Battle in Print: Sound, city and song (or, iPod, therefore iAm)

Sarah Snider

In the metropolis, the individual must make use of the utmost in uniqueness and particularization, in order to preserve his most personal core. He has to exaggerate this personal element in order to remain audible even to himself.
- Georg Simmel

Is the iPod eclipsing the inner voice? Rather than stifling internal monologue, listening whilst moving through the city can be a welcome supplement to an urban identity in flux. Through our aesthetic control of the soundscape, we can enforce a sonic continuity in order to establish stability and security. The songs we choose to listen to in the city do not obscure a sense of fixed identity, but add to an individual’s personal development. Choices and decisions that construct narratives of self infuse the mobile listening process. Format, brand and design of music technology, choice of songs or albums, and volume control play a part in propping up or proposing a mood, attitude or personality.

The aesthetic realm is a private space of control that does not intrude into the shared public realm, and so in a way it is inconsequential: mobile listeners are doing no harm. The flip side of this is that aesthetic control creates an asymmetrical power relation: the mobile listener is not involved in a democracy of sound, but experiences sonic existence as an island, as a tyranny of and over one. By not interacting in the public realm, one never has to bring his or her identity into question. Mobile listening thus becomes a protective and stunting activity.

Can we not be less individualistic on the one hand, and more optimistic on the other, and see mobile listening as a transformation of social interaction? Mobile listening is not the death of the social; on the contrary, mobile listeners weave a nuanced and complex assemblage of both sights and sounds in the urban environment.

Sonic spaces of representation

Any discussion about noise in the city tends to be about noise ‘pollution’ and how to limit it. Indeed, much of the sound in the city is repetitive and has low informational value: overhearing a neighbour’s headphones feels like a sonic slap in the face.

Apart from the obvious noises of the city, many other sounds resonate. Luckily, just as we glance with our eyes, so too can we glance with our ears. The metropolitan blasé attitude extends to the aural. Picking up noises and differentiating between important or unnecessary sounds gives us sound as metonym of the city, as the fragments of a larger soundscape. This is active listening. These sounds may have both utopian and dystopian characters: they can be unwanted or even deafening, or they can be chosen to create intimate soundscapes to inhabit.

Benjamin (1999) suggests that we remember audially. Whereas what we see is superficial, sound is depth and atmosphere, capable, like Proust’s madeleine, of setting off a chain of memories growing in scope to encompass entire cities and periods of time. This merging of the senses demonstrates how sounds, particularly songs, can ‘bring us back’ to a particular time or place. Sound can orientate us in time and space, providing a medium for defining our alignments with the non-human environment. But how are we to frame the city landscape itself when it is so disharmonious and unruly?

Walking to the beat of a different drum

What happens when we take the production of the urban soundscape into our own hands? While the music of the rich is traditionally specific to time, place and occasion, popular music is ubiquitous, central to the lives of members of the less privileged classes (Leppert 1988: 214). In extreme cases concerning music and the existence of working and slave classes, there are the examples of Psalms aiding manual toiling in the days of Saint Augustine, spirituals tied to slave labour in the US South and chants and march themes as integral parts of military and court service.

Increasingly, popular music is included in the omnivorous musical tastes of today’s privileged classes. This means music can be anywhere for anyone: musica mobilis has travelled across boundaries. The use of Walkmen and derivative portable music devices can be understood as an urban tactic that at once breaks down the structure of the city and then builds it back up. It is the creation of a manageable and aestheticized space to inhabit. Today’s perambulatory listener ‘does not have to be in the city as a shared perceptual or social space’ (Tonkiss 2003: 305). The Walkman positions the mobile listener outside of the auditory social theatre. It is ‘the iconic urban technology of privatization, permitting users to construct their own individualized sound wherever they go’ (Bull and Back 2003: 9). The user decides what is worth hearing. In this sense, listening to music while walking the city can be one of the ways we invest the ubiquitous activity of walking with personal meanings.

Mobile listening technology can make us feel less alone. Rather than putting up a wall of exclusion, mobile listeners may be helping to organise musical space. A mobile listener’s desire for proximity and connectedness in a metropolis of social distance and disjointedness can be fulfilled through familiar songs. Just as Fitzcarraldo carries his phonograph with him on the rivers of South America, an urbanite carries an iPod.

Establishing the sound barrier

‘Not being there’ during the walk can be transformed into ‘being there’ by music. The music can be a destination for the walker who lacks a definite place. Users of portable listening devices strike a balance between the soundscape they create and the cityscape they travel through. Mobile listening is orienting: music can be how the body measures time just as ‘walking is how the body measures itself against the earth’ (Solnit 2001: 31). The reverse can also operate, with time measuring itself against music and the earth measuring itself against the body; public space is thus transformed through its use by mobile listeners. This is not to say that there is one privileged way of listening: different listeners make different uses, and these uses are not the only factor in the creation of a soundscape. The category ‘mobile listeners’ allows for many differentiations.

A key organising principle of sonic sculpting is taste. Auditory perambulating can now be a performance of Goffman’s impression management: the way the individual guides and controls the ideas which others form of him or her (Goffman 1956). Headphones of varying sizes function in a sign system of musical taste, initially signifying an interest in music and, depending on one’s access to the code, including more intricate gradations around styles of music as well as financial investments. Headphones mark the wearer as a music enthusiast. This leads to the further question of what people are listening to.

