on the effects of headphone usage

Ever since getting an iPod I’ve spent a significant portion of “commute time” (e.g. to rehearsal on BART) listening to music. I pop in the headphones and (modulo the train rumbling) shut out the world around me. Last night I bought the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (Solti) recording of Verdi’s Requiem (1977 Grammy winner) and popped it in the CD player at home. We’re singing it in June so I figured I would just read along with the score. What struck me immediately was the non-immersiveness of the listening experience. I was acutely aware of the creaking of my chair, the people next door calling their children in from the backyard, and innumerable other distractions.

The iPod made me lazy, I decided. While you do hear all of the music with the earbuds, it’s like it’s being spoon-fed to you and it’s easy to not pay attention to it. When I took the composition seminar from John Harbison, he complained about a similar phenomenon with regards to any headphone-listening experience. He said that ears become more closed when the music is that you don’t really hear the fine details. At the time I kind of lumped that comment with the audiophiles who like the “warmness of tube amplifiers,” but now I’m starting to think he was onto something.

And therefore I resolve to listen to more music without headphones. Too bad I have to work in an office with 20 other people all day.

0 thoughts on “on the effects of headphone usage

  1. Do you really think it was the headphones vs. speakers that made the difference? Because it seems to me that the key differentiator was whether you were reading the score or doing something else while the music was playing. I have a fairly nice pair of headphones, but the amount of detail I hear through them varies tremendously based on whether I’m writing code while listening or trying to follow a score.

  2. Well, there is the intention aspect, but I think that listening too much with headphones makes one lazy about really paying attention to the music. I find it harder to really listen when the music itself doesn’t mask out the rest of the world and I have to (more) actively isolate it.

  3. I have a problem generally with the proliferation of using iPods to listen to music in public places. Technology today makes it too easy to isolate ourselves from reality and live in our own cocoons. I will use my headphones on a plane (thanks to the nice noise-reducing phones Cindy got me for my b-day), or while working out, but I really try to make an effort not to use them in public places. I feel like I’m missing the world.

  4. Yeah, I guess headphones don’t have that dramatic an effect for me compared to speakers; in my case, it’s much more about how actively I’m trying to listen. But, I agree that there is something unnatural about how some headphones completely block out your environment, and I see how it’s possible that this isolation could lead your mind to wander in ways that it otherwise wouldn’t.

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