Amniotic Acoustics


Having surveyed a number of headphone users’ experiences of spatial dimensionality and boundedness during listening, I now wish to engage more deeply with the interior “substance” of the headphone-space. Taking Otto’s reported experience of headphone-mediated sound as “happening inside your head” as a springboard, my ambition in this section is to move further inside the bubble to account for how individuals experience the space of headphone listening as both homely and interiorized into the spaces of their bodies. Like Otto, listeners regularly offered rich, detailed, sometimes paradoxical accounts of their experiences of feeling as though they were “inside” a headphone-space while simultaneously perceiving the sound as “within” them. Such reports, I argue, demonstrate how headphones can both appear to erect lived boundaries around a listener and to fill the intimate spaces inside their bodies, both of which may edify an individual’s experience of being ensconced in the “warmth” of the headphone-space.


The phenomenology of in-head sound localization during headphone listening has received little attention in sound studies, though in those places where it does surface, engagement is rich. For example, in writing on the history of sound installation art, Gascia Ouzounian invokes the work of architect and sound artist Bernhard Leitner to introduce the post-1960s aesthetic model of the “body-as-site,” in which “the location of the work […] shifts to the individual listener herself” (Ouzounian 2013: 84). As Ouzounian explains, Leitner’s practices are predicated on empirical “experiments” into the relationship between “body-space” and “sound-space” (Ouzounian 2008: 186). An apposite example that Ouzounian considers is Leitner’s 2003 work KOPFRÄUME (HEADSCAPES), in which the listener is required to wear headphones to experience sonic compositions whose sound-space is reduced “to the interior space of the human head” (Ouzounian 2008: 189). Describing her own experience of the work, she writes that it serves


to challenge the body’s habits of perceiving itself, its tendencies to imagine itself in static and pre-conceived ways. Hearing my own head as a finite domain – a map-able space where sounds can emerge and disappear – forced me to reckon with the possibility that my body may […] really be finite: limited, a space like other spaces, with things moving in and out of it, living and dying in it, extending or limiting its lifespan. (Ouzounian 2008: 191)


For Ouzounian, KOPFRÄUME had a profound effect on her awareness of her lived body as a spatial entity, as a zone through which sounds can not only pass but in which sound can appear to originate and resound (see also Ouzounian 2006, 2021; Petralia 2010; Stankievech 2007). 


Similar experiences were reported by a number of my interviewees. For example, Vincent described the experience in terms of the fluidity of sound:


With the headphones, it’s actually just flowing. Yeah, it’s crazy. Sometimes it’s flowing, like, around your head. Sometimes it goes through. […] It didn’t belong to you before, but now it belongs to you. (Vincent)


Vincent experiences the headphone-mediated sound as “flowing” around and through his head, like a liquid. He describes a sense of ownership over the space, of the sound as belonging to him, that appears directly related to its intimate relationship with his body. Other interviewees described this interiority in terms of the sound accessing the radically private chambers of introspection and cognition:


I hear it in the same space that I hear my own thoughts. (David)


Here, David perceives the sound from his headphones as overlaying the metaphysical space inhabited by his inner thoughts, highlighting the intimate interiority of the sonic experience. Similarly, this sense of intimacy is related to the degree to which listeners feel comfortable with the audio being relayed:


It’ll almost stress me out if I’m hearing stuff I’m not familiar with. I’d much rather listen to stuff that I massively overplay. It’s just, like, a sort of mind-place or mindspace – headspace. (Dana)


Because of the sound’s perceived relationship to her “headspace,” Dana suggests that listening to music with which she is unfamiliar may cause her to feel distressed. In a similar vein to David, she elides the notion of “headspace” with “mindspace,” suggesting that she experiences the interiorized sound as overlapping with the space of her thoughts inside her head. Familiarity is a clear requirement for the curation of a comforting environment here, with sound that is deemed “unwelcome” perceived as invading or violating her sense of embodiment. 


Of these reported experiences, a number of characteristics of headphone listening surface: of sound as experienced as liquid-like, of sound as presented so intimately as to overlay the space of one’s thoughts, and of sonic familiarity as an important component in feelings of comfort. Here, we gain access to the complex experience of perceiving the body as an acoustic territory, as a container for sound, in which the body’s interior is demarcated as a site of sonic experience and whose lived boundaries are felt in relation to the incoming sound’s spatial presentation.


Similar qualities are manifest in the experiences of another interviewee, Hillary, whose description of the spatiality of headphone listening is intricate and paradoxical, resonating deeply with the complex notions of homeliness considered here:


It’s almost womb-like, you know? You’re in someone else’s body. I mean, it feels like that to me. […] You’ve got this kind of, like, sound-life that’s not your body, but it feels like it’s in your own head. So that sort of makes me think about what it must be like to be in utero, with a woman’s body around you that’s operating and moving and making sounds. It’s not your own body, but it’s very much your environment. […] It does feel like a liquid. It feels like going under. (Hillary)


