Jeff Shuter: Final Project
Table of Contents


Working Title: Virtual Audition: History, Meaning, and Architectonics of Silent Disco

The practice and culture of wireless headphone dance parties, often called “silent disco”, is an emerging medium for communal music listeners. Silent disco users wear wireless headphone canisters that stream audio content directly to their ear instead of dancing to sound amplified through loudspeakers. Style journalist Courtney Rubin proclaims silent disco as “clubbing for people who don’t want to be subjected to the will of one D.J. for the evening and, because the wearer controls the volume, clubbing for people who don’t want ringing ears and sore throats the next morning” (Rubin, 2015). The practice first gained attention in the early 2000’s when popular bands such as The Flaming Lips experimented with headphone sound amplification technologies in their concert performances. Eventually, local music festival planners who branded silent disco as a new way for young, portable-music savvy tastemakers to experience music performances, adopted wireless headphone technologies. As local music festivals grew in popularity, wireless headphone concerts were incorporated into their festival operation strategies, and, as a result, festivals expanded live concert programming and performance locations to sites otherwise restricted by civil noise ordinances. Now, in 2015, almost every major headphone manufacturer produces silent disco equipment ranging from permanent wireless headphone installations for clubs and auditoriums to consumer wireless-headphone hardware and software designed for private silent disco events. Several online silent disco companies rent packages of wireless headphones to wedding planners, college students, and performance artists alike.

As a media and performance scholar whose research focuses on the convergence of sound technics, social practice, and sensory experience, I want to examine the silent disco phenomenon as part of a larger history of music listening practices, which have long informed audio reproduction technologies. In particular, I want to examine how sonic experience and social behavior vary between loudspeaker and headphone machines.

As Jonathan Sterne suggests in The Audible Past, headphone apparatuses are the result of early capitalist and progressive social thought which sought to privilege the human ear over the voice. Loudspeaker systems, such as the amplification component of the phonograph (later improved by the gramophone horn), were intended to privilege sound sources. As such, the cultural origin of the loudspeaker is thought to impose sound on audiences, to broadcast a source, which, as Sterne suggests, extends from longstanding theological and oralist histories that equate sound sources with voices of the divine (or, “vox”). Headphones, which establish interior and exterior zones of audile experience, are thought to shift the listening experience from disembodied sacred sources to the user body, the sensorium.

The idea that headphones zone interior and exterior listening experience (the result of which is thought to empower an auditor) is echoed by one of the leading online silent disco headset providers: Silent Storm. The company writes, “We not only produce silenced events but also provide an easy way for organizations to rent equipment to “silence” any event…. Keep meaningful networking and personal conversations alive by allowing guests to converse freely without having to yell over blaring music” (Silent Storm 2015).

On the surface, it would seem that silent discos democratize the listening experience by allowing the auditor more control over their audio content feed (i.e. the user can freely switch between streaming music and the conversation of their friends). Silent Storm even gestures toward certain philosophical underpinnings from Shuhei Hosokawa’s “The Walkman Effect”, which portrays the Walkman portable music user as one who listens to an “open, public secret”. Hosokawa suggests portable listening is a public theater event – wherein a headphone user reveals to his/her cohorts secret interpretations of the music from which the user is privately listening. Silent Storm suggests that silent discos are public theater in their mission statement: “… After all, a dance floor grooving to apparent silence makes for great people-watching and will keep your guests talking” (Silent Storm, 2015).

By reclaiming the experience of listening as individual and embodied only in conjunction with shared music experiences, wireless headphone dance parties seem to postulate that the ear is more than an acoustic mirror that reflects vibrations out into the world – rather; that the ear is an active participant in the shaping of vibrations.

Yet, the notion that silent discos subvert all-powerful loudspeakers and/or draconian noise ordinances which impose the will of pre-set audio content seems… well, off. What of the concertgoer whose post-show tinnitus is a badge of honor, who delights in screaming over the music to the point of laryngitis? As Brandon Labelle suggests in Acoustic Territories, “Music serves as material experience through which we learn how to hear, to detect, and to engage with the auditory environment – as intervals that break up the day… as sensations existing below the auditory field, and within vibration sensing, also granting us a deep vocabulary for how to feel” (138).

Headphones virtualize how music interacts with physical space. The headphone user does not feel the audio content in their chest, and his/her teeth do not chatter with hi-frequency vibration. By virtualizing the audio spectrum, headphones make intelligible the feel of sound, but they do not reproduce the feel of sound. Can we really say that listening is enhanced, or that bodies are more agential when responding only to upper partials?

When sound is too loud at a concert, or when I feel uncomfortable listening to audio content amplified over loudspeakers, I easily leave that physical space and am no longer responsive to that sound. But as a frequent participant in silent discos over the years, I never need to leave the party. Whether I switch the audio feed in my headphones or observe my friends dance, I am immersed in myriad reasons to stay — to keep dancing. These concerns, rather, these feelings, are the core this project and perhaps the strongest link to our coursework in cyber music. As Lysoff and Gay note, “Because of human agency, technology can be politically oppressive yet also liberating; it might build community while simultaneously 
causing social alienation” (17). To what extent is a silent disco listening experience not listening at all – instead, the reproduction of social obligations and norms disguised by musical sonority and virtualized as communal experience?


Step One:
Prepare annotated bibliography for review (to be incorporated into final paper)

Step Two:
Prepare rough draft of paper for review

Final Submission: Seminar Paper

Final Presentation: Oral Reading of Paper


Hosokawa, S. (1987). Der Walkman-Effekt. Berlin: Merve.

LaBelle, B. (2010). Acoustic territories sound culture and everyday life. New York: Continuum.

Post, J. (2006). Ethnomusicology: A contemporary reader. New York: Routledge.

Rubin, C. (2015, June 18). Silent Discos Let You Dance to Your Own Beat. The New York Times.

Sterne, J. (2003). The audible past: Cultural origins of sound reproduction. Durham: Duke University Press.

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