Acoustic Territories of the Body: Headphone Listening, Embodied Space, and the Phenomenology of Sonic Homeliness

Jacob Kingsbury Downs

“What […] occupies space? 

A body – not bodies in general, nor corporeality, but a specific body, 

a body capable of […] demarcating and orienting space.”

(Henri Lefebvre 1991: 169–70)

As part of his monograph on the acoustic territories of everyday life, Brandon LaBelle devotes a chapter to the sonic constitution of “home.” For LaBelle, “home is where the ear is” (LaBelle 2010: 52), a place where experiences of comfort, security, and belonging coalesce into the sensory and affective folds of privacy, interiority, and domesticity. Foregrounding the territorializing affordances of sound in his analysis, he remarks:

In the weave of self and sound the home might be said to function as an elaborated “sonorous envelope” keeping safe, or functioning to replicate, an imaginary or primary aural warmth […], extending the wants and needs of an interior self to domestic space (LaBelle 2010: 52).

LaBelle’s idealized acoustic territory of the home is one constructed through the delicate interweaving of body, sound, and space into an intimate nexus of sensation, feeling, and memory. Home shields the bodies that inhabit it, its material boundaries dampening the sounds of the exterior world and designating its interior as a space of marked privacy, of sonic-socio-spatial insulation. Here, the structural integrity of the home is, at least in part, sonically composed; it is sound because it is of sound. Home is presented as foundational in both ontogenetic and spatial senses – as the substrate from which one grows, through which one learns stability, and beyond which one extends, but whose pull, as the emotional core of the lifeworld, can be felt far beyond its walls. 

Later in the book, having shifted his focus from the situated home to the mobile world of the urban sidewalk, LaBelle remarks that, amid the alien acoustics of the street, headphone-mediated personal audio technologies may “provide a performative shelter for the senses by both filtering out the undifferentiating flood of sound as well as empowering individual agency in controlling what comes in” (LaBelle 2010: 97). LaBelle’s brief engagement with headphone listening here resonates to some degree with his earlier analysis of sonic comfort and security. While the “space” of headphone listening is not considered a “home” in any meaningful sense, it appears to share some of the qualities of the idealized home, or more accurately of what might be termed a broader experience of sonically constituted “homeliness.” Headphones can act as a sensory “shelter” for a listener negotiating the spaces of public life, providing an acoustic buffer against the potentially unpleasant and unfamiliar acoustics of the wider social environment and bolstering an individual’s sense of control. Perhaps it is toward such ideas of the homely that LaBelle is gesturing when he refers to the iPod as a form of “auditory scaffolding” (LaBelle 2010: 131), implying that, in tandem with its requisite headphones, it can serve to support and to edify a listener through its intimate mediations of space and sound.

LaBelle’s examples of the sonic home and the “shelter” of urban headphone listening provide a useful backdrop for theorizing what I term sonic homeliness. Through close consideration of first-person reports, I investigate how individuals’ experiences of headphone listening may be said to imbricate with perceived notions of comfort, security, and “aural warmth.” I seek to answer two related questions pertaining to the sonic-spatial affordances of headphone listening. First, how do listeners describe the boundedness of headphone listening, its building of perforable, protective sonic “walls” (Herbert 2011: 96)? Second, what qualities do listeners report of the interior acoustic “space” of headphone listening, of the “form” of the sonic “substance” that furnishes the listening space? In foregrounding how headphones can mediate and configure listeners’ perceptual experiences of embodied space, I aim to add nuance to the prevalent model of the “auditory bubble” of headphone listening (Bull 2000, 2007) by reframing it in terms of perceived “homeliness.” My ambition is to uncover more about the ways in which individuals experience the spatiality of headphone listening in phenomenological terms, focusing acutely on how the interior space of the bubble and its perceived acoustic boundaries may be said to resonate with certain characteristics of the “homely,” thereby revealing more about the rich, complex sonic experiences that individuals have with these technologies.

In what follows, I offer an empirically driven phenomenology of sonic homeliness as it emerges during headphone listening, analyzing data collected through interviews with a diverse collection of headphone users. Weaving empirical evidence together with theories drawn from phenomenological philosophy and sound studies, I interrogate how my informants report experiencing a sense of the “homely” during headphone listening, focusing on the territorializing capacities of headphone technologies and their use as part of embodied strategies of sensory control and enrichment. I first establish my theoretical predicate through consideration of how certain phenomenologists have described home in terms of embodied space, working to explore how these insights both correspond with and diverge from the ways in which other scholars have conceptualized notions of comfort and security in relation to sound, with particular interest in how ideas of home have entered into existing studies of urban headphone listening. Then, through primary data analysis, I begin to theorize what I – borrowing from Martin Daughtry (2015: 207–210) – term the acoustic territory of the body as it emerges during headphone listening, engaging with the curious, sometimes paradoxical experiences of sound and embodied space that listeners report while using headphones.