As We Listen, So We Are

You don't need me to tell you that listening habits are changing. Although those who predict that the end of our beloved home stereo systems is near (footnote 1) have more than a little in common with those who predict the imminent destruction of humankind, there's no question that listening via computers, iPods, and headphones has become the order of the day among a large segment of younger Americans.

We're all familiar with this shift in listening habits. While there's certainly a plus side—more people than ever are listening to music at all hours of day and night—there's also a huge public minus. Between cell phones and iWhatevers, it's no longer easy to pass a slow walker on the street, or even speak to the person next to you; many of them have no idea you're even there. Countless accidents are now attributed to people who, plugged into music, a cellular conversation, or both, walk in front of cars or bicycles blissfully unaware. One of the more horrifying situations I've spied of late is watching young mothers carrying on animated cell-phone conversations while dragging multiple small children across busy intersections, oblivious to oncoming vehicles.

In the San Francisco Bay Area, where I live, a man on a municipal light-rail train recently pulled out a .45-caliber pistol and shot another passenger as he was exiting the train. Although security-video footage revealed that the gun was clearly visible before the shooting—the man had pulled it out of his pocket and waved it about on multiple occasions—not a single passenger noticed; everyone was too consumed with their screens and music.

With the change in music-listening habits from home systems with loudspeakers to portable devices with earbuds has come a shift in music's role in human interaction. When I and many Stereophile readers were growing up, friends would regularly get together to share music. I'll never forget those post-college afternoons and evenings, beginning in the summer of 1967, when we sat in a circle on thrift-store furniture, passed a joint or pipe, and discovered, for the first time, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, Magical Mystery Tour, and Their Satanic Majesties Request. Though it's hard to separate the collective high of musical discovery from the collective high of getting high, there was no question that the catalyst for our camaraderie was music.

For audiophiles of all ages—including those who attend shows and audiophile-society get-togethers, as well as those who love to hang with music-loving friends—this sense of collective ritual remains. With it comes a feeling of belonging that puts in perspective the individual egos that daily run amok on audio forums in futile attempts to legislate personal reality.

Contrast the time-honored ritual of shared listening with our brave new world of personal listening. It seems almost as if we've taken a step beyond workplaces where people plug away in walled-off cubicles; we've now walled ourselves off in public. Our penchant for connectivity has left us strangely disconnected from our surroundings, and from each other.

The ramifications of this switch in listening habits extend well beyond the realm of music. In the 1960s, when we were listening to psychedelic rock and expanding our consciousness on multiple levels, one of the spiritual teachers of that age was Ram Dass, who published his seminal book, Be Here Now (Lama Foundation, San Cristobal, NM) in 1971. The idea was—by means of meditation, personal growth and awareness, and other techniques—to transcend the chatter and fear of the mind so that we could be totally conscious in the present moment, without distraction.

By contrast, today's mantra has morphed from "Be here now" to "Be somewhere else now." Rather than dropping out, we search for the best noise-canceling headphones that will allow us to tune out everything around us as we plow through the present. Instead of sharing music via collective listening as we pass around an illegal joint, we listen privately, share the experience via texting, and pass around illegally obtained files.

I can't be the only audiophile who finds himself disturbed by the replacement of collective ritual with private absorption. Not only have we become so oblivious of one another that we literally, physically crash into each other, we also clash with each other on social and political levels.

While there's always danger in drawing parallels between listening habits and political macrocosms, especially in the space of a single page, I don't think it mere coincidence that our shift from public to private listening, and from collective exploration to private absorption, comes at a time when the dichotomy between what is best for the collective good and the desire for personal gain threatens our very existence. So many people are caught up in their own private realities that they fail to see what lies ahead. This is more than a case of not seeing the forest for the trees; people are now so blind-sighted that they're obliterating trees and forests, to right and left. Even worse, to reference Bob Dylan, their ears are so plugged up, their minds so distracted with gadgetry, that they can't even hear the wind, let alone tell which way it's blowing.

As someone who heartily embraces and reviews computer audio, and who sometimes enjoys music through a wonderful pair of Audeze headphones, I'm hardly a Luddite. Yet I can't help feeling that, to the extent that we abandon collective rituals of listening to music, we sacrifice the sense of connection that binds us together in a social and spiritual whole. While I have no simple solutions to our society's increasing sonic isolation, other than the heartening embrace of vinyl that Michael Fremer is helping to document at and in his "Analog Corner" column for this magazine, I invite you to spend a day with ears unplugged. As you do, please join me and Stereophile in affirming the sense of connection that comes with gathering 'round the home stereo and sharing in the transcendent mysteries of musical exploration.

Footnote 1: See CNN Tech pundit Todd Leopold's "The Death of the Home Stereo System," cited by Stephen Mejias here.

mauidj's picture

Jason, your words certainly resonate with this reader.

I too remember fondly those evenings and late nights spent under the influence enthralled by the latest Zappa, Yes or Mahavishnu masterwork. Oh....and of course reading Be Here Now!  The shared experience adding to the journey. I'm glad to say that we still have our musical evenings...actually I have the crew coming over for some sonic fireworks later this week!

