I Stopped Listening To Music For A Year. Here’s What I Learned About Myself

Photographed by Beth Sacca
Canaries stop singing each autumn. After moulting, they lose all energy for making music and focus wholeheartedly on regrowing their feathers. Then, when they're warm again in their wintry down, they relearn birdsong, year after year after year.
In 2021 I've had my own period of silence and regrowth. It started with an accident: I lost my AirPods around Christmastime 2020. They popped out of my purse somewhere on one of my daily walks, like the One Ring betraying me, and I was stranded mid-lockdown in my noisy family home, unable to vanish inside an album as I typically would. Oh, how powerful these tiny white pods were, and how lost I was without them: my audial armour against the outside world shattered. I used to wear them everywhere, folding myself into their pulsating casings on every (rare) run and (frequent) nap, emptying my brain into Bob Dylan, Megan Thee Stallion, Bach, Little Mix.
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The first few days without them, I was liberated and listening. Traffic! Boyfriend snoring! The fresh, midwinter sound of relearned birdsong! Sharp realities were thrown into focus, as if the world had released its soft pedal.
Surprisingly, I was quite enjoying it. My unmusical days turned into a week and as my family monitored their privation of alcohol for Dry January, blotting out the occasional 'wet' day on the calendar, I realised I was counting the days I'd lived without music. It became a personal challenge — a Quiet January, if you will ± a test to see how long I could go.
January fell into February and still I was music-free. Sure, I missed my emotional support artist Emmy the Great, and my daily confidence injection from Nikki Minaj, and the skull-vibrating escapism of System Of A Down. But what the hell, I was here now. Why not go the whole nine yards?
"No, but seriously, why would you do that?" my editor asked when I pitched this story. "Why would you give up music for no good reason, for a whole year?" Good question. Unlike refraining from alcohol, giving up music has no determinable health or lifestyle benefits that I know of. According to the stack of papers I have consumed this year, in the main, listening to music has only positive influences: on concentration, athletic performance — it even reduces anxiety.
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Here's where I've landed. My 'why' has something to do with control or — more accurately — trying to gain some back. In January 2021 the Delta variant was swamping its way across the globe (sounds familiar), my workload was going to the bad place, my relationship felt like a too-tight guitar string that was about to prang. Giving up music was something — a small, perhaps pointless, probably stupid, thing — but at least I was the boss of it. I used to use music to bolt, flee, divert from real life. It was time to sit with myself quietly and confront.
Of course, hearing some music was unavoidable. Like on social media (though I resigned myself to scrolling with the sound off) or through other people's headphones as I pressed up against them on the Tube as lockdown lifted, surreptitiously eavesdropping. Instead, what I committed to doing was not actively listening. Not sitting down with an album or putting some music on in the background while cooking; not consuming anything more than what happened through inevitable osmosis.
Come spring, I started getting sharp yearning pains, the same kind you get when you've not seen your best friend for a while. I redownloaded The Sims and made them all really good at the piano.
Summer brought warmer weather and reopening, and I began to truly sit with my music-free rhythms. I broke up the cadences of the day in other ways. I replaced challenging jazz with newscasts when cooking, and comforting '90s playlists with shitty pods like 6 Degrees From Jamie & Spencer. I got heavy into ASMR, finding percussion in the tingly click-clacks of acrylics.
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I also created a discography of jingles that I sang to myself. Primitive ditties, usually about my dog (think: "His name was Billy, he was a show dog", to the tune of "Copacabana"), which scratched that part of my brain craving melody.
This was all fine but not exactly what I had set out to do. I had replaced musical distraction with more distraction. So, come autumn, I was determined to do something positive with my soundless headspace instead of just crooning sweet nothings to my puppy.
Quietly, I started meditating whenever I would have distracted myself from serious thought with music — in stolen pockets of time on my commute, while doing the weekly shop, on my lunch break. This was a cleansing, clarifying experience that resulted in real change. I used the time to think hard about my life and reprioritise what was important to me. I quit my job, I ditched a friendship that no longer served me, I nurtured another, I got engaged.

As my John Cage year started to draw to a close, I started panicking in a very journalisty way about all the cultural touchpoints I'd probably missed. On 1st December everyone shared their Spotify Wrapped playlists, which filled me with FOMO. I haven't heard Taylor Swift’s new album, nor Adele’s. Is Wet Leg really as good as everyone says? And what about this Wiffygriffy character? I've never had my finger massively on the pulse but going into 2022 I'm embarrassingly out of touch.
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There were, of course, moments where I faltered. Just last week, my boyfriend and I were in our old banger of a car on the way back from a wintry beach walk when suddenly, going over a bump, the ancient, dusty CD player spun into action. From another lifetime, The Mountain Goats' "No Children" came to life and John Darnielle sang: "I hope you die, I hope we both die." I burst uncontrollably into tears and we listened to the whole thing, screaming our lungs out with the windows down.
Other than that one passionate road bump, I pretty much made it a whole year without music. I didn't solve any great psychological puzzles about the meaning of life, nor did I expect to. It started as a stringent personal challenge and I've risen to it, making meaningful changes that ultimately leave me happier at the end of the year than when I started it. I am proud of myself but — unlike the canary songbirds who are currently in the midst of yet another quiet spell — I will never, ever do it again.
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