Solitary Listening

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Music consumption has become increasingly individualized since the tail end of the nineteenth century. The commercialization of the gramophone in the late 1800s made it possible to experience music alone and without the aid of musicians. Solitary listening expanded with the arrival of radio in the 1920s, and went mobile when the car radio debuted a decade later. By the 1970s music could be played from portable boom boxes, and by the 1980s cassette players could be worn on the waist and heard through headphones. When the iPod came out in 2001, music as an isolated experience took another giant leap.

As accustomed as we are to these technological advances, they represent a dramatic shift in human history. What originated as a social practice with social functions has progressively become a private affair. Evolutionary theories of music point to human relations. Music either arose to facilitate group bonding, advertise to potential mates, communicate information, provide comfort, or some combination of the above. Until very recently, music remained a live, communal activity involving performers and audiences. In societies with access to recorded sound, this is no longer a requirement.

Even so, evolutionary roots are not easily discarded. While the physical presence of multiple actors may not be needed, secluded listening can be likened to a simulated group experience. Those impulses that gave rise to music in the prehistoric past are still present in the unaccompanied context of an individual with headphones.

Person-to-person connections exist even in the most isolated listening modalities. Hearing a band, orchestra or a solo performer through ear buds or a car stereo retains the essence of a group context. Although removed from the action, the listener—by virtue of listening—is part of a collective happening: the auditor is connecting with music produced by someone other than oneself. The obvious difference is that the interaction is one way. Unlike live performances, where musicians interface with audience members in a shared space, there is a distance of time and place between a listener and a recording, which is by definition an archive of sounds that have already occurred.

To be sure, something is lost in the transition from the live venue to solitary after-the-event listening. But our evolved appetite for music is still fed (though perhaps in a more limited way). Listeners can still bond with the musicians they hear, still become sexually stimulated, still receive information, still find comfort. In a strict sense, music’s interpersonal foundation is absent. But in a simulated sense, it has never gone away.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions. 

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3 thoughts on “Solitary Listening

  1. Roger

    When I was getting into classical music (in my early teens) the Walkman was a wonderful companion for me. I’ve had some of the most intense aesthetic experiences while using it…. Listening attentively, intelligently, lovingly, diligently, taking music in SO PERSONALLY — I can only imagine that composers would have had nothing but praise for an invention that allows us such an intimate experience of their work. To this day nothing has really changed: for me the best aesthetic experiences are still largely solitary, deriving the most consistent pleasures from recorded music.

    For anyone to suggest that music accessed this way is somehow a devalued experience is breathtakingly arrogant.

    Reply
  2. jlfriedmann Post author

    I’m with you, Roger! I hope you didn’t get the impression that I was suggesting a hierarchy. On the contrary, I think the qualities that the arrogant critic feels are exclusive to live performances are still present in secluded listening.

    Reply

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