On Overhearing: Audible Portable Music



Is this a thing?

Here and there in the city I’ve been noticing people walking and biking around with bluetooth speakers or their smartphones hidden in their backpacks, tucked in their pockets, or dangling from their belts, playing music. It’s like a mobile party of one. Yesterday, on an otherwise quiet street, I did a double take when I noticed music emanating from somewhere on a guy in the photo above.

And then he was gone, his beats fading away.

Earlier in the day I had also noticed that the mail woman had R&B coming out of her pocket as she pushed her cart down the sidewalk, immersed in the music, singing along. Maybe carrying small portable speakers on one’s person is a variation on booming car stereos, but with an intimate twist: the music is loud enough to overhear, though not intended for the overhearer per se.

When I was a kid some of us had boom boxes, though the serious machines always seemed to be in far away places like NYC where they were used to broadcast hip hop beats to all within earshot. I had a small machine, but I never travelled with it because of what had appeared around the same time: the Walkman, a portable cassette player with headphones. (View my documentary on headphones here.) The Walkman was magical because it afforded a private listening experience that matched music’s sense of inherent interiority.

Today most of us listen to music on our phones, so hearing music coming out of small speakers on people keeps surprising me into doing double takes. Why do you do that? I want to ask. Does music gain power when it is audibly public, heard by many instead of just one?

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