What Does Music Have To Do With Travel?

Many of us travel with our headphones on, but does the medley of a beautiful place and an appropriate song actually influence the memories we bring back?  
Sohini's Crewcut
Photo by: Joe Daniel Price/Moment/Getty Images

At 17, C and I had found our song. It was 2008—which meant an Internet-blessed romance with someone you’d have to travel 2,000 kilometres to meet was a fine tragedy to sign up for. It also meant the only travelling we ever did was virtual, between the lyrics of songs about absent cities, or about the unyielding charm of distance. As Plain White T’s wondered “What’s it like in New York City?” (“Hey There Delilah”), so did I. I’d never been to Times Square (still haven’t) but idling away in my bedroom, I could feel the gaze of neon billboards, hulking above an ocean of fleeting faces. In short, I’d discovered that playlists can double as maps when your destination is one too many reality bites away.

Come to think of it, travel and music have always had a soft nexus. So often, our interaction with a place acquires depth and dimension from the presence (intended or accidental) of music in the background. The nondescript lane you are walking down acquires character. Whatshername, out to squabble over the price of bhindi, glides past in cinematic movements. The music colours your experience, and eventual memory of the place. This may or may not have much to do with the place as it stands, but that’s irrelevant.

I, for one, can no longer distinguish the climbing crescendo of “Your Hand In Mine,” by post-rock collective Explosions in the Sky, from the image of a split-yolk sun slipping into the sea at Palolem in Goa. Would I have felt the way I did in the moment, spied the odd stain of russet on a wave, tasted brine in the air with the same alacrity, had my headphones been playing a different song, or none? I imagine not. Then a fresh import from Kolkata, my classic cliché of bracing Bombay, arms out, Bollywood in, would never have been realised had I not played myself “Boondon Ke Moti” (Wake Up Sid) on my first visit to Nariman Point. It’s another thing that I had to block out the jostling posteriors that stood between me and my filmy moment. Your song-place associations may be less revolting, but I’m sure they exist just the same.

Then, there’s music that conspires to push you out on the road, and to very specific places, without you budging an inch. Songs that evoke countries (“Africa” by Toto), cities (“Yeh Hain Bombay Meri Jaan“ by Mohammad Rafi; “Empire State of Mind” by Jay-Z ), states (“Sweet Home Alabama,” by Lynyrd Skynyrd), neighbourhood (“Brooklyn Roads,” by Neil Diamond), streets (“Bleecker Street ”by Simon & Garfunkel) or just a general sense of chasing the trail (“Sleep On The Floor” by The Lumineers).

My freind, J, tells me he sticks to songs that are lyrical while travelling—gems from Mark Knopfler, Kishore Kumar, Asha Bhosle or Regina Spektor—so that repeat inspections of the words can lay bare complexities he might have earlier missed. I imagine him picking up each pause and prelude like one might hold a hibiscus set aside for dissection, the scenery bolting by, steeped in fresh awareness. The daily commute-survivor prefers copping a spot near a local train door in Mumbai, singing along loudly to nobody’s alarm.

S, a former colleague, cannot imagine exerting his brain in the sweat-Nivea-kanda poha scented rugby scrum that is the inside of a Mumbai train. If he has to suffer the hustle, he’d rather be kept company by music that projects the same raw energy, usually numbers by Mumbai rapper Divine. He claims the tapori language meshes well with harbari around. I toy with the idea of testing the truth of his words on my way back from work, but then remember what had happened the last time I’d tried listening to music on a local train, and weasel out.

Just out of university and into the city, I would never go anywhere without my headphones—life, after all, had just acquired a dreamy new soundtrack. So it was natural, that I would board a Churchgate-bound train, grooving my brains out to Bombay Vikings’ “Kya Surat Hain.” It was also natural that I would walk straight into the ample bottoms of a feisty friyam chipswali. “Kuthe jaate maraila?!” (“Where the heck are you going?!”) she had barked at a volume that could offend Daler Mehendi. The detail in which I remember the platform, where the train had just pulled in (Matunga), and my ensuing apathy for poor Neeraj Shridhar (the singer), or train rides in general, cemented the song-place-journey theory adequately in my mind.

  • Sohini Das Gupta travels with her headphones plugged-in and eyes open. While this doesn't stall the many accidents that tend to punctuate her journeys, it adds some meme-worthy comic relief. She is Assistant Editor at National Geographic Traveller India.

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