I very nearly caused a five-backpack pileup while trying to untangle my headphones on the steps of the Willard Building.
As I left class for the day, all I could think about was getting my ear buds into my ears and tuning out for my walk home, where I knew a nap was waiting to be had. I was not interested in hearing the sounds of students or the halfhearted hellos from acquaintances on the street. It had been a long week. I just wanted my music, and that was all.
This is the prevailing image of the Penn State student as they mill about campus on any given weekday—headphones in ears, iPod in hand, eyes cast down on the palm-sized screen. Thousands of us are listening to our own private concertos, and as a consequence, missing out on everything else around us.
Technology enables us to enjoy whatever music we want at any given time, and I’ll be the first to say what a wonderful thing that can be, but I can’t help but wonder if our pocket-sized collection of all the music we hold dear is doing more to isolate us than bring us together.
Gone are the days when you would bring a CD, or dare I say it, a record to someone’s house for a party. Now, we show up armed with our portable music machines, loaded with playlists that have been carefully crafted to optimize perceived coolness and musical intelligence by your fellow partygoers.
According to a study by the International Center for Media and the Public Agenda, in which students were required to abandon their handheld electronics for 24 hours, results showed that students would rather give up access to newspapers and television than daily access to their iPods. Many students in the study noted that the absence of their iPod while walking to class resulted in more conversations and interactions with people they did not know.
Many other studies echo these findings. Michael Bull is a professor at the University of Sussex and expert on the social implications of personal media devices, garnering him the nickname “Dr. iPod.” Bull has postulated that our 21st century culture is one where being alone with our thoughts is so daunting to us that we need constant access to music and noise to be able to stand it.
A few months ago, my only pair of headphones met their untimely end, and I was forced to walk to class for a few days without my beloved “Off to Class!” playlist pumping in my ears. My carefully selected walking beats were noticeably absent. I felt like I was a part of a social experiment. Almost everyone I passed had their headphones in — I couldn’t speak to anyone if I wanted to. I felt exposed and isolated. My comforting blanket of preoccupation had been stripped, and I resorted to texting while walking to assuage my feelings of awkwardness.
In the course of my week of iPod-less walks through campus, I felt like I was experiencing Penn State with new ears. I was paying attention to the people around me and smiling more at passersby.
I could hear the music playing from the headphones of those around me on the bus and thought about how I would enjoy listening to the same songs. One warm Friday evening, I even heard some music pouring out of the window of a dorm — the sound of Nat King Cole’s voice floated down to me, and I smiled as I enjoyed one of my favorite songs, “(I Love You) For Sentimental Reasons.”
Had my headphones been in, as they usually are, I would have never stopped to appreciate the moment I shared with the unknowing inhabitant of the room above.
I don’t know what prompted them to play their music out of the window, but it made me smile. Perhaps because I long for this kind of musical revival — one where we share our musical experiences with one another openly and often. Or perhaps it was because I was glad to know that other college-aged students still enjoy Nat King Cole. Either way, it was only when I detached myself from my personal music player that I was reminded of the meaning in a shared musical experience.
Music is not meant to isolate us, it is meant to bring us together. Our headphones act as protectors from others’ potential judgment—I mean, what would people say if they knew I like to listen to John Williams’ film scores as I walk to class? What would they say if they found out I like to work out to songs from “Phineas and Ferb” — the Disney channel show? In reality, it doesn’t matter what negative things other people have to say about the music you like.
Sure, you may come across some people with whom you are not musically compatible, but think of all the people with whom you deprive yourself of a musical connection because we are all so preoccupied with our private listening experiences.
Unplug your headphones. Play your music out loud. Dare to put your iPod on shuffle in mixed company, and don’t judge others who do the same. See what you’ve been missing under the shelter of your ear buds.
Katie Murt is a junior majoring in English and is The Daily Collegian’s Tuesday columnist. Email her at email@example.com.