Illustration by Ellen Weinstein.
On a late spring evening in 2015, at South Street Seaport, a square on the southern tip of Manhattan, hundreds of people slipped on headphones and slipped into their own worlds. It was a clear night, perfect for a stroll, but attendees weren’t interested in local shops and restaurants. They were too busy dancing silently to the music, tuning in—or tuning out—to a “silent disco.”
The silent disco is a concert that passersby can barely hear, and that attendees can customize with a flip of the switch. At this event, a wireless signal allowed dancers to choose their favorite of three playlists. Each pair of headphones covered the ears and gave off a robotic glow. “This is what we’ve been reduced to: dancing with ourselves,” one dancer told a reporter from The New York Times.
To some observers, the silent disco represents a peculiar form of shared isolation—a way to turn up the volume of modern alienation, to look social but remain solitary. “Headphones have been creeping into musical activities that once were social,” the writer and jazz musician Eric Felten lamented in the Wall Street Journal.
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Silent disco, Felten added, is just one of many activities that are “atomizing” our society. “What a shame to turn the concert hall or dance club into another such lonely crowd,” he wrote. “These venues should be super—not anti—social.” Headphones may silence our city streets, runs the argument, but they also silence our social connections. To paraphrase those seminal pop philosophers from Athens, Georgia, the B-52s, we’re all living in our own private Idahos.
That, anyway, has been a refrain in sociological circles since Thomas Edison invented the phonograph in the 19th century. Critics complained that the social fabric was being shredded when, rather than gathering in ballrooms to dance to Johann Strauss, we listened to recordings in our living rooms.
But recent looks at the evolution and neurology of music suggest we are not waltzing by ourselves. Musical experiences are inherently social, scientists tell us, even when they happen in private. When we listen alone, we feel together.
Music is as much a part of human evolution as language, tool-making, and cognitive development.
Istvan Molnar-Szakacs, Ph.D., a research neuroscientist at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience at the University of California, Los Angeles, has explored how music “creates the sense of social belonging,” as he writes in a 2015 paper, “Please Don’t Stop the Music.”
“When you’re home alone in your house, it feels empty,” he says. “And then you put on music and all of a sudden you feel better because you’re not alone. It’s not that literally you’re not alone. But you feel like you have company.”
As science is altering the picture of the lonely crowd of iPod listeners, it is giving us a new appreciation of technology. Peter Alhadeff, a professor of music business at the Berklee College of Music, suggests that our recent technologies—from Facebook to Spotify to Fitbit—shed light on a shift in our social lives. “Maybe our way of being social and being private is changing,” he says. In a way, “the world was more private before. There is a different way of socializing today.”
Music is a fundamental part of our evolution; we probably sang before we spoke in syntactically guided sentences,” write Jay Schulkin and Greta Raglan in a 2014 article in Frontiers in Neuroscience. Long before there were dance clubs or concert halls, there was the musical bond formed by a mother singing to her child. There was the melody that guided a tribe in worship, or the beat that led warriors into battle.
Music is as much a part of human evolution as language, tool-making, and cognitive development, Schulkin and Raglan tell us. It’s a bridge. “Music is typically something shared, something social; we may sing in the shower or on a solitary walk, but music is most of the time social, communicative, expressive, and oriented toward others,” Schulkin and Raglan write.
Molnar-Szakacs explains the brain’s mirror-neuron system provides the neural basis of music’s social powers. The properties of the human mirror-neuron system are based on research showing that the same regions in our brain are active when we perform, see, or hear an action. The “mirror” regions of our brains fire whether we’re playing the guitar or listening to Pete Townshend play it.
The mirror-neuron system, Molnar-Szakacs says, “allows someone to identify with another by providing an automatic, pre-cognitive mechanism by which to understand their actions by mapping them onto our own neural representations of those actions. In addition, it represents the intention behind those actions.”
Private music started long before Sony or Apple. Wax cylinder recordings were installed in rows in penny arcades.
The moment you hear a sequence of hierarchically organized abstract sounds we call music, a multitude of associations are activated in your brain. These can include memories, emotions, and even motor programs for playing music. Together they can imply a sense of human agency. That sensation is what sets music apart from other types of sounds. “The brain interprets the structure of the music as intentionality that is coming from a human agent,” Molnar-Szakacs says. “This, combined with all the associations evoked by the music, is what makes the experience social.”
Not all scientists agree certain neurons have properties that connote intentionality or agency, as those are complex subconscious processes, not easily reduced to specific neurons. Molnar-Szakacs, for his part, sees the mirror-neuron system “as a node or hub within a larger network, integrating cross-modal information” in the brain. Another important node within this network is the limbic system, the region involved with emotions, reward, motivation, and pleasure.
Our sense of others as represented by the mirror-neuron system, charged with emotion from the limbic system, can give rise to empathy. To Molnar-Szakacs, it is emotional empathy that can explain “why music can be experienced as a social phenomenon even when someone is listening alone on their earphones.”
Solitary listening seems, at first glance, like a striking break from the social roots of music. But a stroll through the history of listening technologies challenges that narrative. It reveals technologies for private listening can be seen as ways to amplify the social nature of music.
