Give it enough time and attention, and anything will become musical.

The same sounds, repeated again and again, compel us to hear melodies and rhythms we usually ignore. Say the same word the same way fifteen times out loud – cookiecookicookiecookiecookiecookiecookicookiecookiecookiecookiecookicookiecookiecookie – and you’ll begin to hear it in new ways. It will seem both more and less familiar, more and less strange. You’ll notice pitch and texture irrespective of meaning.

A visit to the Bangkok Metropolitan Electricity Authority reminded me of this effect two weeks ago. You can usually pay your electric bill at the nearest 7-11, but if you’re delinquent like I was this month, you have to brave the buses on busy Rama IV Road and haul it over to the central office.

When I went, there were at least one hundred people chatting and killing time in the waiting room. I took a number. The process was so efficient that the automated voice was calling numbers in direct, almost uninterrupted succession for minutes at a time. I made this recording while waiting for my number:

For each announcement, the automated female voice began by saying Maai Laehk, which means “number.” Maai has a rising tone; you say it by starting from a low pitch and ending on a higher one. Laehk has a falling pitch; you start with a high pitch and end on a low one. Next, the voice announces the number, and since different Thai numbers have different tones, this introduces some variation. Then she says Deern Tawng, which means (roughly) “walk to.” Deern has a middle tone; you say it without any special inflection. Tawng has a falling tone. Finally, the voice announces the number of the desk that’s just opened up. Then back to the beginning.

The sameness/predictability of the announcement brings out the music in the automated voice, especially if you listen for it. In the middle of a tremendously boring situation, this kind of hearing can be a defense mechanism, a way of stepping away mentally for a moment.

Fashioning political analogies out of allusions to local religion, cycle and repetition have become a trope in recent reports from Bangkok. The reporters ask: is any of this really new? Is this place trapped in a cycle of suffering?

I’ll ask a different question: Are people hearing music here now? And answer it: yes, but music is not always beautiful.

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