For Hillary, headphones appear to replicate an imagined experience of being inside the womb, of the sound-based security of being entirely protected by the mother’s body. She describes her sonic experience in liquescent terms – of “going under” and feeling submerged. In addition, she offers a vivid description of headphone-mediated audio as a kind of “sound-life,” as another body that is “operating and moving and making sounds,” suggesting that she conceives of the experience as though she is inhabiting an extraneous, quasi-bodily “environment.” Such a reflection resonates with the idea that a homely environment may be understood as an “extension” of one’s own body, forming a “second body” in which an individual feels secure and less vulnerable (Jacobson 2009: 362, 356). Yet Hillary holds this experience of being ensconced in sound in direct tension with her recognition that “it feels like it’s in your own head,” thereby suggesting that she is both within something greater than her body as well as entirely enveloping the sound and carrying it within her own body – as if she is both enwrapped by the sound and a vessel for it, suggesting “a kind of space you are inside as well as outside and it is inside you as well as you being inside it” (Henriques 2003: 459).[5] There is clear resonance here with Jean-Luc Nancy’s broader description of the phenomenology of sonic space:


To listen is to enter that spatiality by which, at the same time, I am penetrated, for it opens up in me as well as around me, and from me as well as toward me: it opens me inside me as well as outside […]. To be listening is to be at the same time outside and inside, to be open from without and from within, hence from one to the other and from one in the other. (Nancy 2007: 14; original emphasis)


Considered in this light, at the center of Hillary’s account is a complex, evocative illustration of the specific soundworld of headphone listening, in which she describes an almost amniotic acoustics: as if the body is figured as both inhabited and inhabiting, as involved in a paradoxical collapsing of interior and exterior space, as filled with liquid-like sound and surrounded by it – in short, as both flooded and immersed. For Hillary, the amniotic acoustics of headphone listening is directly related to the degree to which she feels safe and comforted by the experience:


The headphone does create that womb-like safety that I think a lot of people crave. […] I think we have, for the first time in my life, a really good reason to be frightened of other people in the street. But I suppose one antidote to that fear is to make your own private space, and to […] feel like you’re safe in your uterine simulator. (Hillary)


Here, Hillary’s description of being safe in the womb-like space of headphone listening is expressed in terms of how she feels partially removed from the alien “outside.” She notes how her fear of walking the streets at night is alleviated by the privatizing affordances of her headphones, which offer her a sense of protection. To refer back to the quotation considered at the very beginning of this essay, Hillary’s account resonates strongly with LaBelle’s description of the “elaborated ‘sonorous envelope’” of the home as one “keeping safe, or functioning to replicate, an imaginary or primary aural warmth.” There is perhaps no more “primary” sonic comparison to make than that which invokes the space of the womb, whose “resonant constitution” may be said to produce a listening subject formed of “an enveloping between ‘inside’ and ‘outside,’ or else folding the ‘outside’ into the ‘inside,’ invaginating, forming a hollow, an echo chamber or column, a resonance chamber” (Nancy 2007: 37–38). Similarly, my interviewee Albert described the amniotic acoustics of headphone listening in terms of his sense of agency, affording him a sense of feeling secure and at ease:


There’s the wombic thing, which is like: “I’m just going to curl up in bed and listen to that familiar album that I like.” […] It’s just kind of holding you somewhere. It’s situating you. […] Because it’s like letting go of the responsibility of being in charge, in a way. It’s super womb-like. And that’s the thing: it’s got that immersive, wombic thing that’s also kind of authoritative. […] I think that the music is a way of getting to a point where I feel safe enough to relax and let my guard down. (Albert)


Albert’s account represents a coalescence of many of the aspects of sonic homeliness that I have been exploring here. Choosing to “curl up in bed” with a familiar record and his headphones, to be enveloped by comforting sound, Albert nests himself in a space within a space. In doing so, he feels “safe enough to relax,” submitting to the comfort and security of his familiar, curated soundtrack as he “immerses” himself in the sound. He is “held” and “situated” by the sound, which he describes in wombic terms – as if surrendering any need to be concerned with the outside world, nested inside his home, in his bedroom, in his bed, and within the nourishing space of his headphones.[6] Later in our conversation, Albert shared a vivid memory of his childhood, explaining how his recollections of using headphones when young were foundational to his listening experiences later in life:


If you asked me what was the safest I’d ever felt as a kid, it would be in the back of the car with headphones on, on the motorway, and my parents are just in charge of where we’re going. And I have headphones on, so completely absorbed in my own world, going in and out of sleep. Super relaxed. […] Like: “It’s raining outside. I’m in the car, nice and warm. I’m in the backseat. Long, long drive. I’ve got, like, tapes or whatever. And I’m just listening to music that’s kind of familiar.” And, when aged five or six, I had such a feeling of happy, relaxed… And that’s the wombic thing. […] And I guess it’s like, as an adult, I want that, but I also know that most of the time I can’t have that, because I am kind of in charge of where I’m going. (Albert)


There is a striking richness to Albert’s account, linking his everyday experiences to those that he regards as formative in childhood. His experience of feeling “the safest I’d ever felt” when in the back of the car, moving at a speed and in a direction set by his parents and being doubly emplaced within a secure environment (“within” his headphones, within the car), represents a powerful example of the comforting, homely affordances of headphone listening. He describes a sense of absorption, of alternating between asleep and awake, in which he is entirely enveloped in the safe, “warm” familiarity of his self-curated sonic world. Most affecting is his yearning to return to that carefree, protected state of being – a pull back to his previous nested homeworld that ghosts somewhere behind his every experience of headphone listening.