February 28, 2009

Headphone Music

Not a huge headphones fan, but some songs/albums are just better that way. What is your favorite "best on headphones" music?

That was a message I posted to Twitter nearly a month ago. I had a suggestion (from @pammybean) to turn the message into a blog post, and I think that's a good idea. I'd meant to go through my music library and pick out some of my own faves as examples. Then I got a head cold that messed with my hearing. Now that I'm feeling a lot better form the cold, I'm left with some hearing problems. (I either have a slight ear infection or the cold simply damaged my eardrum and I'm going to have to wait for it to heal fully.) Anyway, that slowed me down a bit!

I think I can go forward with the post in a scaled-down form, and you can have a chance to contribute some of your own headphone faves.

I'm not a huge fan of headphones when they are the type that squish your ears. This is not only uncomfortable, it changes the way you hear. "Earbuds" are meant to avoid that problem entirely, but I find they don't always fit my ears right, and can cause discomfort.

Gamer's headphones are often designed for long sessions in front of the computer, and so they make them light and large enough to co completely around your ears. This is often a big improvement.

On to the music.

Some songs are better heard over headphones, for a few reasons.

Sometimes there are subtle sounds that you can only hear in a room with excellent acoustics and on excellent speakers, and headphones are more affordable than a perfect audio listening room. So you may notice more when you put the headphones on.

Other songs just improve when you can focus more on the layers of sound, and headphones may help you focus.

And then there are the songs which have been recorded with special techniques that are intended to recreate the kind of audio cues your brain is used to getting from ambient sound in your everyday environment. There are various ways to recreate these cues -- putting microphones inside the ears of a dummy head is one method. The sounds are then recorded in a way similar to what you might hear if you were sitting where the dummy head was. The results sound very different over speakers than they do over headphones. And added depth makes certain sounds pop into a kind of auditory 3D with the headphones on.

One dramatic (non-musical) example is the Virtual Barbershop you may remember from it's brief Internet popularity last year.

I've added just a few songs to an iMeem playlist for you:

"Signs of Life" from Pink Floyd's "A Momentary Lapse of Reason" album doesn't have any notable audio tricks in it, but it's got a lot of neat ambient sounds that come across better with headphones.

"Clint Eastwood" by Gorillaz has a piano part to it which isn't remarkable until you put your headphones on. Its recorded differently from some of the other tracks in the recording so that the piano sounds more as though it's in the room with you. It's actually a fairly subtle effect but it sets the piano apart when you've got headphones on.

"If You Want"/"Blasphemous Rumors" are from Depeche Mode's "Some Great Reward" album, and they're a lot less subtle and a lot more gimmicky. "If You Want" begins in a somewhat morose fashion with lots of synthesized bonging that hops from ear to ear, then the song quickly speeds up into an upbeat song that evokes weekend partying. There is a sense of frenetic activity which is slightly dizzying.

The next track on the same album is one of the most creepy songs ever: the subject matter of the lyrics of "Blasphemous Rumors" is the cruelty of fate. It's one of my favorite songs, and Depeche Mode spared no gimmicky expense at driving the point home, even employing a musical equivalent of "cat scares." There are melodic fingers-up-the-spine with piano scales (which sends a shiver up your spine, if you're listening too carefully), a respirator in your ear and the sound of some sort of can rolling around. Hearkening to the virtual barber shop, in what I imagine is a metaphor for the fates cutting the cord of your life, someone is snipping scissors around your head.

I absolutely love this song over headphones (your tastes may vary), especially following an upbeat, carefree song. By the time this song is over, you're facing a the whims of a cruel universe. And then the blokes of Depeche Mode gild the lily and make you listen to a dying girl's last breath long after the music has faded away. Classy!

So, let me know what your favorite headphone music is, and why.

While we're at it, why don't you let me know the creepiest song you've ever heard -- the one that gives you the chills every time you hear it. A poetry professor once told me that good art should give you a physical reaction. I definitely get a physical reaction from "Blasphemous Rumors" (real, actual shivers). And headphones help.

What does it for you?

Posted by James at February 28, 2009 2:00 PM
Create Social Bookmark Links

You've reminded me of a rock radio station in Buffalo... right around the time that Walkmans were the big thing, they had a show that came on really late called "Headphones Only" where they played songs that had the effects and gimmicks and such that you mention (and maybe amped up the effects a little somehow). It brought a whole different dimension to the songs. The only bad part was the DJs felt they had to have THEIR part all tricked out too, so when they spoke they would dial their voices over from ear to ear at a bit too fast a rate. Annoying as hell but worth it for the music.

Posted by: mjfrombuffalo at February 28, 2009 2:20 PM

Oh yeah, and regarding your request for songs: you'd think I'd be able to remember at least ONE of the songs, right? Wrong!

Posted by: mjfrombuffalo at February 28, 2009 2:21 PM

the entire Dark Side of the Moon Album, lots of RUSH, Genesis, Yes and King Crimson from the 70's and 80's, most classical and jazz music.

I prefer listening to music on GOOD headphones. Any that come with some player probably suck. I have a nice pair that are large (around otside of ear) and noise cancelling. Can comletely escape into the music.

Posted by: B.O.B.(bob) at February 28, 2009 4:02 PM

I found the Moody Blues to be excellent for headphones music when I was a kid, especially side 2 of "On the Threshold of a Dream." The last four tracks were a sort of suite. I think they were were supposed to be pleasantly dreamlike, but I found them more nightmarish and trippy, more like a descent into death rather than sleep (which was fine - that's what drew me to it).

For a while when I was in high school, I would listen to this tape on Sunday nights, when I had the most trouble getting to sleep. My great-grandmother died one of those Sunday nights. That spooked me, and it was a long time before I felt like listening to it again. A little too morbid for my tastes - not to mention that it never did a very good job of helping me fall asleep anyway!

I think almost everything sounds much better on headphones. I wore them a lot as a student because it was often the only way I could listen to the music I liked, at the proper volume. However, I've always hated wearing them, for many reasons, and I'm glad I don't have to any more!

Posted by: Julie at February 28, 2009 5:02 PM

I agree with Bob on Dark Side of the Moon...awesome on headphones.

The song that comes to mind the most is "Heroin" by Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground - the base drum's alternating plodding and increasing rhythm - alternately like a plodding and rushing heartbeat - combined with the discordant guitar track brings you to a deep, dark place when you listen to it with headphones. You can also add this to my list of creepiest songs.

Posted by: Bull at February 28, 2009 10:55 PM

Albums recorded with good separation between the instruments sound impressive with headphones. QSound is now regarded as a gimmick but Sting's early 1990s album The Soul Cages has some impressive percussion way off to the side of the music, so to speak. That whole album is amazing.

Posted by: Mike at February 28, 2009 11:04 PM

while those mentions of pink floyd were valid and quite good, you cannot top the original syd barrett version of pink floyd. while all three albums with barrett (Piper at the Gates of Dawn, Meddle and Atom Heart Mother) are awesome headphone albums Piper... is their best with a special shout-out to "Interstellar Overdrive"...the trippiest headphone tune ever.

btw, "Dazed and Confused" by Led Zeppelin also isn't a bad choice

Posted by: ryan at March 4, 2009 9:34 AM

Copyright © 1999-2007 James P. Burke. All Rights Reserved