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Music in motion

Person listening to music
(© Paulo Correa /

THE PC Fair that took place from 12 to 14 Dec 2008 at the Kuala Lumpur Convention Centre was crowded with people looking for cool and funky, cheap and cheerful stuff. Of all the gadgets on offer, the ones that caught my eye were at the booths hawking MP3 and MP4 players.

These players came in myriad colours and shapes, offering anywhere between crap to fairly good sound quality. Seeing so many in the younger set — and a few yuppies as well — tuning in to their music players is becoming quite ordinary. This got me wondering about the evolution of portable music devices that has enabled listening to music in motion.

The Stereobelt

1980s cultural icon 

Ever since the first Sony Walkman hit the world market in 1979, the idea of music on the move has gone on to capture the imagination of an entire generation.

Sony did not invent the world’s first personal stereo. That honour belongs to Andreas Pavel, a German-Brazilian inventor. In 1972, he invented the prototype for the Stereobelt, a portable stereo cassette player, and patented it five years later.

Though Sony commercialised the invention with the Walkman, they refused to acknowledge Pavel as the original inventor. This lack of recognition led to a protracted series of lawsuits between both parties that finally ended in a multi-million dollar settlement in 2003.

Notwithstanding the legal battles, by 1983, the Walkman had become a cultural icon. It invaded almost every urban US home, and soon became the must-have fashion accessory of its time. It also became an entry in the Oxford English Dictionary in 1986, to denote a type of personal stereo player.

Music zombies

Sony Walkman

With their oversized sponge-covered headphones, walkman users cooked, shopped, travelled and worked to music. Casual conversations on public transport slowly started to disappear, to be replaced by an army of head-nodding music enthusiasts.

Doctors and social scientists decried the ever expanding use of the personal stereos. Warnings about the potential damage to your hearing from being tuned-in at high volumes were put out. They were promptly ignored.

A number of compelling works, including Sounding out the City by Michael Bull, were written about the impending death of social contact and city-goers’ apparent need to isolate themselves. 

It fact, Japanese Professor Shuhei Hosokawa even coined the term “Walkman Effect” in 1984 to describe how being tuned-in allowed individuals to be more selective about who they engaged with.

The next big thing

Sony’s Discman
The change from cassette to Compact Disc (CD) format in the early 80s continued the trend. Sony’s Discman hit the stores at the end of 1984, offering listeners better sound quality and faster music access.

The blossoming of the internet generation in the mid-90s spurred manufacturers to scramble for the next big thing in music portability. The answer came in the form of digital audio players (DAP) using solid-state drives like flash memory, and hard-drives.

The first flash-based DAP came out in 1997 by a South Korean company, SaeHan Information Systems, and was called MPMan. But it was Diamond Multimedia’s Rio PMP300, released a year later, that helped to create greater demand for the new format in the US.

An MP3 digital audio player

This was followed by the release of the first hard-drive based DAP in 1998, developed by Compaq Research and licensed to HanGo Electronics. The company released the 4.8Gb capacity Personal Jukebox that could hold an amazing 1,200 songs. Now, users could carry their entire music collection in one relatively small, handheld device that boasted decent sound and an LCD screen. Not surprisingly, the electronics industry was bowled over.

But the DAP’s ability to download music off the internet sent shivers down the spine of the recording companies. The American Recording Industry Group filed a wide-ranging lawsuit against Diamond Multimedia, claiming the device encouraged illegal music downloads. Thankfully, Diamond won, and DAP players were free to grow unencumbered by threats of lawsuits.

Life and the iPod

An Apple iPod (© Jannes Glas /

But the demand for the devices, though growing, did not reach critical mass until the introduction of the iPod. Though it was a relative latecomer to the scene, Apple’s iPod release in October 2001 revolutionised the music industry.

The iPod won over fans with its simple but intuitive interface; cool styling with its neat click-wheel; and a music manager-cum-online store, iTunes, that was easy to use. Apple’s ever increasing product line and innovative marketing strategies have turned the music world into an iPod world.

To date, Apple has sold over 163 million iPods, and dominates the DAP industry with over 70% market share.

Still, the explosion in the use of personal stereos begs the question: why are we so keen on tuning in? Just as the internet has changed the way we communicate, opening us up to strangers as never before, personal stereos seem regressive — an attempt to salvage our personal space.

(© Camila Schnaibel /

Tuned-in, we no longer have to make eye contact with strangers we meet in public places; we no longer need to deflect attempts at making conversation in buses and LRTs by burrowing our heads into books or newspapers.

With the iPods and other MP3 devices, I believe the user is making a statement — leave me alone. Music was made to be shared and to bring us together, but personal stereos close us off from the world. We are becoming more insular, even as we reach across the digital divide. I wonder what that says about us?

N Shashi Kala is torn between listening to her iPod Shuffle while enduring the four hour bus journey home, and striking up a conversation with her neighbour. So far, the human factor has won, but for how long?

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2 Responses to “Music in motion”

  1. ron says:

    Interesting take. This reminds me of a friend who was sharing stories about his trip backpacking in South America. Because he was alone and feared for his safety, he would wear headphones as a way to avoid contact with locals who appeared dodgy.

  2. Jerry Teh says:

    Why do we have to put up with inane conversation from people we will most probably never meet ever again? I’d rather spend the time relaxing to my favourite tunes. And with MP3 players, you could be listening to a podcast or two and not just music. Much better use of your time than having to listen to grandma’s lumbago complaints.

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