I stood in Trafalgar Square in Central London, taking in the final moments of my study abroad experience. After walking for miles, snapping countless photos in an attempt to capture the memory of the last four months, I hardly expected the most ingrained memory to be aural. As I sat on the steps of The National Gallery, a nearby busker began playing the opening riff to Led Zeppelin’s “Going to California,” a song that had become something of an anthem for me and that I had listened to almost every day since the start of the year. It was a perfect close to the semester. I put my sunglasses on as I started to well up.
The power of live
Only a few weeks prior, a close friend told me about her emotional experience listening to a busker play Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here.” The classic acted as a symbol of closure for a long festering heartbreak, but the emotional significance of the moment can not be attributed only to the song itself. With the rise of streaming and unlimited accessibility to music came a fall in the value of hearing a favorite song. Searching and clicking on any song you want is fine. Hearing the same song played organically on the radio is something special. This effect is amplified with live music, particularly when listening to buskers. At a concert, the setlist will tell the attendee exactly what to expect. A street performer is a roulette wheel of top hits and standards who has something for everyone.
Buskers have entertained cities since the Middle Ages and have since become part of the woodwork. Their music is easy to overlook, but we would undoubtedly miss it in its absence. It brings harmony to an otherwise dissonant world and is a display of connection between strangers. Music is a universal language and has an undeniable ability to bring people together. There is no better example than a crowd of people putting their day on pause to listen to a busker. This magical and hopeful phenomenon also explains the billions of YouTube views dedicated to street performers. Viewers flock to experience this sense of community at second hand. Even through a screen, the magic can be felt.
Money and mozart
Buskers risk humiliation and in some cases a fine, all on a pay-as-you-wish basis. We have all felt the guilt of walking by a performer without paying them. A lack of cash is no longer an excuse as many performers now accept contactless payment.
Listening to “Going to California” brought me back to my first day in London. I timidly wandered the vast city until stumbling upon a string quartet playing Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro Overture” in Covent Garden. While enjoying the music, I jumped when the quartet’s colleague shoved a bucket of change in my face. Frazzled, I dropped into the bucket what I later found was around ten dollars worth of British change. Between the buskers of Trafalgar Square and Covent Garden, I have never so easily parted with money. The sincere comfort received from their music and the people it brought together far outweighed the value of the music and other media I spend on every day.
Thank you, buskers, for offering an opportunity to slow down and to connect, to ourselves and to others. Next time you walk, listen for the sounds of music and how they intertwine with your environment.