Musical Space: Personal Sonic Bubbles

Jun 5, 2018

Good and bad things have happened to music with the invention of headphones more than a hundred years ago. 

Headphones are in many ways ideal, the sonic space and stereo separation are completely controlled. Listeners are in command of their sonic environment; they can have whatever music they want at any time or place without bothering anyone. More importantly, no one bothers the listener, either. Sonic privacy and solitude could be the ultimate modern luxury.

But with the new ubiquity of “personal listening” I’m starting to notice the downsides. It’s not a very “real” experience: headphones sound tinny, the stereo field is exaggerated, the music seems too close. The acoustics of your environment are made obsolete; it’s a little weird to hear concert hall reverberation while sitting in a small room. Pop music now has to be engineered for listening on cheap headphones while roller skating in heavy traffic - it’s more “in your face"; the bass is boosted; the dynamic range is squashed.

More importantly, though, headphones are causing a cultural shift. Listening is now a solitary experience. Like the lawns separating suburban homes, our personal sonic bubbles make social interaction difficult. All the qualities that critics can ascribe to society - isolation, detachment, narcissism, rudeness - can be amplified along with the music.

If being with other people at a live concert is the ultimate listening experience, then music on headphones is the opposite.

(Music: Flying Lotus feat. Thom Yorke, “...And the World Laughs With You,” Cosmogramma (2010),



Listening List - music that uses stereo separation:

Carl Nielsen, Symphony #4 (“The Inextinguishable,” (composed 1916), 4th movement, Simon Rattle, Berlin Philharmonic

Two timpani players on opposite sides of the stage having a “battle.” “Antiphonal”

The Beatles, “Tomorrow Never Knows,” Revolver, (1966),
(I can’t find this one on YouTube - does KMUW have a copy?)
Listen for the hard panning of the different tape loops

Pink Floyd, “Interstellar Overdrive,” Piper at the Gates of Dawn (1967),

Bass Right, Guitar Left

Jackson 5, “I Want You Back,” (1969)

Drum kit left
Congas and tambourine right
Piano right
Strings right
Different guitars left and right
Bass, lead vocals center

Flaming Lips, “Feeling Yourself Disintegrate,” The Soft Bulletin (1999)

Vocal drums at the beginning

The White Stripes, “Take, Take, Take,” Get Behind Me, Satan (2005)

Interesting ping-pong echo on the vocals.

Radiohead, “Reckoner,” In Rainbows (2007)

Listen to the hard panning of the percussion at the beginning
Shaker hard-panned left, ride cymbal right.