The individualization of music has led to people listening to their own music in public, impacting how we see the world. Many argue that using earphones in public contributes to a sense of distance from society, which can lead to mental illness.
- In the last centuries, we seem to have developed an individual way of associating with music, where we used to experience music more collectively.
- The use of earphones in public has become accepted and regarded as meaningful by society due to general changes in societal mentality.
- Where the use of earphones in public can give psychological relief, frequent use can result in the wearer being more distanced from society.
In the last few decades, it has become impossible to think away earphones from our street image. You can expect from almost everyone that they possess such a gadget, especially from the youth. But what is so special about these devices that seem to attract so many people? What does this attraction say about tendencies in our population? And how can earphones, in turn, impact our society?
Let’s start by describing how you experience the world differently when listening to music through earplugs. The main focus of this paper will be about the instance where someone wears earplugs in public because the public is where this activity has the most impact on the individuals’ experience of society and on society itself. Suppose you are walking through the streets and decide to put on some music. This could be whatever music you are most into, but let’s say for now that you like the slow, melancholic music of Lana del Rey, and you decide to put it on. Now imagine yourself walking; maybe your pace will adjust to the slow rhythm of the song (Almeida et al., 2015), and soon your mind will be taken over by the melancholic vibe (McCraty et al., 1998). Perhaps it even feels like you are in a contemplative movie, where the song is your moving background track.
In The Social Construction of Reality, Berger and Luckmann (2016) argue that inside the everyday reality of life, sometimes other realities can present themselves as finite provinces of meaning. When we find ourselves in such a province of meaning – for example, when we are in a dream or looking at art – our attention is turned away from the everyday life. The transitions between the common reality and the province of meaning can be seen as a ‘rising and falling of the curtain’ in a theatre show. Our experience of the world while listening to music can also be seen as a finite province of meaning, as our attention to the everyday reality is moved away to a reality that is coloured with the meaning our music provides us. You can probably imagine how removing your earbuds can feel as a ‘rising of the curtain,’ where you have to adjust for a moment to the sudden absence of your own music and the sounds of your surroundings that start to ask for your attention.
This situation where we are listening to music through earbuds is different than hearing music in the background of, let’s say, a café. Notice that in the latter case, the music is part of a communal world surrounding you. This means that the music blends together with the sounds surrounding you, instead of pushing your focus away from neighbouring sounds. In this way, the music has a less radical impact on your attention. Because you know everyone can hear the same as you, and you did not influence which music is playing, the music will get a more objective character. Therefore, listening to music in this communal way will, in most cases, not feel like entering a different finite province of meaning.
A property of communal music is that it can bring people together. Imagine the whole society mostly listening to the same music that is popular in that moment on the radio. By hearing the same music and forming an opinion about it, music becomes a common topic of exchanging thoughts; enjoying the same music becomes a common interest or even a common activity when people would go to concerts together.
Music does not only bring people together by being a common topic of direct communication or a common experience. The subjects displayed in the lyrics of our music or the emotions expressed by it also shape the way we see the world. And by this ‘seeing the world differently’, I do not mean a temporary different finite province of meaning as when we are listening to our own music, but a more ‘permanent’ kind of seeing that stays after the song is over. The way topics are displayed in music can influence what we find normal and what is a taboo topic. In this way, listening to the same music will bring our values closer together and form a more integrated society.
This collective way of listening to music used to be the most common, if not the only, way of experiencing music. Before the technological revolution, music could only be experienced if it were produced in that exact moment. ‘Passively’ listening to music would then, of course, only be possible when you were in the company of someone else. Popular songs were sung together in schools or passed on from generation to generation in families. At the end of the 19th century, the first music-playing device was invented (“History of Music Machines”, 2020). In the 1930’s, the radio became more and more popular in the United States (Scott, n.d.). Those inventions made it possible for music to spread more rapidly, although people were still generally listening to the same music. In the 1970’s headphones became popular (Editor, 2021), which opened the door to the experience of your own music in public.
