional Chinese instruments. There is a current martial arts series that seems interesting, but paired with a weak and dejected song, utterly lacking in heroism, it is indistinguishable from the contemporary romance shows a channel over. Has our music fallen so far? The same applies to many movies, with directors compensating for their lack of imagination by using forceful and cluttered tunes as a crutch to carry their plots and themes, unable to utilize the subtlety and suspense of silence or the atmosphere of natural sounds. The music mutters from start to finish, leaving the viewer stressed and fatigued. Silence is to music as blankness is to a painting, and a movie cluttered with music is like a painting drowned in color: a sign of ineptitude.

Do we really need so much music in our lives? Does drifting aimlessly on perpetual sound waves all day prove that music has permeated our society? Of all kinds of art forms, music is the most intrusive and dominant of the present. People who dislike literature can avoid books, those who dislike paintings can turn their backs on them, and those who do not want to watch dramas need not be forced to. Only music is like a skilled hurdler, unstoppable and capable of averting any obstacle that comes in its way, assaulting your ears and in the end, jittering your nerves. Modern cities are already so densely populated that if we do not rein-in our electronic devices to reduce the volume and frequency of their constant sound, those of us who are most disturbed by this incessant “noise” will feel inundated and under attack, as if by an escaped tiger.

If this trend of constantly filling the airwaves with music continues, there may be at least two consequences. One is that the cacophony of noises, half-noises, and sub-noises will dull our ears, rendering us unable to appreciate silence or hear true music. The second consequence is even worse. Silence allows us to think, and true music enhances our sensitivity to time. But when perpetually exposed to mediocre, undisciplined “music,” our breath and pulse fall captive to its erratic rhythm, and we lose the ability to think straight. And once we are not able to think, not willing to think, or don’t even dare to think, that will ultimately become the chronic cause of the withering of our cultural life.

So please, dear music, spare my innocent ears.

September 15, 1986


[1] “Raole wode erduo ba, yinyue” 饒了我的耳朵吧,音樂. Published in Geshui hudu 隔水呼渡 (Taipei: Jiuge, 1990).