The Sadness of Sonder


by Zoe Matthews

Sonder (n): The realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own—populated with their own ambitions, friends, routines, worries and inherited craziness—an epic story that continues invisibly around you like an anthill sprawling deep underground, with elaborate passageways to thousands of other lives that you’ll never know existed, in which you might appear only once, as an extra sipping coffee in the background, as a blur of traffic passing on the highway, as a lighted window at dusk.

Anytime I find myself at a transportation hub, be it the train station or the airport, I am struck with this overwhelming sense of deep introspection. But more frequently, I’ve begun to see a connection between the sonder I experience with people, and the same phenomenon I experience when I discover a new musician.

When I was in high school, a wise senior told me that the beautiful thing about music is that the more you know about it, the more you realize you know nothing about it at all. I’ve taken that to heart, and as my music library becomes more and more expansive, ever growing and changing with my tastes and moods, I’ve begun to experience sonder with every band I discover.

It doesn’t matter whether I’m hearing a brand new artist who hasn’t broken into the scene yet, or finding a gem from the ’90s that I previously overlooked (or perhaps never even noticed). The joy and surprise of finding new music has led me to think about how intensely someone sitting next to me on the train might have been listening to that very artist, and how that music may have changed and identified that person’s life in some way.

Music is a lot like people. You skip a song on the radio after listening for two seconds and realizing it’s something you don’t recognize, just like  you walk by someone without noticing them because their face isn’t familiar. Other times, you face brief moments of true and intimate connection. You decide to stay tuned to that station because those two seconds of sound that you registered actually triggered something pleasant in your mind. Likewise, you decide to keep talking to someone you met on the subway or street because something about them draws you in. These chance encounters bring vitality and meaning to our lives.

Oftentimes, I think we miss out on those life-changing encounters because we close ourselves off to the possibility that the people populating our lives as “extras” may invoke something more in us. I beseech you, do not do the same with music. The library of music is vast and wondrous, just as the population of humans are. Sure, you’ve probably got to weed through a lot of crummy people and even more crummy music, but isn’t it worth it to find the one that changes your life forever? You won’t ever be able to connect to everyone or everything (unless you’re a transcendental being, in which case, kudos, my friend).

However, the simple knowledge that the stranger across the hall from you is living their life just as intensely as you are yours should push you to open yourself up to them; they have their own circle of connections that you may have never experienced before. The same goes for music: if you discover one new band today, don’t let it stop there. Keep pushing and digging for more similar artists and see what you find.

Just before Christmas, I heard Search the City for the first time and immediately was transported to my junior year of high school, when I bowed to the power chord progressions and angsty lyricism of bands like Good Charlotte, Hit the Lights, and New Found Glory. I listened to Search the City in my dorm, and wondered how I had missed them when I was fourteen and jumping on my bed singing horribly out of key to “Dear Maria Count Me In” by All Time Low.

But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that Search the City would have been just another band to me if I’d discovered them in middle or high school. In fact, they’ve been made better by the chance encounter I had with them, only five years off-schedule. And by listening to just one song off their album “A Fire So Big the Heavens Can See It,” I was reminded again how vividly that genre of music had affected my life. It only took thirty seconds of that song for me to be hooked, and the subsequent thirty minutes I devoted to finishing the album for me to realize how much music is like people.

You can let those chance encounters pass you by without letting them sink in, wrapped up in sonder as I so frequently am, or you can open yourself up to the opportunity to create meaningful connections that may change your life.

2 thoughts on “The Sadness of Sonder

  1. Lovely Zoe. Music is one of very few fields that has such potent effects on the way we think and live our lives, not only independently but with one another. Great stuff, you’re talented!

  2. Pingback: Sonder in Music | zoemathews

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