Individualisation of Music
In the early 2000’s it became possible to share and download music, and considerable growth of the music industry followed. The supply of music became bigger and bigger, and different branches of music came into existence. This has now even come to the point that most people around you probably listen to songs you have never heard of. We can see the development as the individualisation of music: where we used to experience songs collectively, it has become more and more usual to listen to music by yourself, even in public. And even these songs tend to be different than the songs other people listen to by themselves.
This individualisation of music seems to be associated with some changes in society, as described in The Society of Singularities (Reckwitz, 2020). According to him, there was an important switch in the focus of society after the 1970’s, incited by modern technology. The expectation of society went from the ‘general’ to the ‘particular.’ The ‘general’ here represents the standardization and formalization of processes, with the goal of making everything produced by the world as equal and homogenous as possible. This could be recognized in the industrial society by the factories, the rows of buildings, the ways of teaching, and the communist ideologies. This conception is in total contrast to the expectation of the ‘particular’ that developed later.
The new technologies that came into existence after the 1970’s were now focused on generating uniqueness. This becomes apparent when we look at the competition between Social Media profiles to be the most original to get attention or the personalization of our search engines by collecting data. In this way, technology instigated the singularization of society. If society expects us to differentiate ourselves, we have to become more independent – note that because this singularization in itself has a strong tendency towards individualism – and have unique experiences. In the world of music, this means that we should develop our own original taste of music. The music we listen to becomes a means to separate ourselves from others, a way of defining our identity. We advertise our top five songs in our Spotify Wrapped proudly on Social Media, believing that our unique taste of music somehow has meaning, maybe by showing our authentic selves.
This notion about the existence of an ‘authentic self’ is a feature of modern society, according to Rosa and Wagner in Resonance: A Sociology of our Relationship to the World (2019). Where self-determination used to be seen as something you can do according to a principle of nature or the common good, you are now expected to do it by realizing your authentic self. This is then based on the belief that everybody has a particular harmony between all of their senses, a complex ‘inner core’, that needs to be reached to be truly happy. To reach this authenticity, we need to develop a certain autonomy and do things in our own manner. In this way, being in your own finite province of meaning by listening to your particular music is meaningful in the eyes of society, as it means you are being autonomous and somehow in touch with your inner core.
But while society demands us to spend more time focused on finding our authentic selves and doing things that make us particular, it also distances us from the people around us. For now, let’s analyse how this works in the case of listening to music in public.
The Use of Earbuds
For starters, when we are listening to music through earbuds, we will not be able to hear the sounds that are surrounding us, or at least not as good. In this way, we are actually ‘shutting off’ the auditory world around us to replace them with auditory impulses of our choice. A consequence of this is that you will not have the same experience of your surroundings as, let’s say, the person walking by you in the streets (let’s call them person A). For instance, person A could be hearing a couple across the streets scream at each other and be surprised by the rudeness while you are still enjoying the newest song of Harry Styles. It’s easy to see how in this example, you have lost some connection to the people around you. If you would not have been wearing earbuds while the couple was screaming, maybe you would have exchanged an indignant look with person A. This would have created a bond, however small, with at least one person around you. So where you could already imagine feeling a bit cut off from the social world around you by having another experience than the people surrounding you, this other experience also makes the chance of social interaction significantly smaller.
This obviously applies to interactions such as the one with person A, where you would have communicated about the same thing you heard, but also to all interactions that require talking, as talking requires two people to be in the ‘same auditory world.’ A person without earbuds would not be as much inclined to have a small talk with someone when they are wearing earbuds, as this conversation would start off quite awkwardly, and they do not seem interested in the world around them anyway. The person with earbuds would also not be as inclined to start a small talk, as they are already entertained by their music. In the book, The Social Construction of Reality, face-to-face interaction is described as a moment in which the other is presented to us in a shared vivid present (Berger & Luckmann, 2016). This kind of interaction is regarded as our most important experience of others. You can imagine that someone who tends to wear earbuds in public will generally have less face-to-face interaction with people in the public.
