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(Credits: Far Out / Wikimedia / Jon Tyson / Lee Campbell)

Music

How the Sony Walkman changed our relationship with music forever

Fancy living in your own universe? Well, lookie here: it’s you’re very own personal stereo. Sleek, portable, and trendy beyond compare, the Sony Walkman offered music fans all over the world something they had yet to experience: undiluted musical freedom. First introduced in 1974, the lightweight tape player altered the way people interacted with and understood music. Though small, its impact was immense. It changed listening habits forever, forcing both musicians and the music industry to adapt their practices to conform to a new age of musical mass consumption. Hell, it actively modified our view of reality.

The Walkman was created out of boredom. Sony co-founder Masaru Ibaku was tired of having nothing to listen to during long-haul flights so decided to design something that would allow him to choose his own in-flight soundtrack. Originally crafted from aluminium, the first Sony Walkman, the TPS-L2, was released in 1979 and was an immediate hit. The appeal was obvious: not only was the walkman only marginally larger than the cassette itself but it was also highly portable. Featuring headphones that could be used while walking, the Walkman made listening to music a nomadic pursuit.

The first-ever advertisement for the Sony Walkman depicts a young woman using a TPS-L2 in the park. Her eyes are closed as she dances, her face carrying a euphoric smile. Next to her, an elderly man is also using a Walkman. In contrast to the beaming woman, he seems deep in thought, his eyes cast downward. Neither seems to notice the other; they are lost in their own worlds. This simple image reveals one of the most important ways the Sony Walkman changed the world.

Previously, private listening was a domestic pursuit. Listeners were forced to plant themselves near a radio or a speaker, making recorded music an essential feature of the private sphere. The Walkman dissolved the boundary between public-private spheres, allowing listeners to bring private listening into the public realm.

For the first time, music fans were able to curate their own soundtrack instead of being forced to listen to someone else’s record collection. In this way, the Walkman liberated the individual from the confines of public order. Here was a machine that could be used to transform one’s life into a Hollywood movie. Although it looks pretty bulky by today’s standard, in the 1980s, the portability of the Walkman was such that it felt like a seamless part of the human body – an early piece of biotech as much part of their body as the hair on their head. Coupled with the lightweight headphones, this created a sense that the music coming from the cassette was in fact emanating from inside the user’s head.

The Walkman thus provided a totally private listening experience that was also completely one-way. Unlike at a live music concert, where the kinetic relationship between performers might excite energetic displays of emotion, the Walkman did not require listeners to respond in any particular way. Indeed, to this day, anyone who does express pleasurable emotions outwardly while listening to music on headphones is regarded as being totally off their rocker. This has had a huge impact on the way we approach music as a tool of social cohesion. Dancing to music has traditionally bonded social groups, but in a world in which the majority of music is consumed privately, the enthusiastic dancer has become an oddity.

But one of the most profound changes ushered in by the Walkman isn’t to do with music so much as reality itself. In the 1990s, a New York sociologist called Shing-Ling Chen conducted research into the effect of the Walkman on the college student’s sense of self. In Electronic Narcissism: Experiences of Walkman Listening, Chen found that many participants reported their behaviour and activities were shaped and guided by their Walkman. In many instances, the length of a certain song provoked the user to prolong a daily activity, while the use of the Walkman also influenced the participant’s perception of time, with users using songs to measure the duration of an activity.

A few years after Chen’s research, Reason published an article marking 20 years since the introduction of the Walkman. In it, Rishawn Biddle reiterated how the cassette player allowed the user to “merge” scenery with a soundtrack of their own choice. One of his interviewees, Deroy Murdock of the Atlas Economic Research Institute, notes how he used to find pleasure in listening to the music of The Grateful Dead whilst travelling landscapes evocative of the Old World. “‘I learned those songs while peering out the windows of trains and buses across the continent, Murdock recalled. “‘Even as I hear those songs today, I associate them with the mountains, plains, and castles of the Old World.'” In giving users the power to turn their lives into movies, the Walkman also gave them the power to edit those movies. By blending certain songs with certain environments, users could warp reality to their will, emphasising certain cultural or historical undertones with the flick of a switch.

The Walkman not only changed the way we use and interact with music; it’s actively altered music itself. In David Byrne’s book How Music Works, the author points out that, historically, music was created to best suit the environment in which it was to be performed. Back in the 18th century, operas were designed to make the most of resonant concert halls. Indeed, the fact that most people think opera singing sounds remarkably like a cat being sick at half-speed is because, without microphones, opera singers were taught to project their voice. It is this projection that defines what we regard as the operatic style.

These days, music exists pretty much exclusively between the ears. Sure, we go to concerts and festivals, but on a day-to-day level, most people experience music through headphones. As has always been the case, composers have modified their approach to songwriting to cater to this new listening environment.

Take Billie Eilish. Her music is the perfect example of how music has morphed to adhere to portable listening culture. Her soft vocals are often little more than a whisper and, as a result, are placed high in the mix to compete with Finneas’ hard-edged digital beats. Much like mumblecore, this kind of music – at once languid and tactile – sounds best through headphones. Eilish’s breathy vocals create an intense aura of intimacy and confession, as though she is whispering all her secrets directly into your head. By making music an internal experience, the Walkman made that close-micked confessionalism feasible.

During a recent interview on the Adam Buxton Podcast, former Pulp frontman Jarvis Cocker observed how the ubiquity of private listening has altered how musicians record their vocals: “I remember when I was doing the 6Music show, you know, I used to get quite a lot of records sent to me. And I just kinda noticed that a lot of the records had singing that was like, [mumbles melody] and at one point I thought well maybe all these records have been made by people on their laptops in their bedrooms and they’re just trying not to disturb the people in the next flat.”

By popularising private listening, the Walkman also made it an expectation. Before the Walkman, it was common to find oneself listening to other people’s music – whether you wanted to or not. With the introduction of the Walkman and the rise of private listening culture, people became much less tolerant of other people’s music. This, in turn, affected music-making in a domestic setting, with bedroom artists lowering the audibility of their voices and instruments to avoid interfering with the outside world. No wonder so many of today’s indie artists seem to produce the same brand of introspective, cerebral alt-pop – it’s hard to be innovative when you’re trying to avoid offending anybody.