Communal vs. Individual

Social Effects of the Personal Listening Device: How Music Evolved into a Solitary Activity

Before the phonograph, music had always been a communal activity. In fact, it wasn’t even possible for one to listen to music alone before the twentieth century; Mark Coleman notes in Playback: From the Victrola to MP3, 100 Years of Music, Machines, and Money, music was a “temporal, fleeting experience–and a rare treat” (Coleman, 1). It was often heard only in church or at a concert or maybe at home if one had a piano. Music had originally been a means of social bonding; however, with the invention of the phonograph music became more accessible and more intimate. The phonograph was not practical or cheap, and soon the radio became the preferred form of musical entertainment that brought free music to all. Coleman notes, “Music on radio sounded better than on a phonograph. And once you owned a radio, it didn’t cost a thing” (Coleman, 33). Eventually came records, which drastically changed the way people listened to music: music was finally able to be recorded and replayed. This allowed music to become more personal because not only could people listen to music on their own terms, but they could collect it. This form of music technology sparked the trend for creating cheaply manufactured sound mediums for the masses. Music became more accessible than ever with the advent of cassettes, which shrunk the vinyl record into a smaller and more efficient medium.

Leading up to the invention of the Sony Walkman in 1979, technology had clearly been in the process of advancing toward greater music accessibility, but music still had to be listened to in a concert hall, a listening gallery, a car, or a living room.  The idea that a person could listen to music on his own was strange and novel. In Capturing Sound: How Technology Has Changed Music, Mark Katz mentions that in 1923,  Orlo Williams  compared someone listening to recorded music alone to “sniffing cocaine, emptying a bottle of whisky, or plaiting straws in his hair” (Katz, 20). This was an obvious exaggeration, but he emphasized the strangeness that society associated with solitary listening. Thus when the Sony Walkman came onto the market it was initially received with skepticism, but it also brought accessibility to a new level: it allowed music to be savored solitarily. The Walkman became an international success, an “international tool,” as Michael Bull referred to it.  An individual could travel to any given major city, London, New York, Paris, Berlin or Tokyo, and find a plethora of Walkman users. Bull noted that one, “highly distinctive feature [was that] they could be used almost anywhere.” (Bull, 180) Sony had changed how society interacted with music and people began to notice.


Katz noted that the Walkman, “originally had a dual headphone jack, encouraging users to listen to music with others. This feature disappeared a year later” (Katz, 227 N30). This revelation is noteworthy because it suggests that the initial intention for the Walkman promoted listening to music as a group activity, or at least provide it as an option. It was an acceptance of the past, as inventors only understood music as a communal activity. However, the fact that the dual feature was removed suggests that a new music cultural was emerging and people had the ability to listen to what they wanted without any outside interference.  By 1981, it became part of daily life to see, “the sight of a glassy-eyed creature in shorts strolling down the street with stereo headphones strapped to his head. But walking, jogging, or cycling men, women, and children with miniature tape recorders on their belts are becoming a common sight.” (Mortiz) Not only used for outdoor leisure activities, The World According to Sound, revealed that the Walkman became a “sanctuary,” for users, a place where they could create their own, “site of experience…in relation to geographical, social, and interpersonal environments…[and into] a private sound world.” (Bull, 181) Sound has played an important role in human history with specific sounds becoming associated with places, times, and events. The Walkman allowed people to create their own personal, and often times, private space just by pressing play. In his study, Bull noted that the Walkman was the first item people grabbed in the morning, batteries charged and tape selected, ready to go. In other instances, the utilization of the Walkman acted as a barrier to the outside world. as one subject bluntly confessed: “If I like the person or if they say something that interests me I’ll switch it off. If not I’ll keep it on. If I don’t like them I sort of shut out everything that I don’t like by putting my Walkman on.” (Bull, 189). Sony enabled individuals to be outwardly selective in not only what they wanted to hear, but who they wanted to hear. It became possible for people to truly change existing soundscapes by bringing their own unique and personalized sounds along with them.

Bull furthered that the introduction of the Walkman permitted, “a reorganization of public and private realms of experience, where what is traditionally conceived of as ‘private’ experience is brought out into public realms of individualized listening” (Bull, 180). Places that were once constructed for public consumption became areas of private recluse with the Walkman, and vice versa. Boundaries were dissolved while at the very same time, new ones came into existence, forever altering the notions of soundscapes that had come to exist. When the Phonogram emerged, people were unsure of how to react around the device, but it became common to listen to the music in the presence of others. Similarly, the invention of the Walkman highlights similar aspects of a new and foreign listening experience: consumers were introduced to a new technology, were unsure of how to react, weighed the options, and ultimately chose to utilize the device for personal use instead of group use.

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