In the digital age, music has become an incidental pleasure. Once it demanded that we sit at attention; today, with devices that can put a lifetime’s worth of music in our pockets, we pipe music into our own heads on the subway, at the gym, while working on the computer. Rarely is listening the sole or even primary activity in our lives.
In that light, a recent invention by a young German designer named Jonas Breme can be taken as an act of protest. Or as a self-help tool. The product is a pair of headphones equipped with sensors that lower the volume when you move around. Stand up to switch the laundry? By the time you make it halfway across the room that new Mumford and Sons album you were listening to will have receded to a whisper.
Breme calls his invention “Listen Carefully,” and it’s one of three products he submitted as his undergraduate thesis at the University of Applied Sciences, Potsdam, all of which aim to benevolently constrain the way we listen to music. There’s also “Berta,” a set of portable speakers that requires people to be physically located at designated places in order to hear specific songs; and “Adopt-a-Song,” a little scold of a plugin for iTunes that gives away music that you neglect to listen to for too long.
Breme’s creations are displayed on his website, SlowListening.com, a url which owes to a music critic named Michaelangelo Matos who is credited with coining the term Slow Listening in a 2008 blog post. There, Matos announced he was imposing a list of rules on his consumption of music in order to enhance his ability to appreciate what he was listening to and bring order to his sprawling music collection. These included downloading only one MP3 at a time, listening to that MP3 before he downloaded another, and requiring himself to listen to any new CDs he acquired before ripping them to his computer.
The Slow Listening movement, if it can be called a movement, shares the spirit of the make-it-by-hand Slow Food movement and also Slow Art Day, which each year invites participants to visit a museum with a group of friends and commit to looking at only five pieces of art for ten minutes each. These initiatives share the belief that the self-conscious imposition of limits is the best way to live authentically in an age of boundless choice.
In all of these areas, it’s finding the balance that’s the hardest part: too much choice feels like anarchy while too many rules leads to tyranny. By that token, Jonas Breme’s invention has the aspect of a compromise: Put on his headphones and you may listen to music more intently, but you won’t be able to dance to it.
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Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.
Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.
Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.
Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.
Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."
Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.
Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.