Terri Munns - Ethnography


I started this project hoping to learn more about three aspects of the use of mp3 players, especially with headphones. I wanted to record my own use and behaviors, ask others about their use and what they saw the “mp3 etiquette” to be, and see if there was any research on the use of mp3 players and how it might be affecting us. I decided part of the way through to focus more on my own behaviors and use—since that’s what I had the most data on and I hoped it was relatively unbiased—and dropped the research aspect entirely. I wanted this project to be more about myself and peers.

Personal stuff

From February 9th, 2011 until March 4th, 2011, I tried to pay attention to how long I listened to music at a time, recording the start and end times. I freely admit I missed writing down the start or end times occasionally and had to guess, but overall I believe the numbers to be accurate. I also wrote down any notes on my behavior that I noticed, such as why I listened to my iPod on shuffle instead of listening to albums, or why I listened at all.

Data on listening times

February 9th: 15 minutes recorded
February 11th: 37 minutes
February 14th: 155 minutes
February 15th: 91 minutes
February 16th: 45 minutes
February 18th: 48 minutes
February 21st: 82 minutes
February 22: 27 minutes
February 23: 45 minutes
February 25th: 54 minutes
February 28th: 45 minutes
March 1st: 36 minutes
March 2rd: 80 minutes
March 4th: 40 minutes

On average, I spent 34.78 minutes a week listening to music, though if you only count the days I listened to music at all (14 instead of 23), I spent 57.14 minutes. This number honestly surprised me, considering I knew I only listened to music while I was coming to and from class, and occasionally between classes as I walked. What I had failed to take into account was the fact that the bus ride to campus takes roughly 15 minutes, as well as the fact that I would walk out the door about ten minutes before the bus was due to arrive. Already that’s 25 minutes each time I went to class (without the time it takes to get from the bus to the door of the classroom), and about 20 minutes when I went home.

I was worried that recording my time spent listening to music would discourage me from wanting to do it anymore, which would affect my data for the time I’d said I would observe myself, but I have such a routine that it just made sense to keep doing it. My reasoning for why this may be is covered in the next section.

Overall Behavior

The questions I asked myself were why I listened to music when I did, what kind of music I listened to, and how my listening affected my behavior. After some thought, I realized I listen to my iPod when I’m alone and not doing something that requires a lot of thought. Is this because my current activity isn’t that interesting, and I need something to keep me occupied? To some extent, yes, but then again, everyone usually is occupied with something other than placing one foot in front of the other. Some may be talking with friends. Others may be trying to figure out the best way to get to a class they’re late for. I listen to music.

As to what kind of music I listened to…it varies. No really, I put my iPod on shuffle and only skip a song if it’s Christmas music (unless it’s December 1st-January 6th, which is my time for holiday tunes). I started doing this my freshman year of college because I was only listening to a few albums when I had so many to choose from. Now I hear music I forgot I had. I don’t usually like listening to very long songs, or tracks without much music on them (I have two discs worth of humorous stories on my iPod).

My outward behaviors related to music are small. I sometimes make small gestures with my hands if I’m walking, or lightly tap my foot (sometimes just a toe or two) on the bus. When I noticed I was doing this, I also expected to suddenly see all the weird looks I was getting, but most people didn’t notice or didn’t care.

On an amusing side note, the weirdest looks I received weren’t do to my own behavior with an mp3 player, but with the fact that I was obviously recording data of some kind. I made no attempt to hide that I was writing in a small notebook and tallying people, but I also offered no explanation. No one seemed to change their behavior based on this, so I don’t see it as a problem.

Other people

I wanted to know how people saw their own usage of mp3 players, and what they thought the rules for listening to players were. Some of my questions were based on personal experience, or what I’d seen other people doing. I tried to keep away from questions that respondents wouldn’t want to answer truthfully.

Survey Questions and Responses

I asked people I knew the following questions about their use of mp3 players:

  1. Do you have an mp3 player? What kind?
  2. Does anyone else in your immediate family have one?
  3. How long have you had an mp3 player?
  4. What do you us it for? Do you usually wear headphones/earbuds?
  5. Do you listen with headphones/earbuds when driving?

I also asked about basic etiquette regarding the players:

  1. What should you do if someone talks to you while you have headphones on?
  2. Have you seen people talk to others with one earbud in?
  3. Are there any other rules I haven’t covered?

Everyone I spoke to owned an iPod of some kind, which I found surprising. I’d been expecting at least a few non-Apple products. Respondents typically had had an mp3 player for 4-6 years, and at least one other member in their family also owned one. Some respondents listened to music “almost constantly,” though not always using headphones or earbuds.

Everyone agreed that if someone started speaking to you, you should take at least one earbud/headphone out to show you are listening. One respondent explained that if it was just a quick question, she might leave one earbud in and not pause her music, but as soon as it looked like a conversation would be starting, the earbuds and music went away. Respondents generally had seen people with only one earbud talking with others, but it didn’t happen every time, and one said that he assumed the music was paused.

Although I’d tried to avoid questions that would get false answers, I kept my question about driving while wearing earbuds. I’ve seen a few people do this, usually just wearing one earbud or headphone, but didn’t think they’d admit to it. Not many had ever done this, but the few who did didn’t seem overly embarrassed by it. One even said that he wore two earbuds while driving, until he got an adapter that allowed him to listen to music over the radio instead.

People on Bus and Walking Around

I also observed people around me, mostly while I was on the bus, but sometimes when I was walking as well. There were remarkably few people on the bus who were listening to music (as determined by whether they were wearing headphones/earbuds). The greatest number of people I ever counted with headphones on was six, the total people on the bus at that time was 16. I had been expecting the number to be closer to one half of the total number of people on the bus. The most surprising observation I made wasn’t related to the fact that a person was listening to music, but that he was wearing a suit while doing so. In almost a month of observation, I had never seen this before, and was startled by the fact that I was surprised at all. For some reason, business attire and earbuds didn’t seem to fit together, even if he was only riding the bus and not walking into a meeting.

It was harder to count the people walking by me, but I usually saw five at most, every one of them on their own. Groups of people might be carrying mp3 players, but they didn’t even unwrap the cords.


The part of this project that completely agreed with what I’d expected was the general response to my questions on “mp3 etiquette.” When someone is speaking to you or you see a friend, you should acknowledge them and stop listening to music. This also fits with what I saw in my own behavior, namely that listening to music is something I do to pass the time I’d otherwise spend staring out the window. If I’m outside, I still look around me, I just do so to a soundtrack. That said, I wouldn’t have guessed that I spend so much time listening to music. Prior to doing the math, I thought I spent at the most a half hour total each day.

What does this mean for our society? Are we all going to be so plugged in that we tune each other out? According to what I saw and heard, the answer is no. We spend a lot of time listening to music, but are aware that there are others around us and will opt to speak with friends rather than get lost in our own musical world. This conclusion is also supported by the relatively low number of people who I saw wearing headphones or earbuds.

Word Count: 1631