by Thomas Brett


On Headphones

My headphones
They saved my life,
Björk writes in her eulogy on “Headphones” from her 1995 album Post.

Even if you don’t feel quite as strongly, headphones are probably an important part of your life: as faithful companions on train rides and commutes, as indispensable tools if you need to make phone calls on the run or while driving, as expensive and considered fashion statements.

Thomas Brett’s experimental photo-text-sound piece Headphone Music sheds  light on the technology, history, and theory of headphones. While being both entertaining and informative, this multimedia essay is also a case study in alternative ways of organizing, expressing, and presenting research online.

Headphone Music (2017) is a five-part sound art piece about the history of headphones and headphone listening. Part 1, Introduction, frames the situation: many of us spend a lot of time wearing headphones of one kind or another. Part 2, History, delves into the origins of headphones since the early twentieth century. Part 3, Headphone Advertising, considers a range of print ads by Koss, Sony, Bose, and other electronics companies, from the 1960s to the present. Part 4, Recent Trends, considers different styles of headphones, including ear buds, bass-heavy, noise-cancelling, and surround sound designs. Part 5, Headphone Theory, surveys theoretical writing about the social and physical effects of headphone listening, including looking “zoned-out” and the risk of hearing loss. Part 6, Final Thoughts, contrasts the stereo field of headphone listening with the more immersive and omni-directional nature of our everyday hearing.

Thomas Brett is a musician and writer who holds a Ph.D. in ethnomusicology from New York University. His essays and book reviews have appeared in Popular Music, Popular Music & Society, The Oxford Handbook of Music and Virtuality, The Cambridge Guide To Percussion, and The Grove Dictionary Of American Music. Thomas has played percussion on Broadway since 1997 and blogs about musical topics at