If you’ve heard it, you know. By now, most of us would have come across it on some CDs we listened to with our parents when we were kids. The last song ends, fades or crashes out, then silence. But the stereo, or CD player or car radio keeps running quietly—you hear the internal mechanisms click while the CD spins.
And for some reason (your dad is up to his shirt sleeves in groceries while your mom is cursing out telemarketers over the phone, and your uncle is maneuvering traffic at rush hour) no one turns the system off.
Minutes go by and you’re no longer paying attention to the CD, because it is over and the daily world has distracted you. You’re sitting at the kitchen counter or in the passenger seat thinking about how they get lead into pencils, and out of the nothingness comes a chord. Then another. And suddenly there is an outburst of that familiar voice, a fever of brass and bass licks.
You look around to see where the music is coming from, confused. When you realize that the CD has come back to life, you imagine the band members having held their breath for the past four minutes. That’s a ghost track.
If you’ve never heard a ghost track before, it isn’t because they’re rare. Most would argue that the first came from The Beatles on their “Abbey Road” album, but theirs certainly wasn’t the only one.
From the Clash’s London Calling to Jay-Z’s Blueprint, from Coldplay to the Black Keys to Kanye to Dave Matthews, ghost tracks show up across the board.
So you really like Ed Sheeran? Wait through the brief thirty second pause at the end of “Give Me Love” and you’ll hear what I’m talking about.
The gap between the end of the last listed song on an album and the traditionally unnamed ghost can last for just a few beats, or it can run for upwards of 10 or 20 minutes.
More often than not these days, iTunes names ghost tracks on a given album’s song list as a bonus track, alerting the buyer not only to the track’s existence, but also to its name and length.
But in the vinyl format, you couldn’t skip ahead or fast-forward to the moment when the hidden song kicked in.
As for CDs, you rarely knew the track would be there waiting for you because it didn’t exist in print on the case, or anywhere for that matter.
I’ve been thinking about ghost tracks a lot lately. The process of reaching them—the false ending of the last song, the hushed waiting, the unexpected return—seems to have a point past aesthetic preference. Springsteen said, “the best music, you can seek some shelter in it momentarily, but it’s essentially there to provide you something to face the world with,” and I’m not one to disagree with the Boss.
Our lives as students have conditioned us to be efficient and busy beings, as though productivity makes us better people.
Sometimes I write out schedules for my days by the hour and I have to block in time for lunch, for calling my sister, and for sleep.
We’re always moving forward, planning and taking our time so seriously. But there is something to be said for silence.
That instead of running around, I could choose to stay and wait. Look around. Listen. Try not to pick up my phone. Consider that just sitting, suspended in those distilled beats of nothingness, might be enough.
And as a senior who is still trying to figure out what I want to be when I grow up, it goes beyond patience. Everyone worries over endings, maybe because we expect things to change or be taken away.
So the unknown makes us weary, I guess. But graduation is a lot like the final measure of the last song on your favorite album—a false ending.
Beyond it, there just might be another song, another instrumental, another whole experience that we can’t predict. It only feels strange because we aren’t used to letting things happen to us, letting chance take over.
What if the whole time we are scared, though, we decide to trust that whatever comes at the end of the quiet will be worth it, that sometimes the best part of the album plays when you least expect it.
I keep telling myself to let the next few makeshift months happen as they may. To see if, instead of dreading the ending and the waiting, I will be able to enjoy the silence as much as I’ve enjoyed the music; knowing all along that there will be a moment when the guitar kicks in and, out of nowhere, a track I’ve never heard starts to play.
-Emily Powers, Class of 2014