Are Headphones a Cone of Silence–Or a Neat Way Not to Miss a Note?

People who wear headphones are doing it for two reasons. One to listen to their music. Two, to keep from having to engage with people around them so that they can listen to their music.  A piece in today’s WSJ discussed the phenomenon of headphone wearing by introducing a new perk for concert goers willing to pay a price.

The jam band Umphrey McGee has devised a new way to reward their most faithful fans–they pick 20 lucky people who get to wear special wireless headphones during their concerts.  This provides “a pristine live audio mix straight from the sound man’s console.” They don’t have to hear the people next to them coughing, talking, laughing or otherwise reacting to the music. Author Eric Felten argues that this is precisely the wrong thing to do in mixed company, and goes on to explain some of the history behind headphones and the habit of wearing them.

When Sony’s chairman brought home one of the first Walkmen in the 1980s, he found that his wife chafed at how the device shut her out. Little did she know that in another three decades, so many people would regularly shut itself off from everyone else each time a subway car filled with strangers or an airplane reached cruising altitude.  Felten points out that in these situations, you want to shut people out because they’re strangers and the only thing you have in common with them is that you both are riding the A train or waiting for a plane in a terminal.

But at a concert?  Felton writes of the original operas in Italy, and how social these events were. You went to the opera to see your friends and associates, talk, laugh, interact with them. Like when we go to Tanglewood, it’s such a social scene I can’t imagine blocking out everyone else with headphones.

But the band says that the phones actually are social, in their own way. “People share the headphones with their friends when they are waiting in line for drinks or the bathroom, so they don’t miss a second of the concert.”