It's the only thing that I can do when I don't wanna talk to no-one."
— Maxeen ~ Block Out The World
In real life one of the easiest ways to be left alone is to wear a pair of headphones. Either you won't be able to hear other people, or they will assume that you can't hear them. This carries over into fiction. It is an easy way to show that a character is trying to drown out reality and other people. Is either used symbolically, where the headphones are a side-effect of their isolation, or deliberately when the character does this on purpose.
The Scary Shiny Glasses can often do this too, in a creepier fashion.
It's also possible to use this impression to gather information: If people assume you can't hear or aren't paying attention, they might talk freely behind your back, and if you don't actually have the headphones playing any sound, you should be able to hear them with just a little muffling. On the negative side, using them while exercising may lead to Joggers Find Death. Possibly moving towards Discredited Trope territory now that traditional bulky headphones are being replaced with tiny iTunes-style earbuds.
Wearing headphones doesn't tune everything out in real life - smells, the floor rumbling, etc - but can be used this way in fiction for the Rule of Funny.
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Anime and Manga
Neon Genesis Evangelion: Shinji Ikari is often seen wearing headphones, listening to music on his SDAT player, when he wants to block out reality.
Mao from Code Geass does this to block out the influx of thoughts from his telepathy.
In Kodomo no Omocha, lone wolf Hayama is initially always seen with his headphones, ignoring the world around him.
Number Three of the Empty Seven in Afro Samurai wears headphones throughout the entire series, and sits with his back to the rest of the group when they're all shown together. He serves Afro food and tea when he arrives at their lair and is the only one to survive, as he knew they'd fail and wanted no part of it.
Accelerator from A Certain Magical Index inverts this after he gets a bullet in his head. The ear phones he wears are basically part of psychic life support, hooking him up with about 10.000 middle school girls. Of course, because he got the injury during his Heel-Face Turn, he also started socializing a bit more.
Shani, one of the three Druggies in Gundam SEED, listens to music whenever he's off-duty; his teammates Orga and Clotho engage in similarly solitary activities (reading and playing video games respectively).
Yoh Asakura from Shaman King, as he has stated how being a Shaman isolates him from the world and a flashback emphasized the symbolism of his headphones. But they're also used just as often as simply an accessory and fashion statement.
Justin Law from Soul Eater constantly wears earphones, which annoys his colleagues and confuses his boss - who wears a mask over his face, meaning that Justin cannot lip-read Shinigami's speech like he does for everyone else. Subverted after his Face-Heel Turn: the series favours interaction and unity so, according to the trope, removal of earphones should indicate something positive. Justin instead removes his earphones only to hear Kid screaming as Gopher beats him up.
Rika Nonaka/Makino Ruki from Digimon Tamers is often seen wearing headphones, especially in earlier episodes.
Kururu of Keroro Gunsou wears headphones, which double as a sound-based weapon in a pinch. He's also a dislikable guy.
Invoked in the Detectives' Koshien arc in Detective Conan. Natsuki wore huge earphones in the beginning, which confused the others and made them think she didn't want to speak too much to them. Although, she actually used them to hide her pierced ears, which would let others know she wasn't a highschooler anymore (Japanese schools are very strict about dress codes and often prohibit the use of earrings). She later hid them with her hair when she couldn't use the 'phones anymore.
Ma-ri of Orange Marmalade wore headphones constantly and was a self-imposed loner, to keep herself from forming bonds that always end badly for her because she's a vampire living in a society that openly despises her species. They are destroyed around the time she was able to find the very first human to accept her for what she was.
Used as a gag in the comic strip Zits, where Jeremy will use headphones to avoid listening to his annoying mother to a point were he once wore three pairs of headphones (each over top the other) to block out her nonsensical dialogue.
Subverted in one strip where the dad starts saying all sorts of outlandish things to the be-headphoned Jeremy, including a promise of new computer equipment. After a short pause, Jeremy responds to everything Dad just said.
In one FoxTrot strip, the kids give Andy a Walkman and then proceed to ask her questions like "Tell me if it's not alright for me to blow off my homework tonight" while she is plugged in.