As you so elequently noted what is interesting is the connection to our societal ills bought on by this introspective world we find ourselves inhabiting.

Headphones are just one indicator but more obvious is the rise of our Facebook/Twitter driven lives. This is the potential end of our socializing in any personal and direct way.

I remember just 30 years ago living in Malta with no phone, TV or obviously internet. You wanted to speak to went over to their house! How amazing is that!

Now people are too lazy to even pick up a phone prefering AIM or text to any first person contact. This, in my opinion, is the begining of the end. Not only are we insulated from each other by the ability to conect "vitually" but this indirect contact allows for more strident and confrontational behaviour as we feel protected by the medium and virtual distance from the other party.

I recommend anyone interested in this subject to read the short story written in 1909  by E.M. Forster entitled The Machine Stops. Amazingly he predicts both instant messaging and the internet nearly 100 years prior to it's introduction to our society. No computers then! The story is increadibly prescient and quite frightening given what we can now see happening as a result of these technologies.

I now live on another island where personal contact is the norm not the exception. We visit friends or have people here almost every day. And listening to music is a vital part of these social gatherings. Long may it continue!

and.......Be Here NOW!

dalethorn's picture

When I listen at home (small apt. in the city) late at night when it's extremely quiet, it's a very different experience from portable daytime listening where the ambient noise level is 30 or more db higher, where that daytime noise masks all of the real low-level detail in the music. Maybe we should get started on a campaign to educate the public on just what this huge difference means, in case some of them have forgotten what they're missing in portable play - and that ties directly into the price of good hi-fi. After all, when listening at home and just that (not working on the computer), the details that are unmasked in the quiet may not be very welcome with low-quality components.

Naveb's picture

Well written Jason. Through ayahuasca I'm gratefully relearning the importance of ritual and ceremony, which includes the joy of collectively listening to recorded music as well as playing instruments together. To put aside the time, to enter into a collective space with the explicit intention of giving supreme importance to each other and to the here and now, to paying attention, to really listen. It's made me realise how much of the baby was thrown out with the bathwater when we gave up on religion and its Sunday tradition of coming together to celebrate and give thanks. It'll take a while but I think there will come a time when the cost of technology will be better appreciated. I hope so anyway.

Demoe's picture

Jason, as you ,rnention, I have no solution to where it looks like music is headed.

I happen to feel with the advent of the web, music has becomed cheapened. I feel odd saying this, but music has become too asssessable.I will always remember this memory from my youth in the late 80's. Driving up to San Francisco from Foster City to look for records with my two childhood friends, listening to Live 105 on the Radio. I rememeber the exact spot, Interstate 80, right before where it let off to the Bay Bridge, back when you used to be able to still exit to San Francisco last North Beach Exit.

This song came on the radio and we all just went silent. We all agreed it was an incredible song. I went even further to say to myself, "this has to be the best pop song ever" We happened to miss the intro if there even was one by the DJ. It took me about a week to hear it again on the radio and get the title of the record. It took my local record store about another 3 weeks for it to get from the UK to the US. During this time however, the song was ingrained in my memory. There was then the time when I drove to get the record, the anticipation of looking at what the cover art was, holding the record and placing it on the turntable and dropping the needle down for the first time. There was the repeated plays over and over again. There was the making of a cassete copy for the car.  I really don't think the youth of today have that experience. Song info is available instantly and the song available on download in mintues. There is something about my youth experience which I feel enriched the musical experience and appreciation, which continues today.

Oddly enough, purusing, Ebay over the holidays, I found a T-shirt of the above song, which I ordered and was wearing in 3 days.

With everything, there are the good and the bad. With the advent of these digital storage devices, it sort of amazes me at how invovled our world is in their music. I ended going to college in Sacramento in the 90s and felt like a total outcast being very into music. I can recall during this time, not having a lot in common with my peers with music being my main interest. Having experienced that, and seeing how it appears no one can be without their headphones 24/7 today, sort of always has me wondering if it is the isolation people seek or is it the music.


But Jason, thank you for your writing, it does bring up worthwhile talking points and of course good old memories.

Jon Iverson's picture

...but what is the song?

Demoe's picture



it was Getting Away with It, by Electronic,..

Jon Iverson's picture


Sharky99's picture

Wow, and congratulations, on a terrific article. I agree with pretty much every point made and, also mourn the lack of sharing music with friends as much as I used to (though I still do have friends over to "listen to music."

There is simply too much music going on, and I say this as someone who derives enjoyment from few things as deeply as from music. I don't say this in judgment, but I'm amazed at how many of my friends are "plugged in" almost every waking hour of their lives. Amazing, too, are the reactions of said friends who insist I get an iPod, pad, who-ha or whatever the latest contraption is, which frequently offers compressed, compromised sound. "You love music more than anyone I know, how can you NOT be listening all the time? It doesn't make sense." Actually, it makes perfect sense.