To begin with, private music started long before Sony or Apple; in fact, it dates back to the origins of recorded music. “The very first commercial phonographs, later called jukeboxes, used headphones,” points out Q. David Bowers, author of Encyclopedia of Automatic Musical Instruments. Edison’s wax cylinder recordings were often installed as rows of separate machines in penny arcades. “They had to be individual, like a private booth.”
“Earbuds are new, headphones are not,” says Jonathan Sterne, the James McGill Chair in Culture and Technology at McGill University. “Almost everything that was said about the iPod in 2001, and the iPhone in 2007, you can find said about the Walkman in the 1980s.”
In light of the history of listening, it’s possible to reevaluate the first impression that music listening has become, as Stanford music professor and composer Jonathan Berger puts it, “a more isolated or even isolating experience.”
Schulkin, a research professor in neuroscience at Georgetown University, points out that activities we now view as social, like reading, were once viewed as anti-social. “Your neighbor might have been reading Charles Dickens, and you’re reading something else,” he says. Maybe listening in private isn’t so different from reading in private. “I don’t see why this is necessarily more isolating,” Schulkin says.
Sitting rigidly at a classical music concert is at least as isolating as people in their own zone with earbuds on.
Meanwhile, says Berger, performances of Western music that we normally see as social can easily be reinterpreted as isolating—like classical music concerts. “You have to shut up and sit straight, and you can’t move, and everything is a disturbance,” says Berger, whose own compositions are often performed in this manner. “From one point of view, that’s at least as isolating as people in their own zone with their earbuds on.”
What’s more, Berger believes earbuds can play a role in stitching society together. “I see kids walking with their earbuds and I’m trying to infer what they’re listening to. In a way that’s social bonding,” he says. “I’m aware of how they’re tapping their feet, how they’re mouthing the music.” Music that’s experienced alone can still communicate with others.
Schulkin agrees. “You put the headphones on, you’re listening to music, but the music’s still part of the larger social world.” Headphone listeners might block out the world around them, but Schulkin says they’re “plugged in” to the social experience of listening.
The Internet, and music streaming, can clearly be social too. Spotify and Pandora playlists are very often consumed through mobile phones and earbuds. But even when taste algorithms help us discover music in private, that process is a social experience of sharing.
Likewise, services like Last.fm have turned individual music tastes into a source of new social bonds. These new bonds start in our imagination, in that they help us perceive a community of like-minded listeners. But they also help existing friends better understand each other’s habits and tastes.
Sterne portrays listeners as experts at finding new uses for existing technologies. “They get in the hands of users, and they’re transformed,” he says. That’s what happened when DJs started spinning records backward. DJs and fans took a potentially private listening technology, the phonograph record, and turned it into an improvised and unique group experience.
None of this is to say that music listening isn’t individualistic. It’s just that individualistic listening can be social and communicative—like the waltz, the jam session, or the drumbeat that sends soldiers into war. “It’s incorporating the technology into a particular vision of being together,” Sterne says.
Critics who lament private listening cuts us off from one another and tear the social fabric don’t have the full picture. Evolution has stitched the intersubjective powers of music into our brains. Technology hasn’t diminished the social bonds of music. On the contrary, we’ve created and adapted technology to enhance them.
“If you talk about social-media listening, or silent raves, where people are listening to the same music but they’ve got earbuds in—those kinds of activities are completely consistent with the history of music as a collective practice,” says Sterne. “But it’s being remediated and re-performed through the technologies of the moment.”
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A few years ago, LJ Berube traveled to the Bonnaroo Music Festival on a farm in Tennessee. Over the course of four days, dozens of bands took the stage, blasting music to tens of thousands of fans. One day Berube was wandering the festival grounds when he came across a long line. It led to a crowded tent, but strangely, he couldn’t hear any music inside. “I figured it must be something fun,” Berube says. The wait was almost an hour.
The line inched along. The occasional cheer emanated from the tent. “All of a sudden, I figured out what was going on,” Berube recalls. He looked inside and saw hundreds of people dancing—but each person had a pair of headphones on.
It was a bizarre sight: hundreds of people busting moves to music only they could hear. Some of the dancers were synchronized, but others were not. “I was like, uh, I don’t know if this is for me,” Berube says. “But at that point I’d already waited 45 minutes.” He put on a pair of headphones and joined the dance floor. “It was weird at first,” he says. “But that faded quickly.” He danced for an hour.
“I completely get it now,” Berube says. Silent disco turns a private experience into a public one. “You get in your own world and at the same time experience what you’re doing with a group. You’re in tune with yourself, and with everybody else.”
For Berube, that first silent disco was a conversion. Today he works as a “Customer Excitement Manager” for Party Headphones, a silent disco business in New Hampshire. He estimates that tens of thousands of people attend American silent discos each weekend, with even more going to events in Europe. Every week, his company ships crates of headphones all across the United States, so teenagers and young adults can silently get their groove on.
“I actually brought some headphones home for Thanksgiving,” Berube says. “My grandparents were dancing around to Sinatra wearing them.”
Daniel A. Gross is a writer and public radio producer based in Boston.