Mobile listening in the city establishes an imperfect boundary between what goes on in between one’s ears and what goes on ‘outside’. In an interphonic knot, headphones allow the intrusion of the voices of the city into the listener’s perception. Instead of taking headphones as a barrier or boundary, they are more apt to be considered a filter, sifting through the sounds of the city, discriminating between the necessary and the unnecessary, the wanted and the unwanted. The intentionality of the ear is never complete, but exists as a disjuncture between co-existing exterior urban sound signals and actively chosen mix-tapes or playlists. In certain circumstances this can deliver a knowledge of the city that remains unintelligible to non-users. It is in response to the everyday experience of headphone existence that new forms of public behaviour have emerged and transformed the shape and appearance of city life. People moving through a certain soundscape know the world in essentially different ways from people moving through other soundscapes. The privatisation of auditory experience thus leads to an individualisation of both content and form.

Technology and music

The Walkman, Discman, iPod and others have become an integral part of the way we consume. Beyond responding to or negotiating the external soundscape, this mobile listening is an example of Mumford’s ‘neotechnic’ phase in the incorporation of technology into the human condition. In the ‘embryonic’ stage of technological mediation in the field of music, the focus was on technico-organisational aspects of musical mediation, a far cry from using the computer as recording instrument, as a source of material-technological noises, and even as a software component to the creation of new types of digital sound.

The neotechnic phase of the incorporation of musical technology has to do with the circulation of (mis-)information and the (re-)creation of meaning. Pickering (1999) suggests we are moving into the virtual phase of cities, where participation in and appropriation of city life are less likely to be initiated by, taught by or involve other human beings, and are more likely to be informed and mediated by digital technology. However, although we agree that media have a structuring role in everyday experience, we see these technologies as important precisely because of their intersubjectivity. Extending Pickering’s argument to cover the digital mediation of musical information distribution, it becomes apparent that sites such as are not removed from social interaction but are in fact virtual forums for sharing personal information between music consumers.

Discomorphosis and schizophonia are both characteristic of today’s digital music reproduction. Discomorphosis involves the adjustment of musical performance to the technical conditions of recording and playback, the qualitative change in musical communication by means of the specific mechanism of recording and playback, and the change this produces in the reception of the musical message. Overall, discomorphosis refers to changes in and around the production, distribution and consumption of sound. Several histories of music (Sterne 2003) focus on the history of the possibility of musical production and how it moves through different stages of technological awareness, presumably because the possibilities and their influence on artistic intent can be studied empirically, as opposed to aesthetic-evaluatively.

Studying music reproduction technologies, Schaeffer (1996) found that they produce ‘acousmatic’ sounds: sounds that one hears without seeing their source. This creates a schizophonic condition of a sound split from its source. The mobile listener experiences a double schizophonia: not only is the sound split from its source, but it is split from its initial site of hearing.

These concepts presuppose several normative ideas about sound, highlighted by Sterne. First, they assume that sound reproduction is negative, damaging an original untarnished form of face-to-face communication and bodily presence. Next, the assumption of the primacy of face-to-face interaction leads, because of the grounding nature of human physicality, to the conclusion that sound reproduction obscures coherence and disorients the listener. Third, the body is assumed to be a phenomenological unity. Finally, they assume the existence of a prior, natural source that is reproduced with more or less fidelity. In order to develop plausible discourses of the technology of sound, it is necessary to lay aside these unsubstantiated preconceptions.

Music is a particularly potent mode of representation due to its repetition and association with memory. Music is necessarily social and it has extra-musical meanings. Music is part of the imagined environment, the ‘discourses, symbols, metaphors and fantasies through which we ascribe meaning to the modern experience of urban living’ (Donald 1990: 422). Music mediates our internal space with the social, external space of the city.

Each song we listen to on the street comes through differently, and certain discursive structures can set moods. The mobile listener is not only engaged in the negotiation of space and time but also in the negotiation of their own bodies. Walking, the activity closest to the involuntary beating of the heart or breathing of the lungs, is in constant articulation with many rhythms. It is difficult not to step in time to a beat.

Sarah Snider is a cultural critic, currently working on a PhD in sociology at Goldsmiths University. She has previously worked at the Florence Trust, and has studied widely in both Britain and America. She has a specific interest in the visual arts and architecture.


Benjamin, W. (1999). The Arcades Project. H. Eiland and K. McLaughlin (trans.). London, Belknap Press of Harvard University Press

Bull, M. (2004). ‘Thinking About Sound, Proximity and Distance in Western Experience: The Case of Odysseus’s Walkman’ in M. Bull and L. Back (eds.) The Auditory Culture Reader. Oxford, Berg. pp. 173-190.

Bull, M. and L. Back (2003). ‘Introduction: Into Sound’ in M. Bull and L. Back (eds.) The Auditory Culture Reader. Oxford, Berg. pp. 1-11.

De Certeau, M. (1990). L’invention du quotidien, I: Arts de faire. Paris, Gallimard.

Goffman, E. (1956). The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. New York, Doubleday.

Leppert, R. (1988). Music and Image: Domesticity, Ideology and Socio-Cultural Formation in 18th Century England. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Pickering, J. (1999). ‘Designs on the City: Urban Experience in the Age of Electronic Reproduction’ in J. Downey and J. McGuigan (eds.) Technocities. London, Sage. pp. 168-185.

Simmel, G. (1997). ‘Sociology of the Senses’ in D. Frisby and M. Featherstone (eds.) Simmel on Culture: Selected Writings. London, Sage. pp. 109-120.

Solnit, R. (2001). Wanderlust: A History of Walking. London, Verso.

Sterne, J. (2003). The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Production. London, Duke University Press.

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