Headphones: Give #039;em a rest

by Beacon Staff • April 22, 2009

The birds on the Common have been chirp-chirping now for weeks. But I sure haven't heard them. It's not because I'm too busy looking at the bloomin' trees. It's because the buds of spring are in my ears, attached to an iPod, and the tunes are drowning them poor little birdies out.

Emersonians love music, which is great. I listen to music in the shower. I listen to music on the T. I listen to music when I walk, work out, fly, drive, study and read. I enjoy listening to music so much that, over the past two years, there have been a handful of days when I turned off my tunes only after crossing the threshold into a classroom-and not a moment before. I am not alone.

My beloved music machine's easy access helps me forget the other nice sounds out there, and that I'm missing out. Boston is a city, and it comes with lots of cool city sounds. Birds in the park, crosswalk signals, sirens and, most importantly, people.

T stations are great places to experience the ethos of our city's sound-an impossible task if plugging your eardrums with your own soundtrack. A month ago, inside the Park Street T station, I stopped dead in my tracks when my ears caught the sound of an enchanting duet. A little boy, clearly a beginner, was playing violin. His grandfather was beside him, expertly playing guitar. They filled the station with lively Latin-style music. I couldn't help but stop, listen and smile. These are the moments that make people fall in love with their city. It was far more engaging than any iPod ever could be.

Unfortunately, this dynamic duo got very little ear time from the commuters. No one stopped to say "Aw." No one smiled as they ran to catch the Heath Street train. Most people didn't even notice the scene: they couldn't hear it.

Two years ago, iWashington Post/i columnist Gene Weingarten conducted a social experiment, convincing violin virtuoso Joshua Bell to play during rush hour in a bustling Washington D.C. Metro station. Bell played for 43 minutes and only seven people stopped to listen. Approximately 1,097 people walked right by one of the best musicians in the country.

When jammin', we miss out on interactions with Bostonians and Emersonians alike. The crazy homeless guy, the lost tourist, friends, classmates, teachers and maybe even a famous violinist. I wonder how many people in the city have said "Hello" to me that I never heard. It certainly bugs me when I shout "Hey friend!" down the street, only to be left hanging by my headphoned homies. I feel plain old dumb when people look at me thinking "Woah lady, who are you talking to?"

If saying "Hi" and hearing the sounds of the city is too sentimental of an argument, maybe this anecdote will make you think differently:

In January, one of my coworkers was mugged in Davis Square while walking home from work listening to her MP3 player. Granted, muggings occurred long before the advent of headphones-but you've got to wonder if it could have been avoided had she been more aware. Now she commutes with one ear bud in and one out.

It's happened to me, too. Last month, my wallet fell out of my (unzipped) backpack while I was walking to the T. The construction worker who picked it up had to literally grab my shoulder to give it back. I couldn't hear him yelling "Miss! You dropped this!" over my iPod's din.

Running a block down Boylston Street after someone who can't hear you, and then all but physically assaulting them to get their attention, is an awful lot to ask of a Good Samaritan. Next time, he'll probably just leave it in the sidewalk. Had the scenario had been swapped, I can't say I would have been so persistent. We need to be aware of our surroundings, and turning off the iPod from time to time is a practical choice just as much as a social one.

Whether intentional or not, wearing headphones makes a loud statement. Those little white chords coming out of your head say, "I am in my own little world, and I do not want to interact." We are quickly becoming known as the "iGeneration." Do we really want to be a part of that legacy? An entire generation of I? I don't. I want to hear the T-performers make music, I want to hear my friends when they say "Hey!", I want to be a part of Boston in a concrete way, all senses engaged.

Don't get me wrong. You don't have to throw away your iPod. Use it at the gym, hook it up to a stereo in the car, listen to music when you are studying or trying to fall asleep-when anti-social activity is perfectly appropriate. But every now and then, give Boston the attention of your ears. There are sounds out there that can't be found in your iPod.

iTaylor Gearhart is a sophomore writing, literature and publishing and political communication double major and assistant lifestyle editor of /iThe Beacon.