NPR logo Call It A Ritual

Call It A Ritual

Despite the fact that recorded music comes to us in a variety of forms — old, new, emerging, tactile, and weightless — there is still the moment when it arrives in our hands or to our ears. And when we download that album onto computers, phones, and iPods, or we purchase a CD or LP, we have specific ways to go about unleashing those songs.

The process of first hearing an album is a ritual I love. Different from buying a single song, the acquisition of a new album carries a ceremonious quality. Naturally, the experience depends somewhat on the expectations each of us has toward an artist or band. A theretofore unheard-of artist might reveal a less careful or considered listening, but a sophomore album released after a long delay, or the follow-up to an artist's most popular or critically acclaimed release, might induce more scrutiny, or even an anxious first listen.

For me, the ritual associated with hearing an album for the first time depends on the format. With CDs or vinyl, the tearing off of the packaging and the opening of the booklet is part of the process. Often, the first track is playing and I'm still exploring the artwork, the lyrics, the production credits, and the "thank you" list. These distractions often force me to go back to the first few tracks again. With vinyl, I might flip the record over a few times or revel in the smooth, almost magical surface from which the music will emerge. With these formats, it becomes more than an aural experience, but a fully sensory one. I like to think that hearing a new album is like a first-time meeting: You try to have a mix of open-mindedness, curiosity, and a bit of healthy skepticism.

I'm often fidgety at first.Sitting, then standing, then pacing, noticing each time I'm drawn in or losing interest. Other times, the ritual involves doing something other than merely listening — for example, putting on the album and then cleaning the house, making dinner, or talking on the phone. That process is employed more toward bands with which I'm unfamiliar, in the hope that I'll hear something from the other room and want to run back toward the speakers for a closer inspection.

Context also plays a role. A first listen in an office environment is a much more private, even furtive ritual: The headphones are filled with a distraction due to the unfamiliarity of the songs. In a car, the ritual of hearing a new album might involve excessive volume; for some, these are the best speakers we have, which certainly changes the experience.

Some of us listen to these new albums straight through, beginning to end. Others start with songs we might have already heard — the single, an early download. Occasionally, we might get stuck on a song, fall in love early on, and not get past Track 3 for hours. No matter what the process, the means, or the context for hearing a new album, most of us have developed a physical or emotional routine — some sacred, some mundane — but we carry it out regardless.

So, what are your rituals when hearing a new album for the first time?