Living with his loud cousin Max, Andy of Stone Soup is asked by his uncle Wally how such a life can be peaceful. Naturally, Andy gives the headphone answer.
In Pearls Before Swine, Rat has been known to wear headphones just so that he can avoid replying to other people.
In Burnt an upset mostly-deaf Harry closed his eyes so he couldn't read Snape's lips and Snape equated it with putting on headphones and turning your back on someone.
Spaceballs: When Dot is scolding Vespa for getting cold feet at her wedding, she doesn't hear anything she says because of her headphones (which are made to look like Princess Leia's bun hairstyle)
Might be the point of the Action Girl in Blade 3 listening to her iPod while slaying vampires. Either that or Product Placement (it certainly doesn't seem to hurt her performance in battle any).
In 1998 Godzilla, the headphone guy didn't even feel the ground shaking.
In The Lost World: Jurassic Park (the film, not the book), a redshirt makes the mistake of wandering off and only calling to someone else to make sure they don't leave without him. Unfortunately, said person was listening to music on his headphones and didn't hear him, and the redshirt ends up devoured by compies. Later in the movie, it apparently takes throwing a stone at his head to get his attention.
Charles Pennington: See? That's what he does when he wants to ignore me. Sticks his head in those things.
Another Schwarzenegger example: In The Terminator, one of the Terminator's victims is rocking out on headphones making an after-nookie snack while her lover is brutally beaten to death in the next room.
In the film adaptation of the Stephen King short story Battleground, the unnamed loner hitman wears headphones when travelling to and from his hit, so people will not engage him in conversation, which might make them remember him.
Tremors. The little girl on the pogo stick-thingy can't hear their shouted warnings because she's wearing headphones, so someone has to run out and grab her before she's grabbed by the Graboids.
In Layer Cake, an assassin who works for the gangsters from Oop North is always wearing headphones, which makes him seem fairly sinister. Then, it's revealed that he wears them because he's studying French for a class, and has a hilariously bad command of the language.
In Face/Off the mother of Castor Troy's son puts a pair of headphones playing "Somewhere Over The Rainbow" on him so he won't hear the massive gun battle about to happen between Castor's old gang and the invading FBI agents.
In Part one of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Harry, Hermione and Ron escape to a cafe. Then two Death Eaters walk into the cafe, a fight ensues; all the while the hostess is in a back room making coffee with headphones on, completely oblivious to the fight.
In Mars Attacks!, the grandmother of Lukas Haas' character is totally unaware of the massacre happening behind her as she is listening to Slim Whitman through headphones. She doesn't even notice when the Martians wheel in a BFG and point it at the back of her head.
In Super 8, a gas station attendant is so busy rocking out to Blondie on his brand new Walkman that he doesn't hear a monster attack.
In The Amazing Spider-Man, Stan Lee makes his requisite cameo appearance as a school librarian listening to classical music on his headphones, oblivious to the Lizard-v-Spider-Man fight destroying the library right behind him. And if it weren't for Spidey's timely intervening, his head would've been busted by a piece of debris.
In The Internship, one guy wears conspicuous headphones so that people don't bother him.
In City Slickers, the lone female in the group is off listening to her headphones and therefore completely oblivious to the stampede going on behind her. It's already a stretch to think that the music could be loud enough to drown out a stampede, did it make her completely oblivious to the massive vibrations that would be set off as well?
Challenged openly in an anecdote by Penn Jillette entitled "Being Morally Opposed To The Walkman Carries With It Certain Responsibilities" (it appears in Cruel Tricks for Dear Friends).
Penn: I'll make a deal with you—we'll take our headphones off and listen to you, but you better have something to say. ... When each of us walked onto the elevator, we smiled at one another, and you just rolled your fuckin' eyes.
The Fourth Protocol by Frederick Forsyth. One of the MI-5 Watchers is wearing headphones while tailing a suspect, for exactly this reason.
Subverted in The Wonder Spot when the main character realizes that a teenager of her acquaintance is wearing headphones but not listening to anything; she wonders about the possible reasons, such as wanting to be left alone, and then the girl tells her she's using them as a headband.
In the book Vibes, the main character avoids listening to others or being forced to work in groups at school by putting on her headphones and listening to opera music very loudly.
