Please wear headphones
This audio-ethnography employs field-recordings that are best
engaged in the immersive context of isolated personal listening.

    Understanding recordings such as our Times Square cacophony requires a close reading of the MTA’s Rules of Conduct as they relate to the production of sound, public performance, use of audio equipment, and various other behaviors common within the transit system. Schafer states that “noise by-laws are not created arbitrarily by individuals; they are argued into existence by societies. Hence they can be read to reveal different cultural attitudes toward sound phobias” (Schafer 1997, 197). Similarly, the MTA’s Rules of Conduct can be argued to reveal institutional phobias that manifest as affordances and deterrents to various kinds of audio behavior and sonic phenomenon. Even as these rules of conduct are frequently disregarded or circumvented by individuals (as many recordings referenced herein will attest), they represent sonic agents in the MTA soundscape as surely as any accordion player or opera singer. These rules contextualize each emitted sound within a framework of its institutional acceptance, and position performances and behaviors on a continuum of sanctioned or unsanctioned sounds. When heard in the context of the MTA's Rules of Conduct, auditory performances and behaviors might be acts of defiance, public annoyances, breaches of the peace, routine chatter, or welcomed public exhibitions. Enough is left to interpretation in the Rules of Conduct that some sonic behaviors might be defined in any of these ways depending on who the final arbiter might be. What fallows attempts to elucidate the MTA's Rules of Conduct, their institutional relationship to, and cultural influence upon myriad recordings of the MTA soundscape, and the complex system of auditory co-authorship that results from the diffusion of sonic power among many actors.

Which sonic behaviors are allowed within the MTA? Which are forbidden? Most regulations governing these behaviors can be found within Rules of Conduct Section 1050.6, which addresses “Use of the Transit System,” and Section 1050.7 which pertains to “Disorderly Conduct” (MTA [6] 2015). The Rules of Conduct can be somewhat difficult to decipher, and certain behaviors are more clearly forbidden than others. Public performances like the accordion player and the vocal duo, as well as “solicitations for religious or political causes” such as the Times Square proselytizer, are categorized as nontransit uses of the MTA, and are permitted in train stations “provided they do not impede transit activities and they are conducted in accordance with [specified] rules” (MTA [6] 2015). While the specific rules governing nontransit activities in stations will require careful examination, the situation “when on or within a subway car” is straightforward: nontransit uses are strictly not permissible (MTA [6] 2015). Nonetheless performances and public sound exhibition abound on train cars and are often appreciated by passengers. In a recording from a Brooklyn bound R train, a young woman illicitly plays loud funk music through a portable speaker, carrying it around the subway car and inviting her fellow passengers to start a dance party (3/7/2015 R Train 002). Several passengers follow her lead, and others laugh and remark “The R train is crazy!” ... “Yeah, you don’t know? This happens all the time on the R train” (1:40). The recording is jubilant despite the illicit, and perhaps disruptive nature of the performance. Cheers and laughter dominate for a time, and it is evident that this type of exhibition is not only enjoyed by many passengers, but expected from time to time, even if it is expressly forbidden. However, not all illicit exhibitions of sound on the MTA are appreciated.

Figure 3. February 4th, 2015. A public service banner aboard the N train attempts to govern personal audio behavior.

The rules pertaining to Disorderly Conduct are quite clear that “radios and other devices” are to be “listened to solely by headphones and inaudible to others” (MTA [6] 2015). Figure 3 depicts a recent on-board public service advertisement posted in train cars by the MTA in an attempt to discourage excessive volume on headphones and other personal electronics. Subway cars are often sites of a blurring distinction between public and private space. While conversation is perfectly permitted on a subway car, even in the most crowded trains, riders are often silent as if observing some unspoken agreement that the space is simultaneously communal and private, as in this recording from a crowded 2 Train leaving Penn Station during an evening commute (1/8/2015 Penn 123 PM 003). Clothing rustles, and there can be detected a faint sound of breathing. Periodically someone coughs, but otherwise this recording is dominated by the clatter of the tracks and other mechanical sounds, punctuated by automated station announcements and tonal signals. In a soundscape such as this, personal audio devices can become fast annoyances as commuters silently negotiate the public and private terms of the space.

Thibaud writes of the headphone listener as moving “from private listening to public secret;” a situation in which the listener might enact a “dancing pace that escapes the understanding of others, incongruous movements and gestures that only make sense to the listener, speech with strange voices while listening to the music and so forth” (Thibaud 2003, 331). He is describing the often unselfconscious behavior of a headphone listener isolated within the limited auditory perception of private listening. Although his description often rings true, Thibaud omits the pervasive experience of headphones in the MTA soundscape, which is the phenomenon of headphone bleed in which the excessive volume of a device belonging to someone else broadcasts audible yet distorted sound to a much wider acoustic arena than the intended private listener, as in this recording from a Bronx bound D Train (1/21/2015 Columbus Circle PM 001).

This recording begins with loud headphone bleed, and although it quiets substantially in short order (perhaps due to a moment of self awareness on the part of the headphone user), a persistent undercurrent of washed out hip-hop and electronic music can be detected throughout, amidst varying levels of mechanical noise and conversation. Thibaud’s notion of the headphone listener’s public secret must be augmented, as listening intended to be private is often audibly revealed. In this second example, headphone bleed is consistent throughout (3/9/15 Jay Street/ Metrotech PM 005). In this situation the only person oblivious to the exhibition of sound is the intended private listener, who either carelessly or unwittingly invades the acoustic space of fellow commuters, not with de-signified actions as Thibaud describes, but with music of badly degraded sound quality. Alternatively, headphone bleed might be interpreted as a deliberate act of sonic territoriality in which the headphone listener claims sonic space as a way of distancing him or herself from other commuters. In this interpretation one can position certain instances of headphone bleed on the repellant, rather than the seductive end of Goodman’s affective “continuum” on which his construction of sonic warfare is articulated (Goodman 2010, 10-11).

In earshot of phenomena such as headphone bleed, one of the MTA’s institutional sonic phobias is articulated within the Rules of Coduct Section 1050.7 (i) which states: “No person in any facility or conveyance shall... conduct himself or herself in any manner which may cause or tend to cause annoyance, alarm or inconvenience to a reasonable person or create a breach of the peace” (MTA [6] 2015). While it might be heartening to consider that the MTA is officially concerned with the quality of experience of reasonable people, the character of such a person is left undefined by the Rules of Conduct. The interpretive ambiguity of this terminology is pervasive in many of the rules governing sonic behavior and performance in the MTA, a notion which will be explored by returning to our dueling vocal duo and accordion player in Times Square.

  Subterranean Soundcapes © 2015 Jesse Mitchell Lindsey, all rights reserved.
MTA Train Emblems, Image courtesy Metropolitan Transportation Authority.