Sonic Boundary-Making


There are a range of potential resonances between the phenomenological notions of home considered above and the existing model of the headphone bubble – for example, that the bubble has an assumed boundary, as well as being a necessarily technology-mediated phenomenon. Indeed, Bull occasionally engages with individuals’ perceptions of sonic “habitation” in the context of urban headphone listening. For example, he describes headphone use as a form of “gating,” in which sonic experience is “framed” so as to extend notions of secure boundedness “beyond the home into the public spaces of urban everyday life” (Bull 2007: 54). In addition, he argues that his interlocutors’ “notions of habitation [… are] focused upon the site of experience as a form of sanctuary representing a progressive privatization of the experiencing subject” (Bull 2000: 192). Here, Bull’s analysis of the space of personal-stereo listening as constituting a sense of “sanctuary” for listeners aligns with Jacobson’s description of the home as a “situation of refuge,” as it foregrounds how listeners enjoy the ability to curate “private,” secure spaces in unfamiliar environments. 


Similarly, Heike Weber describes headphone listening as a technique of “acoustic cocooning,” arguing that headphones enable individuals “to feel at home away from home” (Weber 2010: 356). In other words, headphones can be used to create mobile spaces in which listeners “feel sheltered,” forging states of comforting boundedness “that they not only seek, but also leave, just as they do their home” (Weber 2010: 359). Here, we may regard a number of the characteristics of “homeliness” outlined above: as sheltering, as intimate, and as thresholded, meaning that, as with a physical home, one can both “enter” and “exit” a homely acoustic space.


Even more specific to notions of the homely is Bull’s comparison of headphone use and the sonic experience of being in a car, with the automobile representing a form of “mobile home” for users because “the interior of the car is redolent of feelings of home” (Bull 2007: 99–100). Indeed, in the decades preceding the advent of the Walkman, similar notions of sonic-spatial envelopment were widely associated with the acoustic territory of the automobile. Karin Bijsterveld, Eefje Cleophas, Stefan Krebs, and Gijs Mom demonstrate that the rise of long-distance driving in the early twentieth century provoked conceptualizations of the car as “a mobile home away from home,” with drivers reporting a heightened degree of acoustic privacy and control when in the car – that they felt secure because they were “largely controlling who and what is sonically able to enter the car,” affording a sensory condition akin to “being at home, but with more physical privacy than home usually offers” (Bijsterveld et al. 2014: 35, 170). Given their identification of the privatizing affordances of the car, it is unsurprising that the writers also compare the experience of in-car listening to the use of headphones as part of a wider strategy of “mobile acoustic cocooning in public space” (Bijsterveld et al. 2014: 170). That said, while Bull does in one instance describe the “space of reception” in headphone listening as “a form of ‘mobile home’” (Bull 2000: 32), it is more common to see the analogy used in relation to the car.[4] This may be because it makes more intuitive sense to conceive of being in a car as being “inside” a sonically constituted “mobile home” than it does to say that one is “inside” a headphone-constituted “home,” primarily because the body can fit into the space of a car in a way more akin to how it would fit into, say, a house. 


Nonetheless, it is clear that in relation to both the car and headphones, the writers are only employing the notion of a mobile home as an analogy; they do not suggest that the car, nor indeed the personal stereo, can provide a functional substitute for the home, but merely that each affords certain acoustic qualities of the “homely.” With such notions in mind, I wish now to turn to the idea of headphones affording sonic homeliness in a manner that corresponds more directly with the series of theoretical postulations of the homely listed above – that is, of affording a bounded “space” that a listener can temporarily “inhabit” and that is therefore somehow “greater than” the phenomenological dimensions of the lived body. Considered in this way, headphones, in tandem with the listening body, may be said to co-constitute a form of sonic homeliness, producing sonic-spatial boundaries at the horizon of a listener’s experience. 


