I need some help to interpret a sentence. I would like to know what "switch it off" means here for a native speaker. The girl here is thinking about how some people have the ability (which she doesn't have) to remember music and to always hear music in their minds. (The garage is the place where the girl works):

Whenever anything did get stuck in her head— a jingle from a television commercial, some popular tune— she found it claustrophobic and couldn’t wait for it to stop. When music was playing on a stereo or in the garage, she could tune it out or switch it off if it got tiresome, but now she wondered if this was a shortcoming on her part.

Does "switch off" mean "turn off physically the stereo or the music", or just the mental action of ignoring it?

2 Answers 2


When music was playing on a stereo or in the garage, she could tune it out or switch it off . . .

Switch off is used literally to designate turning or flipping a switch to end the functioning of a machine or appliance. But it may also be used metaphorically of mental function: we might speak of "switching off" your attention to some phenomenon.

In your example, where actual music is being played, switch off is probably meant literally, since it contrasts with tune out, a similar expression (drawn from 'tuning' a radio to a particular channel) which today is almost always employed metaphorically.


When music was playing on a stereo or in the garage, she could ignore it or turn the stereo off . . .

  • Clearly, here the contrast is physical versus mental. I would not use switch off for tuning out. If I were making noise (singing or talking), someone might tell me: switch it off. In other words, shut up. I switched off my brain, yes,too.
    – Lambie
    Nov 2, 2018 at 15:25
  • @Lambie - I agree in this case, although it's probably worth noting that switch is indeed often used metaphorically. For example, sports commentators often talk about players or teams who can "flip a switch" during the playoffs.
    – J.R.
    Nov 2, 2018 at 15:31
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    @Lambie It's not unknown -- Google provides almost 300 hits on "switch off your mind", including song and book titles and pop-psych articles. And for a virtually identical metaphor we need look no farther than the Beatles: "Turn off your mind, relax, and float downstream. It is not dying." Nov 2, 2018 at 18:01
  • 1
    @Lambie Ah, I understand you now.Yes, the object of both switch and tune is music, not the receiving or transmitting instrument. Nov 2, 2018 at 19:13
  • 1
    @StoneyB Right. Exactly. Thank you for your patience.
    – Lambie
    Nov 2, 2018 at 19:14

If "switch off" was being used metaphorically in this sentence, the writer would not have included "tune it out" as an option. Tune it out and figuratively switching it off would be the same thing. This would make switching off a physical or literal action.

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