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July 4, 2012

PUBLIC NOISE PRIVATE NOISE

Music at 35,000 feet

A vast, genuinely epic landscape of clouds is not required for a good listen, but it sure doesn’t hurt. My wife and I travel quite a lot (mainly for work and medical reasons), and we often use music to help pass the time, to soothe rattled nerves, or to have a private moment in the midst of large crowds.

Travel may be the single biggest way to help yourself evolve, gain new insights and shake up habitual comfort needs. Even a deep sense of being homesick can help you understand your place of origin. With distance, home becomes sweeter, or you may see small flaws and problems you hadn’t before. There’s some scientific explanation for letting the details of your daily life become indistinct — literally, our brain makes our most common experiences into simple maps and helps fill them in — allowing us to move more easily and not relearn our environment every time we walk out the front door.

But the downside of this magical mental topography is that we stop noticing small and beautiful changes — be it the crepe myrtle that is finally blooming or the fact that your neighbor has painted his house a new color. We think we see, but we’re often just remembering what we saw before. So, travel, no matter how mundane the reason, is always a source of joy and excitement for me.

The shocking reality of getting in a plane (if that is your way of moving around) and arriving in a totally different culture is a profound gift and a challenge. It’s a modern amenity that can blow your mind, if you allow yourself to really consider that you are 30,000 feet in the air in a nest of aluminum and glass.

With our access (if we are the lucky few) to iPods, laptops, Discmans (yep, they still exist) and other portable music, we can score these immense changes in reality with our own soundtrack. While this isn’t a radical concept, or even a new one (we’ve had personal audio for almost as long as the radio has existed), we do have much (much!) more music at hand than ever before.

There are thousands of appropriate travel songs (Journey, anyone?), but a few recent memorable listens (while flying) were the classic Blonde Redhead LP Fake Can Be Just as Good (punk elegance), and the excellent “Jetstream” by The Doves. I’d also suggest Kim Deal & Tanya Donnelly’s beautiful cover of Chris Bell’s “You and Your Sister.”

Then scroll over to “Girl I Love You” from the vastly underappreciated album Heligoland; Massive Attack’s super-saturated beats mix perfectly with vocalist Horace Andy’s heart-breaking melody. No one said you have to avoid dramatic emotions in your private theater of sound — it may coincide with an epic sunset sinking over the curve of the horizon, or a blazing sunrise laying across faces near the cabin windows.

If you need a little R&B to motivate your next steps, follow up with “Walk On” from the super-tight live band Mint Condition. How can you not be moved by that beat? Wow, suddenly home.

So, the dust is settling. Time to regroup and calm your brain, a palimpsest from the last few days. You head for the front-porch swing.

This time, you don’t need any headphones, because the sound world right here is full of glorious organic composition. You may hear the kids playing at the nearby swing sets, the cicadas humming, a few chimes.

If it’s dusk, cooking and laughter drift in. The expressway seems farther away tonight, and the shuddering drone of trucks actually seems more like oceanic white noise. Kind of nice.

Music is still part of this moment, of course. Each passing car gives a Doppler wave of sound: a few recent pop hits and hip-hop bass and thumping Led Zep beats. A tiny cell-phone speaker just barely pokes through. The wind rolls through some unruly honeysuckle bushes. Your skeleton settles.

If you’re lucky, your recent travel companion is there with you, sharing a glass of tea or lemonade.

Maybe you’ll both feel like you never noticed how this one spot, at this time, in your city, is so much better than you remember.

Inspired by the book “The Nasty Bits” by Anthony Bourdain.

Jason Noble is a Louisville musician who has performed with the bands Shipping News and Rachel’s, among others.