At one point in The Dresden Files, Molly wears earbuds while maintaining surveillance in a park. She doesn't have any music playing — in fact, as a wizard, she'd short-circuit any music-player she tried to use — but it makes her look inconspicuous and discourages passersby from approaching and distracting her.
Important in Het Huis Anubis and de Vijf van het Magische Zwaard (The House of Anubis and the Five of the Magical Sword). All five youngster in the House are tied to one of the senses. Raphael is bound to hearing, which explains him wearing headphones ALL the time; sound is far to loud for him if he doesn't wear them.
Frequently invoked in Game Shows, when one contestant in some way has to be isolated from another contestant's gameplay, such as in early series of The Krypton Factor, or some audio cue such as in Fast And Loose's "Interpretive Dance" round.
In an episode of Two and a Half Men Charlie assumes that Jake cannot hear him speaking while he is wearing headphones. Jake later reveals that there is actually no music playing so he can hear people say things they wouldn't say if they knew he was listening.
An episode of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation had a mass murder in a coffee shop. One of the victims was a teenager listening to speed metal, Nick remarked , "He probably didn't know what's going on until he was shot."
Invoked in an early episode of LOST, Hugo wearing headphones on the island. Charlie comes up and asks him how he kept a walkman working there. Turns out the headphones aren't plugged in, Hugo just wanted to be left alone.
Several seasons later, Hugo is having a very bizarre/possibly imaginary conversation in the back of a taxi. Just when you wonder why the driver isn't reacting to all this, a shot shows him with headphones, bobbing obliviously along to music.
An episode of Full House featured Joey listening to self-help tapes, to the point of ignoring all outside distraction. This combined with trying to pave the driveway wound up getting Joey's feet stuck in cement. The only way to snap Joey out of it was to interrupt his mantras with an insult.
In Heroes, a deaf character typically wears headphones to avoid having to talk to people who assume she can hear.
And another character with hypersensitive hearing listens to loud, obnoxious music on headphones to drown out the constant noise of everyday life.
In Primeval, pretty much every other episode has a bit where a monster creeps up on someone with headphones in.
On One Life to Live, as Nora stands at the end of the docks, blissfully listening to "Earth Angel" on headphones, she is completely unaware that her vengeful former client Todd Manning (who was convicted of rape thanks to her sabotaging the case when she realized he was guilty) is *slowly* creeping up behind her. Oddly enough, she has no trouble hearing the delivery boy who calls to her, even though he's much farther away.
Played for Laughs in How I Met Your Mother. Ted and Robin were dating, and had their first fight. In simultaneous mirroing scenes, both hurry to their respective friends to talk about it. In Robin's take, Lily is with her earphones on, so she puts them off and ask "Oh no. What happened?" Cut to Ted's side, he said about the fight, then Barney asks derisively "Oh, no~. What happened?" Then puts earphones on.
Toby misses his entire workforce running out in an episode of Power Rangers Mystic Force because he's wearing headphones. Mind you, he doesn't notice much anyway...
The page quote comes from Maxeen's song "Block Out The World", which is the very trope in song form.
"Water and Headphones", by The Ropes, deals with this. "All I need is, water and headphones, those things are my stables, what I live and breathe," and, "What you might call solitude, is something I look forward to," sums it up pretty well.
Mentioned in Regina Spektor's song Eet. ( You ease in your headphones / to drown out your mind )
In the video for ''Glukoza's Schweine'', the Pig General wearing headphones steps off to the side, and doesn't realise the convoy he was leading has been ambushed until they're almost all dead.
The song "Fugazi" from 1984 by Marillion: "Sheathed within the Walkman wear the halo of distortion, aural contraceptive aborting pregant conversation".
The song "Can I Run?" from Hungry for Stink by L7: "I wear my headphones so I can't hear what you say."
Inverted by September's "Party In My Head" in which the narrator is wearing the headphones, but isn't seeking isolation - she wants people to come close so that they can hear what's playing as well.
Also inverted with "Headphones" by Britt Nicole, where the singer is encouraging lonely people to put on headphones to help them feel loved.