This tendency to have less face-to-face interaction is probably not just an unwanted consequence of wearing earphones but one of the reasons we like to wear them. According to Georg Simmel in The Metropolis and the Mental Life (2017), modern people living in large cities develop a so-called blasé attitude, characterized by a general indifference to the world and an impersonalized experience of it. This blasé attitude is the result of rapid and contradictory changes in our environment due to the many impressions and encounters in the busy life of the modern city. These changes agitate the nerves so intensely for such a long time that they eventually have no strength left to react to sensations with the right energy, so instead, they barely react at all. This has a significant impact on social behaviour, as our mind treats the people around us with the same blasé attitude.
Georg Simmel (2017) argued that this attitude does not make us completely indifferent to the people around us but rather makes us feel a light antipathy towards them as a defence mechanism because complete social indifference could be dangerous. In this way, the blasé attitude has resulted in some social patterns characterizing for the metropolis, such as the fact that people do not tend to talk to strangers in public places or that nobody seems to know their neighbours anymore. The most illustrating example is probably the behaviour of passengers on the train: where people used to have some small talk with the person next to them, they now stare into the distance listening to their own music.
That’s why for the metropolitan, earphones can be an expression of his antipathy towards strangers, as those completely cut him off from the people surrounding him. You could even argue that earphones serve as a general message to everyone: ‘Leave me alone; I want to be in my own world!’ You can probably see how these devices make it possible to create some sort of safe place away from the chaotic public space. While wearing earphones, everything is under our control. For starters, we determine ourselves what music we are hearing and, in this way, what mood we bring ourselves in or how we feel. Our mood also will not be affected by the people around us, as we do not feel any pressure to be social. We do not feel this pressure because nobody expects us to be social, as they can clearly see we have a reason not to. We are already enjoying ourselves with the music we are hearing, after all, and this activity has enough meaning in society to be completely respected.
This free pass from society to dive into our own safe finite province of meaning could have some consequences for our experience of the social environment when we do not have the opportunity to go into this safe zone. When wearing earphones in public becomes the normal thing to do, we can get used to this space where we have everything under our control and where we can avoid feeling socially insecure. And as avoiding strangers or people we do not want to speak to is experienced by us as a relief, we will feel less comfortable by contrast when we cannot enter this safe space, for example, when we have to interact with the waitress or when we have to call the doctor. Thus, the upcoming of earphones and it being a (deliberate) potential escape for face-to-face interaction could be an important contribution to the upswing of social anxiety nowadays. And as social connectedness functions as a protective factor against developing depression (Williams & Galliher, 2006), we can imagine earphones also making us vulnerable.
There have been some changes in the way we listen to music these last decades. Where we used to listen to the same music together, we now listen to different music alone. This individualization of music seems to result from and, at the same time, strengthen some movements in society, like the focus shift from the ‘general’ to the ‘particular’ and the regarded meaning of finding your authentic self. As listening to your own music through earplugs can be experienced as entering your own finite providence of meaning, this can be regarded as a ‘particular’ experience that somehow touches your inner core. Because of this, listening to music in public is accepted and even regarded as meaningful by society.
Consequently, earplugs become a useful tool to exclude strangers, especially for modern people with their blasé attitudes. And even though the feeling of being in control earphones give us can offer great psychological relief, it also distances us from our surroundings and, in the long run, from society. In this way, paradoxically, our society seems to command us to distance ourselves from it while still being obedient to it as we are doing so. This essay argues that this distance, partly caused by the use of the ‘safe escape,’ may have contributed to the increase in mental illnesses such as social anxiety and depression. Research on the impact of wearing earphones on our connectedness with society is recommended, as well as the temporary psychological relief that comes with it.
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