40 Years Ago, Sony’s Walkman Changed Music Listening

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If you have an iPod or a phone that plays music, the Sony Walkman may look like ancient history. But when it came out forty years ago, it completely changed how people listened to music.

Before the Walkman came out, there wasn’t really a good portable way to listen to music. Small portable radios were common, but they didn’t sound good and usually came with just a small earphone that went in one ear.

A man in Chicago carries a boombox, June 1985.
Before the Walkman came out, there wasn’t really a good portable way to listen to music. Boomboxes were large music players which sounded good and could be turned up loud. But they were huge and heavy.
(Source: Photo by Alan Light [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons.)

There were boomboxes – large music players which sounded good and could be turned up loud. But they were huge and heavy. And almost any way someone could listen to music meant that everyone around them would have to listen to their music, too.

On July 1, 1979, Sony introduced a product it called the “Walkman”. The “walk” part of the name was important, because it meant that you could listen to your own music as you walked around. These days, we are very used to that idea, but in 1979, it was pretty special.

Sony Walkman TPS-L2 at "It's a Sony" Expo in Sony Building at Ginza, Chuo-Ku in Tokyo.
On July 1, 1979, Sony introduced a product it called the “Walkman”. The “walk” part of the name was important, because it meant that you could listen to your own music as you walked around. The picture shows the original Sony Walkman on display.
(Source: Yoshikazu TAKADA [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons.)

Another thing that was special about the Walkman was how good it sounded. Compared to the headphones we have now, the quality wasn’t great. But back then, the sound amazed people. It almost felt like the music was playing inside your head. The first Walkman actually allowed you to plug in two sets of headphones, so that users could share their music with a friend.

The Walkman cost about $200. Many people thought it wouldn’t sell very well because it couldn’t record music. They were wrong. The Walkman was hugely popular. Soon other companies were imitating Sony’s device. But no matter who made the device, most people kept using the name “Walkman”.

Sony, walkman, 1979
The Walkman’s sound amazed people. It almost felt like the music was playing inside your head. The first Walkman actually allowed you to plug in two sets of headphones, so that users could share their music with a friend.
(Source: Sailko [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.)

On a phone or other music player today, you might have hundreds or thousands of songs. If you stream music, you might be used to playing any song you want at any time.

The selection on the Walkman was much more limited. The Walkman played cassette tapes. Just like people make playlists today, back then, people began to make “mix tapes” – cassette tapes filled with the songs they wanted to hear.

A bin of loose cassette tapes
The Walkman played cassette tapes. Most tapes were 60 to 90 minutes long. One side of the tape played for half that time. The tape needed be taken out and turned over to play the other side.
(Source: Daniel Oines [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons.)

Most tapes were 60 to 90 minutes long. One side of the tape played for half that time. The tape needed be taken out and turned over to play the other side. If you wanted to go to a certain song, you would need to wind or rewind through the rest of the tape to get to the song you wanted to hear.

But at the time, most people didn’t mind. The Walkman offered people a way to listen to their own music whenever they wanted and wherever they wanted.

Sony Walkman model TPS-L2
Sony’s Walkman started the trend of “personal” music that led to the iPod, the iPhone, and the other music-playing devices we use today.
(Source: National Museum of Science and Technology [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.)

Over the years, Sony updated the Walkman as technology changed. But the cassette Walkman was its biggest success. And it started the trend of “personal” music that led to the iPod, the iPhone, and the other music-playing devices we use today.

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