Headphones Are the Only Things Left to Make Cities Bearable

Quit worrying about social isolation and admit it: headphones save us from the non-stop acoustic assault of daily urban life.
Photo via Unsplash

I live on a particularly salty transit route in downtown Toronto, the 505 Dundas. The 505 streetcar is compact, crowded, and recently with the legalization of weed in Canada, smells like Otto’s jacket. It’s also the same as any commute in a big city: loud.

I used to think people who drive to work are nuts for spending hours in traffic. Now, I get it. Transit in Canada’s biggest city is rife with overcrowding, signal issues, vehicle bunching, fare-evasion police squads, Presto card malfunctions and monthly fires in sub-zero temperatures. In other major cities transit woes are equally as common. One snowstorm and Vancouver’s bus fleet shuts down. Ottawa’s stuck with a “toy train system” in one of Canada’s coldest cities. In New York, former TTC boss Andy Byford, dubbed the “Train Daddy” for improving on-time train rates to 80 percent in just two years, quit last month after feeling “undermined” by Governor Andrew Cuomo.


In this reality, there is only one thing saving us from the utter chaos around us: headphones. Headphones were once considered socially isolating devices, one more step in a slow march toward a bandwidth-dependent dystopian future. The BBC asked a decade ago, “Is the iPod Making us Anti-Social?” A few years later, Psychology Today mused, “Are Headphones Harming Us?” The New Yorker wondered if headphone culture had become “just another emblem of catastrophic social decline, a tool that edges us even deeper into narcissism, solipsism, vast unsociability.” Conservative Christians in the 80s saw the Walkman as a competitor for God’s voice.

Your headphones, now extensions of all facets of your daily life, are doing quite the opposite. While we are writing about how and when we use them, how to feel wearing the new sweat-resistant, $329 Airpod Pros, or trying to understand our relationship to earbuds, it’s quite simple: Headphones have become our primary sensory defence against crowded cities and long commutes. They are not making us anti-social; they are keeping us sane. In cramped, underground trains hurtling us toward cramped, open-concept offices, that curated podcast is an aural head massage, that personalized playlist an auditory bouncer blocking out the cacophony of public noise berating your eardrums.

The personalized playlist I streamline into my brain is an acoustic smoothie as I straphang on the 505. Headphones are my de facto signal to others: I am not in the mood. Justin Friesen, a music video director, said that while noise-cancellation headphones have caused some awkward moments at the dog park, that doesn’t dissuade him from using his all the time. “I listen to music constantly around town, mainly for my mental health,” he said. An informal poll of my friends revealed that some of you fake-wear headphones in the office to avoid interacting with your colleagues.


Frank Russo, a psychology professor at Ryerson University, studies auditory cognitive neuroscience, or how people think about what they hear. He’s found a direct correlation between music and stress reduction. “You feel good about listening to something familiar,” he said. “It’s an antidote, a personal bubble against the assaults of daily life.”

Russo says there is evidence to suggest that music acts as a form of mental self-medication in stress-filled environments and there is a robust correlation between background noise, busy urban environments, and how much we pump up the volume to compensate—up to 20 decibels higher in a busy intersection such as Dundas Square in Toronto, which is well above levels recommended by the Centre for Disease Control. Those headphones may be keeping your brain happy, but at what cost to your hearing?

Cities are desperately trying to lower the volume of sound. Edmonton is using infrared camera technology alongside peace officers to deter cars equipped with modified exhaust systems that often exceed 90 decibels. Noise polluters there can be fined up to $250. Vancouver’s TransLink hired an internationally recognized audio engineer to conduct studies on the acoustics at Skytrain stations. Restaurants are finally getting the hint: it’s not a nightclub, it’s a meal and a conversation, something my mom will be thrilled to hear.

The World Health Organization released comprehensive noise guidelines in 2018, suggesting strong correlations between cardiovascular health and excess noise produced by big transportation and compounded by dense urban environments. Try living in Istanbul or Cairo without a pair of earbuds. March 3 was World Hearing Day and WHO tweeted that 466 million people worldwide have disabling hearing loss.

Susan Scollie, Director of the National Center for Audiology, describes hearing protection the same way dermatologists recommend sunscreen and doctors safety goggles for our skin and eyes. “Noise exposure can cause permanent harm to your hearing. It will build over your lifetime and it’s irreversible,” she said. Over-the-ears, noise-cancelling headsets might help your mood, but they don’t protect your hearing like construction ear muffs—they simply reduce background noise. “There's nothing about the engine of a subway that's tempting to listen to,” Scollie said. “It’s annoying. It’s fatiguing. If (noise-cancellation headphones) give you a more peaceful commute, I don’t see a problem with that.”

Your headphones are saving you. From stress, as well as the non-stop acoustic assault of daily urban life. If you’re lucky enough to live in downtown Oslo, one of the world’s quietest cities, your ears are likely some of the happiest on the planet. But for those of us jostling for space each morning alongside hundreds of other straphangers, next time a stranger asks you for something, just point to your ears and whisper that beautiful, universal 21st century phrase: “Sorry, can’t hear you.”