I WOKE recently, in the unfamiliar and unfurnished silence of a new apartment, into a hyperawareness of the music around me. Without recourse to radio, tapes, CDs, or television, I suddenly found myself aware of -- no, listening to -- a sort of secondhand music emanating from the machines and appliances nearby. My alarm clock woke me that morning, as it does every working day, on a distinctly musical note (B natural, to be precise). I shuffled sleepily to the refrigerator, which kept up a stoic hum (B-flat) as I reached into its guts for a frozen bagel. The bagel I subjected to the resolute drone (E) of the microwave, which concluded its efforts with a ding! (the B-flat an octave above the refrigerator hum) just as my teakettle began to whistle (A). Later that morning my subway train pulled me into town with a weary whine (F), and the office elevator deposited me on my floor with a relieved bleep (C-sharp). I entered the code (C) of the security system with a staccato flourish and was at work.
I recognized three main tones in my office that morning, a triad that seemed to be a constant. At the bottom was the deep drone of the heater. Above that was the idling of my computer -- a smug electronic purr. And whenever I picked up the phone, a dial tone sang insistently in my ear.
Was this music, or just background noise? The question set me off on a somewhat embarrassing hunt for an answer, which often had me bending down awkwardly in public places, pitch pipe in my mouth, trying to determine the notes played by computer printers, heating units, and the like. What was most interesting to me was the combinations of notes in my immediate environment. As my guide, I took Leonard Bernstein.