Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Music History Monday: The Sony Walkman: A Triumph and a Tragedy!

The original Sony Walkman, model TPS-L2
The original Sony Walkman, model TPS-L2

We mark the introduction on July 1, 1979 – 45 years ago today – of the Sony Walkman.  The Walkman was the first entirely portable, high-fidelity (or at least fairly high-fidelity) audio cassette player, a revolutionary device that allowed a user to listen to entire albums anywhere, anytime.  Introduced initially in Japan, the higher-ups at Sony expected to sell 5000 units a month for the first six months after its release.  Instead, they sold 30,000 units in the first month alone and then – then – sales exploded.  All told, Sony has sold over 400 million Walkmen (“Walkmans”?) in cassette, CD, mini-disc, and digital file versions, and Sony remained the market leader among portable music players until the introduction of Apple’s iPod on October 23, 2001.

For Sony the Walkman was a commercial triumph.  For consumers, it was a technological game-changer.  But for humanity, taken as widely as we please, it can (and will!) be argued that the “portable music player” – or PMP – has been an unmitigated disaster, a tragedy that has served to increasingly isolate human beings from one another in a manner unique in our history.

A Walkman ad from 1979, inadvertently promoting individual isolation and the death of public interaction
A Walkman ad from 1979, inadvertently promoting individual isolation and the death of public interaction

Headphones and Earbuds

Growing up, my maternal grandparents lived in a pre-War apartment building at 82nd and Riverside Drive in Manhattan’s Upper West Side.  Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts (or just Lincoln Center) was just 16 blocks to the south, a 16.3-acre complex between 66th and 62nd Streets.  Lincoln Center’s Library & Museum of the Performing Arts opened in 1965, and I remember my grandmother taking me and my brother Steve down to see it.  Actually, I don’t just “remember” the visit; it is etched forever in my 11-year-old memory because of what happened there.

There was a large, open area filled with small, circular tables on which were built in record turntables.  As I recall, each of these circular tables had four stereo headphones plugged in around the turntable.  One would go up to a counter, request a particular record, and then sit down and listen to it through the headphones.

I had never listened to music through over-the-ear headphones (stereo or otherwise) before that visit, and I still remember the amazement I felt: I’d never, ever experienced such sonic fidelity; I’d never imagined that recorded music could sound so fantastic.  And because I was listening through over-the-ear headphones, most of the ambient noise in the room was blocked out, effectively isolating me and allowing me to focus strictly on the music. I don’t remember what my grandmother did to drag me away from that turntable, whether she used a leather sap, a fire hose, the jaws-of-life or, more likely, the promise of ice cream on the way back to her apartment.  Whatever; because of those stereo headphones, I had experienced musical high-fidelity for the first time in my life, and I was hooked.

To this day, I have a number of excellent over-the-ear headphones, and when I really must “listen” for recorded detail, I will listen through one of them.  (FYI: I will not use earbuds, as I can’t tolerate the sensation of something shoved into my ear canal.  Too bad for me.)

To the point.  The immersive experience provided by headphones – by broadcasting directly into our ears while isolating us from ambient sound – is seductive.  But at what point might the isolating aspect of the headphone/earbud experience become a less-than-positive thing?  The advent of PMPs – be they Walkmen, iPods, or smartphones – has allowed two generations of listeners to isolate themselves from the world around them, often to the point of near total disengagement. 

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