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MUSIC How listening to music privately (in public) changes the way we listen

Published 15 Jan 2018 11:23AM

Words by Skyler Hust

Last Tuesday when I got off the tube at Liverpool Street, I took out my headphones only to hear sounds of a violin sailing through the windy tunnels over hatted Londoner heads, and like all who must exit through the same way, followed the notes. It was a woman, probably in her 30’s, with an unkempt pixie cut and a Neil Gaiman character wardrobe, with her eyes closed, face muscles tensed, and fingers desperately telling the strings what to say.

It reminded me of the video of renowned violinist Joshua Bell playing incognito in a Washington D.C. subway went viral in December of 2008. For 45 minutes, he played six Bach pieces with a violin worth 3.5 million dollars while thousands of people passed by during rush hour. Only six people stopped to listen.

Two nights prior, he had played to a sold-out theatre in Boston where seats averaged at $100 each. But on this cold January morning, he went unrecognized, collecting a mere $32.

This story may certainly suggest something about the human perception of beauty, and how our busyness can distract us from the art that life has to offer. Yet, it also suggests that the context in which we listen to music can change the way we perceive it. Having just removed my headphones in the underground station, I quickly noticed that the way I listened to this woman’s publicized live music was different than how I heard my own chosen playlist of songs.

Her music was ephemeral, living, each note passing through my ears never to be heard in the same way again. I listened with my body. I thought not, as I do when listening to my music in headphones, about what the music has to do with my life and my thoughts. Instead, I listened to her as Creator, as Storyteller. The focus was on the artist, not on myself.

Sound scholar Jonathan Sterne at McGill University writes in The Sound Studies Reader that “depending on the positioning of hearers, a space may sound totally different. If you hear the same sound in two different spaces, you may not even recognize it as the same sound. Hearing requires positionally.”

Might one find this applies to seeing a live show? I must admit, when I have seen musicians I love in concert, I do not listen to them as I listened to the woman on the subway.

There is most certainly a shift off of myself and onto the artist, but not quite in the same way. Possibly because the context in which I have usually listened to them is privatized: in my headphones, my car, my room. And this may cause me to bring my preconceived notions of what meaning the music has for me to the concert, instead of listening in a way where the music is simultaneously enjoyed yet mourned in its passing. It was only in 1877 when experimentation in how to sonically record (the “Acoustic Era”) began, marking Thomas Edison’s invention of the first device able to capture sound: the phonograph.

In the thousands of years that music has been played, we have only been able to record it for a little less than 150 years.

Further, we have only had the privilege of making music private via the invention of headphones since 1881.

The one-hundred-year existence of private music is still an extremely new phenomenon when compared to it historical purpose as a form of collective and social bonding, the first known instrument being a bone flute fashioned from a mammoth tusk found in the Swabian Alps in Germany dating back to 37,000 years ago. This means that in the entire history of the existence of music, only .003% of time has allowed music to be privatized.

Historically, societies have developed architectural spaces with the objective of sound, to create a place where music would be heard best. The idea of creating a space for music still exists today but is much less necessary. We can play any song we desire dressed in its best recording with the tap of our thumbs, no matter the acoustic space, no matter if we are in the privacy of our homes or in the privacy of using headphones on public transportation.

The availability of privatized music and recordings is not inherently negative, there are many benefits and beauties in the ability to listen to songs privately, but it is important to think about how this effect changes the way in which we listen.

What does the desire to privatize music say about modern culture? And in what ways is privatized music forming modern culture?


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