Until the invention of the first audio recording devices in the 1880’s, listening to music was almost exclusively a social activity. You had to listen to musicians play, and you usually did this in the company, and often the revelry, of others. But with the advent of audio recording, this began to slowly change. When the phonograph cylinder was released to the commercial market, for the first time in history you could listen to recorded music in the comfort of your own home. You could listen to music privately.
When I began listening to music, the turntable was the primary means of private listening. I distinctly remember my first record: Rhinestone Cowboy by Glen Campbell. I couldn’t have been older than 4, and I had a little record player that had an orange plastic case. As I grew older, I graduated to listening to my parent’s stereo.
In those days, private listening was an experience still often shared with friends or at least other members of the household. You were home; it was private, but you weren’t always totally isolated from others in terms of what you were listening to. Private listening still often carried a certain social component. Sometimes you might listen to music all by yourself, but often it was still an experience that you shared with others.
Listening to music in the car, unless you were driving alone, was something that you simply had to share with others. Everybody in the car had to listen to whatever was on the radio or in the 8-track or cassette player. Even if you didn’t initially enjoy the music you might have been forced to listen to, there was still a social aspect to this kind of “private” listening. And this actually helped to shape your growing taste in music. I didn’t like Seals and Croft as a kid, but being forced to listen to it with my mom in the car actually helped me to appreciate that music now as an adult. If I happen to catch one of their songs on the radio now, I will gladly listen to it.
But things began to change in 1979: the Walkman came to the market, and for the first time it was possible to carry a little bit your music with you and listen to it through headphones. That bulky, awkward cassette player revolutionized the way people enjoyed music. Now you could take a cassette tape or two, and you could listen to your favorite music all by yourself in almost total isolation, anywhere you were. I used to bring my Walkman on long car trips so I didn’t have to listen to my mom’s music.
But this isolation was still a bit limited. The Walkman was a rather bulky, so it wasn’t typical to see scores of people walking down the street wearing headphones. It wasn’t very practical, and people weren’t yet addicted to their devices. And since you couldn’t easily carry a large library of music, you typically didn’t want to listen to your Walkman for hours on end.
Today, that’s all changed. It’s actually very common to see people with earbuds almost everywhere you go–listening to music–essentially isolated from everyone around them. You see it at work, at the grocery store, and even in the airport—pretty much anywhere. People often have their entire music libraries on their smart phones or iPods, making it easier to listen to music for hours on end without being bored by hearing the same few songs over and over, and private listening is less and less a social activity. It’s become an almost entirely individualistic and isolating activity.
Going out listen to live music is a great way to keep listening to music a social experience. When you listen to live music with friends, all of you are sharing in a common experience, enjoying the music together. You’ll be exposed to music you might not normally listen to on your own. Your tastes will develop and grow in ways they wouldn’t otherwise.
More than that, the entire evening is social. You might go out to dinner before the show, you may all go in the same car, you’ll be socializing the entire evening. You’ll be *gasp* interacting with other human beings.
Make it a night out with friends, or make it date night for you and your spouse. Go to the symphony, an opera, a coffee house to hear the local talent, or go see your favorite band at a local venue. Go hear a band you’ve never heard of before. Go hear something new.
Music was never meant to be something people enjoyed in isolation from others. It was meant to be something that people shared with each other. There is nothing wrong with private listening, but don’t forget to keep music a social experience. You’ll enjoyment of music will be richer and deeper for it.