An enemy Mook near the beginning of Metal Gear Solid 2 was for some reason listening to loud music on headphones, making it much easier to sneak up on him in what would have otherwise been a tricky narrow hallway. More amusingly, near the ending, you find another Mook with a loud iPod... he's the last one in the facility, since the loudspeakers have been blaring "This Is Not a Drill" for the past 20 minutes, warning everybody that the whole place is about to crumble.
Neku, the main charcter of The World Ends with You wears headphones and is very much a loner at the start of the game. While he does keep his headphones, as the game progresses he "uses" them less and less to block out the people around him. It's a sign that he's opening up to the people he meets. At the end of the ending cinema, he throws down his headphones, showing he's accepting the world (and affirming the title of the game).
The hero of Persona 3 wears his headphones and mp3 player throughout the game, and the opening cinema establishes his detachment from the world around him. His Spirit Advisor soon appears and teases him about it, saying "you can't plug your ears and cover your eyes", and he gradually develops friendships and emotional connections throughout the course of the game. He still keeps the headphones around his neck all the time, though.
Yosuke from Persona 4 does this as well. Granted, he wears his headphones around his neck outside of battle even while he's opening up and being friendly to people, but he really does hate living in a small town.
Later, it turns out his inattentiveness as a result of his headphones was the reason he was easily killed by Emir.
One cutscene in Saints Row 2 involves Sons of Samedi leaders The General and Mr. Sunshine storming into a Scratch That music store and holding the place up so they can gather some info regarding an attack on their drug farm. However, everybody in the store is rocking out with headphones at music sample booths, completely oblivious to the fact that a notoriously ruthless street gang is in the building. So Mr. Sunshine kills one of them to gain attention.
In the third Ace Attorney game Dahlia Hawthorne claims to have not heard Doug Swallow being killed by an electric spark because she was wearing headphones (because she was afraid of lightning, supposedly). Actually, she killed Doug.
Tokimeki Memorial 4 has Ice Queen Rhythmy Kyono, who wears a set of headphones at all times. This is actually because she has an extremely acute hearing, and wearing them helps her not being agressed by surrounding sounds; however, her wearing those headphones, along with her cold demeanor and her reluctance at talking, intimidates and drives people away from her.
In Ghost Trick, Kamila is wearing headphones in Chapter 2 when Missile gets shot. When Sissel rewinds time to save him, he is effectively told that once Kamila puts the headphones on the level will be unwinnable, as the goal is to make sure she and Missile are hidden before Tengo enters.
In the first episode of RWBY, Ruby Rose goes to a shop and reads a magazine in the corner while wearing headphones. Because of this, she does not notice that the shop is being robbed until one of the mobsters threatens her.
Francis pretended to be unable to hear with headphones on in thisPv P strip.
In Grimmer Reaper, Lucas is always listening to loud music on his headphones. While not explicitly a loner, he does have a general fear of other people that the headphones seem to help with. This is a bit of a problem, though, since he can't hear what people are saying to him very well unless he can read their lips, which requires them to be facing him. The fact that he's trained himself to read lips means he's been wearing his headphones for a long time, possibly most of his life, and is unwilling to take them off. This becomes problematic when he starts seeing a blind girl, who generally does not look at him when speaking. She questions him about it, and it is eventually revealed that Lucas has a severe stutter, but listening to music on headphones hides it and allows him to talk normally. It is similar to how some people with a stutter speak fine on the phone, only stuttering when looking at the person they are talking to. During the final battle, when Lucas's love interest is kidnapped and he suicidally goes one-on-one against the god-likeBig Bad, he takes off his headphones and abandons them on the ground before jumping in, his stutter revealed to the other characters for the first time the moment he opens his mouth to speak. Luckily he unlocks a higher level of his power in time to not make the fight a full suicide.
Lampshade aside, Paw never actually displays the trope and can communicate fine, even when wearing the headphones.
In The Simpsons, Otto is shown listening to music at a store kiosk, and complains that all these new bands are just ripping off Judas Priest. He then takes off the headphones to reveal he still has his own headphones on underneath, plugged into a Walkman with a Judas Priest cassette in it.