Yet somehow, I've failed to convince any of them I'm perfectly happy walking down a city street without having a recording of Brahms quartet, or Zemlinsky, Bach, Puccini, Wagner, et al., blasting through buds jammed into my ear holes. Most don't seem to comprehend that I'm lousy at multitasking when it comes to
music, for me I when I want to hear something, I want to dedicate my time to truly hearing it, not watching people order latte's or scarfing down chicken salad baguettes and certainly not when I'm trying to dodge being killed by distracted drivers talking, texting or downloading music on their cells who are unaware of my presence in the intersection.

Except for "today's hot new country," there isn't a genre of music I'm not fond of (though certainly some more than others). As a result, I have lots of fellow musician friends, particularly rock and jazz. I frequent a lot of their shows and am ever appalled at how the audiences are texting, watching videos and shouting over the bands' performances. These are not open mic nights, but
actual shows requiring tickets or admission fees.

I think it may have been Bukowski who, when asked what the downfall of civilization would be, replied "communication," predicting ease of cell phones, and future devices would decrease conversation skills and much more. He wasn't alone and it's come to pass for a too large portion of the population.

This is a topic on many of our minds and there was an interesting piece on CBS Sunday Morning yesterday also on our changing listening habits and all the devices, services at our disposal.


Doctor Fine's picture

Very nice piece, Jason.  How frightening it is to look around and see not a whit of socialized behavior anywhere on the horizon.  Nothing but disconnected people who wish to stay disconnected and have zero to offer as human beings.

My answer is to stay away from the afflicted.  Their disease has very negative consequences.  As Jimi Hendrix said:  "You only wasted my precious time."  And time is all we have. 

Today you find many people that are not really here.  They wish to monopolize our attention as they stumble around in our world. 

They are oblivious to beauty.  Their speech is  inarticulate and incapable of any profound discorse.   In some cases any discourse of any kind is beyond their capacity.

Stop me if I am scaring you.  It doesn't actually scare me personally.  I have seen so much of this world that, like a New Yorker, NOTHING surprises me anymore (yes, I worked in Manhattan in a career selling price no object High Fidelity equipment---what a TRIP!).

I keep waiting and hoping that like the scary out of control 60s, some day I will be walking down a sidewalk and a stranger will flash me the secret "peace sign" to alert me that another kindred spirit is in the area.  But no peace sign appears.

Your column was most appreciated.

Music_Guy's picture


Doctor Fine's picture

Much grass.

Glotz's picture

Peace On You. (And everyone for that matter. The world needs it more than ever.) 

PS- Pass the joint dude. 

monetschemist's picture

All good comments.  Not a fan of low-quality music on portable devices.

But trying to see it from the other side for a moment - think how bad music sounds in the middle of an intersection, with engines, horns, brakes, construction, voices...

It must sound  much better at night in a quiet living room or bedroom.  Like getting a new high quality stereo for free!

Also, don't sell short the idea of tuning out the world around with a portable device and in-ear earbuds.  I have a commute that involves 11 hours of flying from home to work every few weeks; there is not much in that 11 hours that bears being in the moment, and when there is, I can take the 'buds out to enjoy it.

dalethorn's picture

Very true. But even if you have high-quality music on the $1300 pocket-size AK120 player, consider how the finer details would be lost anyway in those noisy places.

bernardperu's picture

Congratulations about the great writing, Jason.

Unfortunately for US. society, the following dogmas have clouded judgement and have undermined collective happiness (they all reflect on the transition from active to passive listening and, thus, their relevance):

1) Change is good.

2) Technology can only make us better.

3) Individualism rules!

4) We are not to look beyond our borders.

5) Our market economy system is the best.

This clever think piece addresses dogmas 1,2, and 3; but forgets about #4 and #5. How about ever making a cross cultural comparison between current Japanese and US. listening habits? What is deep down the German culture that makes the Munich high end show the best? Why does Cuba have the highest number of musicians per capita in the world and, possibly, the highest number of active-listeners?

There should be a part #2 to this piece which addresses a more global perspective. At least, I wish a part #2 were on its way. 

Thank you for the very enjoyable and thought provoking reading!

Et Quelle's picture

is the one that I am a member of; the eighties baby community. I see first hand many people out to eat and many of them playing games, chatting, surfing or texting others. It is so easy to ignore others that most are socially ignorant. Putting on the stereo for non-audiophiles or home stereo owners is much too complicated. But for me, the more complex a system the better. Your missing out if the only music you hear is from an MP3 player.

The only defense for ignoring the world with your Iphone is two things. Iphones are costly but cheap and easy compared to home audio systems. And, who wants to hear the girl on the bus chat with her best friend or yell at her boyfriend at 7 in the morning. I'm sure you would rather repeat that favorite MP3.

audioclassic's picture

Loved your piece, Jason.  Agree with it wholeheartedly.

Nevertheless, in the spirit of Be Here Now, there's no going back, only forward.

I could cry a river for the past, but I won't.  My mantra is 'make the most of today'.

Thanks for your thoughts.