It's Time to Unplug Your Headphones

City dwellers across the world no longer have to accept the constant honking of car horns and the screams of ambulance sirens. We're no longer forced to be privy to the personal conversation happening right next to us on the subway. In this age of earbuds and iPods, we can deal with city noises by simply blocking them out. We cultivate our own sound worlds, and we are able to commute and walk and eat and live to the beat of a personalized soundtrack.

In cities today, seeing someone with little white wires leading from their ears to their pocket is just as common as seeing someone wearing black hipster glasses or a scarf on a chilly day, but having the ability to ignore the sounds around us by putting on headphones is a relatively new phenomenon. It can certainly be wonderful to have our music always at our fingertips, and it’s nice to be able to tune in to a favorite album, rather than listening to traffic noises. But I believe that if we are constantly closing our ears off to the things happening around us, we are missing out on something important. We are missing out on the stuff of real, unadulterated, urban life, and we are denying ourselves the chance to be unexpectedly touched by sound.

When I first moved to New York right after college, I tried listening to music on my morning walk to work and whenever I was taking public transportation. I actually enjoyed the hustle and bustle of the city after four years of living in a fairly quiet Midwestern university town, but putting in headphones just seemed like the thing to do, a way to stay occupied during the constant walking, traveling, and commuting that you do in cities.

I soon decided, however, that having my headphones in all the time wasn't really for me. First of all, there were the safety concerns. Call me neurotic, but I wanted to be able to hear the footsteps of the stranger creeping up behind me. I didn’t want my heels grazed as I walked across Broadway because I couldn’t hear the cab driver’s warning honk. The least I could do, as a young woman in the city, I thought, was be aware of my surroundings.

But it was more than that. I also decided (in part, subconsciously) that I was depriving myself by always avoiding the noise around me. I don’t think I knew exactly what I was missing out on, but I remember having the acute feeling that I shouldn’t block out the world, or cultivate my own, personal sound environment. Perhaps I should tune in to the noise.

Free of headphones, I noticed the foreign languages being spoken all around me, sometimes recognizing up to four or five different tongues in a single day. I overheard sweet conversations between young children and their moms and dads on the bus, giving me a little glimpse of what New York must look like from the eyes of a 3-year-old. I once got choked up as I listened to the long-haired guitarist at my subway stop sing words that happened to really speak to me.

One especially poignant experience I had with the sounds of New York took place every time I was in New York’s Port Authority Bus Terminal. If you’ve ever been to Port Authority you know that outside and in, it’s a pretty garish building. It’s modern and ugly and dark. To make things worse, it’s always crowded, and full of grumpy, busy people who rose at the crack of dawn and are now running (often into you) to make their connection.

But you know what? Port Authority has a saving grace that consistently made my time there so much more peaceful than I expected it to be: their stereo system plays classical music.

I think the first time I heard it, I found it so unusual (after all, most big public places play pop hits), that I assumed it was a one-time thing. Maybe it was a special arts-appreciation gesture, I thought. But the next time I was there, as I braced myself and prepared to be stressed and flustered as I made my way to the gate, the sounds of a lovely Mozart piano trio washed over me as soon as I walked in the door. I was, yet again, pleasantly surprised.

I eventually realized that Port Authority Bus Terminal always plays classical music. And pretty much without fail, I’ve taken note of it, and it has made my experience there calmer — and at times, even beautiful. As it turns out, there’s something sort of wonderful about listening to music that was written several hundred years ago being piped over loudspeakers as people from all over the world race around, and bump into each other, and make their way through their busy, 21st century lives. Had I put up my defenses, and popped in my earbuds before entering the terminal to block out the noise and stress, I would never have known about the terminal's music.

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with putting on headphones to kill some time as you wait out a long commute, or to keep you company on the subway after a hard day at work. I just wonder if there’s something to be said for saving music listening for home, or if there’s something to be said for opening your eyes and ears to the grittiness and the beauty of city life, in the hope that you’ll experience something unexpected and memorable.