In Family Guy "Screwed the Pooch", a one off gag is played when Brian answered questions to Peter about the family and answered who Meg's real father is. It then cuts to Meg listening to headphones.
In the Kim Possible episode "Rappin' Drakken", Shego listened to music on her headphones to tune out Drakken's latest monologue. She may have regretted it later, since it apparently helped inspire his plan to become a singing star to promote his mind-control shampoo.
In part one of the Batman: The Animated Series two-parter Feat of Clay, Roland Daggett's Dragon Raymond Bell wears headphones that he keeps tuned into police bands to stay one step ahead of the cops. During one scene, Bell has them on when Daggett is trying to talk to him, but can't hear him.
Daggett: Germs, take off his headphones.
In the Batman Beyond episode "Untouchable", a maintenance woman was oblivious to a battle between Batman and the Repeller because of her headphones.
In the Phineas and Ferb episode "Mommy, Can You Hear Me?", Linda (the mother) is wearing headphones while working in the garden, and quite fails to notice Phineas and Ferb building their big project of the dayright behind her.
This was a major trait of Taz's sister Molly in Taz-Mania, who is almost never seen without her Walkman. In one episode, she just smiles and nods while Bull Gator and Axl cheerfully tell her about their plans to sell her to a zoo.
Best way to avoid being hassled by chuggers? Headphones and an MP3 player!
Headphone-wearing joggers and the like have been identified as more target-able for muggers, because one of their senses, hearing, has been compromised and it's easier to catch them by surprise. Some people suggest that cyclists and joggers should only wear one earbud to maintain some auditory awareness of their surroundings.
They also make higher-profile targets because they are guaranteed to be carrying something that carries music- typically an Ipod- which is more valuable than the average pull.
The University of Illinois had such a problem with iPod-wearing students walking into traffic that they started a large advertising campaign called "Look. Listen. Live." to remind people to take out the damned earbuds and look both ways before crossing the street.
In his book on the Simba War, mercenary Major Mike Hoare comments that signalers as a rule appeared to be rather unconcerned about all the bullets flying around them, and speculates that "much wearing of earphones" was the reason.
Averted with open-back headphones, which let sound in and out freely to have a wider frequency response. Audiophiles tend to swear by these (like the Sennheiser HD650, Grado SR60 and above, AKG K701/702) for their more natural sound (isolating headphones tend to overemphasize bass).
This trope is the main reason for the US Military's explicit prohibition of headphone use anywhere on a base except fitness centers and its aggressive enforcement thereof.
Tragically, this is why Mia Zapata of the Seattle band The Gits was unable to hear her murderer coming up behind her until it was too late.
Similarly incapacitated was the Central Park Jogger, Tricia Meili. When her assailant confessed, he recalled the assault in vivid detail, including that he targeted her specifically because her headphones would block out the sound of his advance.
Bose markets the noise cancelling technology of their Quiet Comfort line of headphones to appeal to those who want a way to tune out their surroundings on their flights, daily commutes, workplaces, and the like.
Whatever the make, noise-cancelling headphones are often a Godsend for autistic people to protect themselves from potentially meltdown-inducing sensory overload.
Anime and Manga
One of Shinji's more mundane methods of running away in Neon Genesis Evangelion was to just put on his headphones and block out reality.
When he pulls his Screw This, I'm Outta Here moment in the second Rebuild film, his discarded casette player is picked up by Rei as a good luck charm, replacing Gendo's glasses and signifying that not only Rei no longer trusts the man but Shinji's departure left her without anyone to trust (it was confirmed earlier that Rei has feelings for Shinji).
Aversion: Yoh Asakura from Shaman King just likes his headphones and is incredibly outgoing.
Of course, before he met Manta, he was a loner, because people in the modern world fear and misunderstand shamans. Manta was the first... human friend he had ever had.
When Hikaru in Ouran High School Host Club was trying to start caring about people besides himself and his brother he was wearing headphones. The whole human empathy finally clicked when he gave them to Haruhi to help her with her Fear of Thunder.
Aoi Shiba in Mr. Fullswing is constantly listening to music. Constantly. Including when he's playing baseball. Eventually it comes to light that he's barely aware of his surroundings and just has incredible reflexes. He never talks, and it's implied that he's just very, very shy.
