Headphone Bubbles


Since the advent of the Sony Walkman in 1979, a modest but rich collection of studies has surfaced probing the experience of headphone-mediated mobile music listening. Some have focused more on developing critical, historical, and media-theoretical analyses of such cultural phenomena (e.g., du Gay, Hall, Janes, Mackay, and Negus 1997; Everrett 2014; Gopinath and Stanyek 2013; Hagood 2011, 2019; Hosokawa 1984; Weber 2010), others on collecting first-person empirical data as a means of understanding more about lived practices (e.g., Bickford 2017; Dibben and Haake 2013; Heye and Lamont 2010; Prior 2014; Schönhammer 1989; Skånland 2011), and others still on a mixture of both methods, using ethnographic data to draw out broader sociological conclusions (Bull 2000, 2007; Thibaud 1992, 2003). Despite methodological differences, many such studies have argued that individuals experience the “space” of headphone listening as a kind of “bubble,” suggestive of the ways in which one’s personal listening space is “bounded” during headphone listening. 


Within sound studies, the model of the headphone bubble is most closely associated with Michael Bull’s agenda-setting work on mobile musical experience, representing a useful theoretical heuristic for those engaging with the phenomenology of headphone listening. Bull analyzes listeners’ descriptions of using headphones to “clear” a “predictable and secure” space, with sound acting to frame the world as “intimate, known and possessed” and to structure time “into a seamless web of controlled sound and space” (Bull 2007: 31, 21, 3). In defining the auditory bubble, Bull cites the “enveloping acoustics” of headphone listening as constitutive of such experiences of spatial control (Bull 2007: 3), using the model to explore how the widespread instrumentalization of headphones’ “isolating” affordances may represent a shift toward the prioritization of privatized experience in shared urban space (see also Hagood 2011). His work therefore reveals much about the complex ways in which individuals perceive both mediated sound and the wider environment when using headphones. 


However, there are certain aspects of Bull’s bubble model that may benefit from further nuance in terms of the phenomenology of auditory perception. For example, the exact “location” of the headphone bubble’s boundaries and its interior space is broadly unclear in his analyses, especially in terms of its relation to bodily space. Moreover, Bull regularly describes the bubble as “hermetically sealed” (e.g., Bull 2000: 192; Bull 2007: 15), which appears to suggest that headphones can extricate listeners from the wider environment by eliminating all sonic interpenetration – a suggestion that is at odds with the perceptual permeability of the “headphone-space” reported in other studies (e.g., Heye and Lamont 2010; Prior 2014; Thibaud 2003). Lastly, while Bull’s analyses of the relationship between urban headphone listening and a sense of home are rich in their consideration of how personal stereos enable listeners to “bridge” the space between the (private) home and the (public) urban milieu by providing “aural mnemonics” that can connect listeners to significant, comforting memories of life at home (e.g., Bull 2000: 24; see also Thibaud 1992, 2003) as well as in their accounting for the “enveloping acoustics” of headphone listening as a means of bracketing off and controlling auditory experience, there is room for further detail regarding how the territorializing affordances of headphones are experienced in complex affective and perceptual terms, especially in relation to ideas of being “nested” (Born 2013; Smalley 2007) in public space and of headphones providing a means of “refurnishing” (DeNora 2013) a listener’s perceived bodily space.


In light of such opportunities for conceptual development, my aim here is to nuance the bubble model in phenomenological terms, focusing on the ways in which individuals experience the interior of the headphone-space during listening, with particular interest in their awareness of the spatial location of the bubble’s boundaries and the relationship between the interior space of their own bodies and that of the headphone-mediated sound. In particular, I wish to foreground the ways in which – to use Marie Skånland’s expression – headphones can act as “a positive life resource” (Skånland 2011: 16) for many listeners, focusing specifically on how certain comforting or sensorially enriching aspects of headphone-listening experiences coalesce into experiences of embodied “warmth” and “homeliness.”