One of the individuals I interviewed about their experiences of headphone listening, Nell, described to me how her headphones serve to “make listening a private activity.” When I asked her to explain more about the sense of privacy that she experienced when using headphones, she said:


I think, in some ways, it helps you create your own space, even maybe when there isn’t physically as much. Listening to music or a podcast on a train that’s really, really cramped, and you’re squished close to everybody – maybe it’s because it’s distracting, but it’s like creating a space that’s not bothering other people, that is for you, I guess. […] It feels a bit like a bubble at times. (Nell)


Nell’s account sketches out her experience of curating a bubble-like space for herself in an otherwise compromised environment, carving out a sense of materially bounded space. Perhaps most interesting is her concern with “not bothering other people” while establishing and maintaining a sense of spatial ownership, suggesting that her headphones enable her to avoid social conflict with other passengers by affording her a sense of having more personal space than she would without them, despite still remaining “in” the physical space of the crowded train carriage (see also Tajadura-Jiménez, Pantelidou, Rebacz, Västfjäll, and Tsakiris 2011). This is telling of a desire for spatial ownership in the public forum that is not directly related to the “physical” environment – that the headphone-space allows her to feel as if she is less “squished close to everybody” despite actually remaining at the same distance from other bodies in the space (see also Morris 2004). As such, it appears that Nell’s headphones forge lived perceptual boundaries for her in the context of an otherwise busy public environment without the need to “clear” physical space far beyond the edges of her body.


Nell’s experience of the comforting boundedness of headphone listening corresponds with Alana’s and David’s, both of whom remarked on the proximal limits of the headphone bubble:


I feel like it’s a bubble around me. So it’s a bit beyond me, but it’s kind of following me. I think that’s the way I maybe kind of visualize it. So it’s part of this little world. (Alana)


If you have headphones on, it brings everything closer. It’s your little bubble. […] I don’t know why, but it’s a comforting thing, I think. […] It’s like a happy place. (David)


Alana finds that visualizing the bubble is a useful way to materialize it in her own awareness, taking solace in the feeling that her headphones create a space “around” her. She describes the spatial boundary of her bubble as extending just beyond the felt limits of her body, “following” her through the spaces of her everyday life. David’s account is similarly rich in terms of its spatial insights, describing the experience not only in terms of perceived closeness – of the headphones producing a “little,” “comforting” space for him – but also in his description of headphone listening as a “happy place.” This suggests that he experiences a material, situated, quasi-physical aspect to the space of headphone listening, one that appears as a cherished zone of sanctuary that is “other” to the outside environment. In both cases, headphones serve to forge concrete, comforting boundaries and in turn may be said to correspond with Bachelard’s notion of “englobing” invoked above.


In terms of the dimensionality of the headphone-space, other interviewees were less assured of its exact spatial delimitation:


It’s just there. It’s just in an orb around my head, rather than being… Well, I never imagine it in a particular configuration, as such. It’s just there. (Ursula)


Unlike Alana, who conceived of the bubble in visual terms, Ursula’s spatial experience is less consciously considered. This suggests a palpable ineffability to the ways in which she perceives the headphone-space – that the space, like that of her own lived body, is simply “there” for her. She describes the orb-like quality of the bounded sound-space, though she appears unconvinced by her own explanation. Her difficulty in conceiving of the space suggests that the spatiality of headphone listening is something that she never readily considers. In its familiarity and its comforting comparability with the space she inhabits with her own body, Ursula appears to find the idea of reflecting on the space strange, as if akin to being asked what it feels like to catch a glimpse of the rim of her spectacles or what it feels like to wear a pair of trousers – because, in all such cases, technologies have become incorporated into a broader body schema, receding into the background of perceptual awareness because they are experienced as “embodied” (Ihde 1990). Such a pre-reflective incorporation of the headphone-space – of its becoming a “transparent” part of her body schema – resonates with Drew Leder’s phenomenological account of embodied deixis, of the “hereness” of the body: “No matter where I physically move, and even in the midst of motion, my body retains the status of an absolute ‘here’ around which all ‘theres’ are arrayed” (Leder 1990: 13). In Ursula’s case, her reported experience of the headphone-space appears – to use Jacobson’s expression – to be “phenomenologically akin” to her awareness of her own embodiment, as if the headphones have formed part of her bodily consciousness. Viewed in this way, the embodied familiarity of the headphone-space may suggest that Ursula experiences it as a homely space of habituated habitation. Her experience is revealing regarding the ways in which headphones, despite being consciously appended to the body, may conjure a sense of space that latches onto the body and “disappears” into its schematic structure.