Laxus from Fairy Tail is pretty much always shown with headphones covering his ears. Ironically, he wants to create a strong guild, which, in this world, requires plenty of friends and allies. He's considered the loner and outsider in regards to everyone else in the guild though, due to his arrogance.
Played with in A Certain Scientific Railgun with a minor villain. The headphones looked to be merely visual short-hand for his isolation, but ended up being a Chekhov's Gun for the arc that you hadn't realized had already started.
Subverted in School Days. Itou Makoto wears a set of earphones. Fitting at the start when he's shy and uncertain of how to convey his buried feelings to Kotonoha, but later a combination between creepy and smug bastardry; after he gets 'bored' with Kotonoha and becomes cold to her, she trips over in the street. Before everyone's eyes, he just calmly turns around, hands in pockets, earphones on, strolls slowly over to her and... doesn't help her up. Just calmly picks up one of the needles that fell out of her bag and asks "You knit?"
Natsuki from tsuritama was occasionally seen wearing a pair of large headphones before opening up and befriending the other main characters.
Charlie from Reign Over Me would put his headphones on and turn up his iPod when he found situations getting too stressful for his cope level.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers The 1978 remake uses various devices such as broken glass, drawn curtains and yes, even headphones as symbols of unease and isolation.
Live Action TV
In a bit of thematic foreshadowing, a father in the Doctor Who episode "Midnight" chews out his son for listening to his headphones during the trip instead of interacting with his family.
In AKB 48's drama, Majisuka Gakuen, Nezumi frequently combines this with wearing her sweatshirt's hood up to show how detached she is from the rest of the world and how she begins to open up to Center when she stops wearing them as much and allows her to take off her hood.
In FoxTrot, there is a comic strip in which Andrea is yelling something at Peter, but her words are practically scribbles due to his headphones.
Zits plays with this trope, but actually with earbuds in more recent years.
Nia Nya wore headphones at all times, despite being a part of a large group and good friends with the current viewpoint character. It turns out he was The Mole the entire time and never truly was part of the group.
Yoon Sung from Welcome To Room 305 is always wearing his headphones around his neck and he's also alienation from everybody else due to his homosexuality.
Neku from The World Ends with You, especially at the end, when he takes them off to signify that he is opening up to people. Kitaniji also wears headphones and plans to fuse the minds of all of Shibuya. Notably, Kitaniji's headphones are always around his neck, helping to symbolize that his plan involves false unity, as opposed to true communication.
Apparently, the main character from Persona 3 had this before he got to the school and had to start making social links. Particularly blatant in that he ignored everything and everyone around him and kept wearing them even when they stopped working during the Dark Hour, but he took them off when he arrived at his new home in Iwatodai. Amusingly, maxing Fuuka's Social Link gets him new headphones as the Link Item.
And in Persona 4, Yosuke has his own set of headphones, and starts out as a City Boy having difficulty settling into rural Inaba. Though outside of battle, he is never seen with the headphones actually on- merely around his neck.
An additional, blink-and-you'll-miss-it moment of parallel symbolism in Persona 3's Aigis: her head is built with a pair of spinner-like objects instead of ears, with a diadem joining them, so she also appears to be wearing headphones all the time (in reality they're the Orgia Mode actuators.) In the very last ending cinema, when she no longer speaks in a robotic voice but as a fully idealized human being, she's drawn with human hands, skin, and ears.
Toyosatomimi no Miko (also known as PrinceShotoku) from Touhou, that only uses earmuffs to block out her superhuman hearing ability; thanks to her (his?) past as a politician, she has outstanding social skills. The symbolism holds; however; despite being Pro-Human Transhuman; Miko has decided to mostly isolate herself in meditation. While she tolerates the curious visiting; she makes no attempt to communicate anything to them and mostly uses them as servants and couriers.
Of all places, this was used in a porn video. Set in a college dorm, a couple do their own thing in the same room as their roommate. Because he's got headphones on, studying for a final, he doesn't notice the shenanigans going on behind him the entire time. Fridge Logic? In my pornography?