Removing the earphones

I walk to work with music. It is a pretty eclectic mix on my iPhone. Bob Dylan, Daft Punk, Justin Timberlake, Belle & Sebastian, Talking Heads, Patti Smith, kayne west … It’s quite a mix.

a rainy walk to work

A rainy walk to work

After doing this walk for a few months with my earphones firmly in my ears I saw this fabulous TED talk, Julian Treasure: 5 ways to listen better. In his talk, Treasure examines the loss of listening, active listening, in our society. His comments about headphones really hit home –

Many people take refuge in headphones, but they turn big, public spaces like this, shared soundscapes, into millions of tiny, little personal sound bubbles. In this scenario, nobody’s listening to anybody. 

I hadn’t thought about my headphones as a refuge before but he is right. It is a way to block out the world, to avoid listening, to not have to connect with the outside world nor the people in it. So, whilst I love David Byrne singing me to work I decided to walk to work without my earphones. I decided it was time to match the view with the sounds. This is what I heard –

  • an older woman with a lovely voice say to her no-more-than-5-year-old grandson “Do you think we could change the topic? Talk about something nicer? You’re being a pain in the arse” and his uproarious laughter in response
  • birds
  • dry leaves being pushed around by the wind – sounds like rain
  • the dull, muffled sounds of music from someone else’s headphones
  • someone sniffing who clearly needs a tissue
  • cars
  • high-heels striking bitumen
  • a man reading aloud a text message from a disgruntled ex-employee to his friend. There was talk of restraining orders and jealousy and “yeah, it says – hope you have a crummy life”
  • more cars
  • that little clicking sound at the traffic lights whilst you wait for the green man
  • the sound of the green man
  • a helicopter
  • a tourist from Germany asking me for directions
  • classical music

It may not read like an exciting list but it made for such an interesting walk to work. I was actively listening, straining my ears to seek out new sounds or accents or phrases I’d never heard before. I felt more connected to the space and more aware of my surroundings. It was a nice feeling …

Of course, there will always be moments when you want to block out the world, when you need Talking Heads’ This Must be the Place (Naive melody) to help you start your day, when you can’t / don’t want to deal with some of the more interesting characters on the tram …

But for me, putting on headphones had become a habit. Sometimes I didn’t even feel like listening to any of the music I had on my phone (and what a choice I’ve given myself) but listened to it anyway because … I don’t know … That’s just what we do? I don’t want to live in my own bubble, I’m going to make more of an effort to be more connected to the spaces I travel through and hopefully become better at listening.