In addition, for some individuals, the construction of a secure sense of personal space through headphone use was reportedly rooted in the technology’s ability to dampen wider environmental sounds, and thereby to separate them markedly from an alien “outside.” Miranda, for example, spoke to me about using headphones to lessen the onslaught of harsh environmental sounds:


Something about sounds from the real world becoming muffled is quite a comforting thing. It’s like a deadening. Things can be quite sharp and spiky sometimes, can’t they? (Miranda)


Here, Miranda identifies a “comforting” aspect of headphone listening in the technology’s dulling of certain environmental sounds. She explains how she experiences some extraneous sounds as if they are like physical objects, jagged or barbed, against which her headphones shield her. This vivid description of sounds in material, tangible terms suggests that, like a physical home, headphones serve to “protect” Miranda against sonic aggressions from the wider world and in turn increase her experience of comfort as she negotiates public space. Implicit here is her awareness that the headphones by no means produce a hermetic seal (she describes the extraneous sounds as “muffled,” not imperceptible), which suggests that the bubble model should be characterized, like a home-space, both by its boundary-making and the permeability of those boundaries.


In other cases, interviewees described the comforting “warmth” of headphone listening in terms of its “zoning” of experience. Otto described this in relation to how his spatial perceptions often change during listening:


It’s about focusing on the space that’s around your head. […] It’s forming something else. And that’s what you’re focusing on: the fact that you’ve got whatever it is […] happening inside your head, in your happy little box. And I think that’s particularly important: that it’s not necessarily taking you to somewhere that isn’t where you are. It’s forming something – some zone. […] I think it’s a space within the reality you’re experiencing through your other senses. […] But your auditory zone is something else. It’s a subsection of where you are. […] It’s a closed-off, comfortable, warm box. […] A sort of warm space that’s in your head. […] It is, I guess, neutrality or stability. (Otto)


Here, Otto describes the curious manner in which his head appears to be a resonant container for sound. Yet he also describes how using headphones causes him to focus on the space around his head, as if the headphones form a personal “zone” for him, one that does not wholly dislocate him from his physical reality but which instead situates him, representing “a subsection of where you are.” He describes this “subsection” of his realm of sonic experience as “closed-off, comfortable, warm,” and one that affords a sense of “stability.” We see in Otto’s example a tension between the bodily experience of sound as both interior and exterior – as within the head, yet simultaneously beyond the head.


Throughout the examples considered here, a number of the phenomenological postulations listed above regarding experiences of homeliness are evidenced in relation to headphone listening. The headphone bubble is experienced by all cited interviewees as a space characterized by lived, sonic boundaries, demarcating an acoustic territory that they inhabit when listening. The limits of the headphone-space are variously described in terms of being close to the body, being inside the body, or being “just there.” Such boundaries are sometimes experienced as permeable, suggesting that, like the walls of a physical home, there is a degree of security and separation from the outside alienworld but that such walls are penetrable and prone to leakage. In addition, the space that is formed is one that may be experienced as a “happy place,” a “happy little box,” or a “little world,” with each case representing a feeling of comfort, security, and familiarity. Headphones never provide a functional substitute for a sense of home in these examples, but they may be considered to afford “homely” spatial experiences, here understood in terms of bounded, sonically constituted comfort.