Plugging in, Tuning out

Considering the current technological environment we are living in, vast amounts of information can be accessed at our fingertips instantly. The internet has broken down space and removed time from our lives, enabling us with abilities brought about in science fiction novels mere decades ago. The methods with which we consume music have changed drastically due to new technology. Not only do we acquire and share it differently, we’ve actually begun listening differently. Through reference of specific theories from various culture critics as well as my own research in music psychology, I’ll attempt to explain how portable media devices have changed our perception of music.

            As mp3 players became popular, more people started casually listening to music. Certainly, music was popular before this, but the ease and portable nature of the mp3 player increased the overall amount of music being consumed and subsequently altered our listening habits. Portable walk-mans and cd players became archaic quickly as we could now store a variety of albums in a sleek, pocket-sized device - doubtfully more appealing than carrying a bag full of cd’s around, incase you wanted to hear something other than the album you left home with. Not to mention the stylability of these devices, due to the over-fetishized qualities they display. Some people aren’t even listening; they’re functioning entirely as fashion accessories or status symbols. They’re often used as deterrents as well, suggesting that if someone is plugged in they’re occupying one of their senses and therefore excluding themselves from the reality they’re otherwise totally a part of. All of a sudden we have access to a new morning soundtrack to rouse us out of the mundane routine, something to wear on the bus to avoid conversation, something to listen to while studying because the second hand on the wall clock is infuriatingly precise and so on.  

            Does this accessibility of music come at a cost? Are more people listening because of the music or is it something completely different? Perhaps if we remove ourselves from the “stage” and take an outsiders view on the ways in which this new listening structure has changed, we can start to draw some conclusions. The technologies we use can reveal a great deal about our culture and the rate of change it’s become a part of. As Marshall McLuhan was fond of saying, “We drive into the future looking through the rear-view mirror. We march backwards into the future,” meaning that we never really examine where we are, we instead only reflect on the past and where we have been (McMahon, 2002). So if we alter our position, gaining a perspective of the present, we can then make informed decisions on how new technology will ultimately affect our surroundings. In his book Laws of Media, McLuhan and his son set out to provide a basis for the media observations he’d been writing about. He claimed, “everything we invent has four essential effects.” The first effect was that “every medium or technology enhances some human function, exaggerating a body part or capacity of which it is an extension (McLuhan and McLuhan 1988, 98 - 99).” To apply this to the portable music device we could start with the most obvious extension, that of our ear. These devices extend our ability to hear music from where the music was created, performed, recorded - what have you. But what’s more important is what we’re extending via our ear, for we are focusing on what the device itself is promoting not solely the headphones.

Walter Benjamin’s notions from The Work of Art in The Age of Mechanical Reproduction help describe what happens to art and, more importantly our perception of art, after original pieces of work have been reproduced for mass consumption. With paintings, Benjamin describes a loss of aura that occurs when the original painting has been reproduced. The aura, according to Benjamin, is the singular authority within the work itself. Reproducing paintings granted everyone access to them, allowing for open public criticism. Before they had been reproduced they were only viewable to the few privileged enough to behold their magnificence, thus possessing great “cult value” (Benjamin 1936, 5). This availability constructed a platform for discussion and politics amongst the rest of society, changing how we were used to experiencing art. The same thing happened with music: Initially it was shared simply through voice and performance, printed and exchanged sheet music and eventually broadcasted over the radio. It also became accessible once recorded and distributed on vinyl, eight track, cassette, compact disc. Most recently it’s distribution and sharing over the internet; which I believe is a wonderful platform for any musician to share their work. However in my opinion, the way in which the mobile music devices are conditioning us to listen to music is quite detrimental. My two major concerns are the low quality audio we’re being fed and how, for a number of reasons, they are turning us into passive listeners. So, on the whole, like Benjamin I believe the breakdown of the aura to be a good thing as it has opened up the platform for globalized music sharing and discussion, but the subsequent popular music listening methods are not letting us truly experience music (Benjamin 1936, 4 - 5).

Benjamin touches on performance art in his essay but it is difficult to comment on the aura through live performance; this may be due to my own personal bias as a musician. Live performance does contribute in Benjamin’s “loss of aura” as does any other platform for dispersing music. However, I think the enthralling combination of expectation; excitement and anticipation that audience members experience during a live performance create a unique experience unlike anything possible via a recording. The emotional state having left an enjoyable performance only adds to the experience and becomes an immutable memory. The emotional experience of a live performance is sought after in many studio recorded albums, but rarely achieved. The reproduced versions of songs in popular music can become noticeably over-produced. All kinds of things can be fixed or adjusted to suit a popular music trend, ruining the spontaneity of anything experienced live. For example, things like autotune can be used to keep a singers voice in the correct key, tracks will get over compressed and increased in volume. According to Alf Gabrielsson, “performed music represents everything the composer/performer is trying to convey in an honest auditory manifestation.” He states, “our experience of music and our ideas about music mainly derive from listening to performed music (Gabrielsson 1988, 27).” Think of the relationship between a Mozart sonata and how it’s interpreted and performed by other composers. The audience’s impressions of these performances vary from each one but the aura of Mozart’s symphony remains intact. The new performed piece has it’s own aura in fact; that of the contemporary composer. (To clarify the way I’m using aura here, it is not in agreement with Benjamin’s aura. I’m talking about the emotional experience of a piece of recognizable music performed live and arguing that it is not significantly attributing to loss of (Benjamin’s) aura, it is, rather, generating it’s own aura, for that specific moment in time that may or may not be referenced, based on the performance, for the rest of that particular performer’s career. This seems like a much more intricate relationship with a piece of music than you would get with a recording. To quote Jakomi Mathews from, a recording is not the song, it’s just an instance of it, and a digital audio file is just an instance of the recording. Equating these reduces music to recordings, to files.” From now on if I make reference to the aura of music it will be the experience of the music performed live as explained above, unless stated otherwise.  

We have grown accustomed to the contemporary imperfections and without taking a McLuhan-inspired stance we’ll never think to reconsider them. He states, “when pushed to the limit, every new invention reverses the effect for which it was intended (McLuhan and McLuhan 1988, 99).” The intended effect of the portable music device is to give us the ability to bring music along with us when we leave a stationary music device. We can now listen to music anywhere we’d like no matter how socially awkward it may seem. Although music portability is not experiencing a direct reversal, we are experiencing a detrimental effect on the ways in which we value the music we’re listening to. We discussed how live performance cannot be completely replicated, have these devices played a part in removing the lasting aura of music as well? What else has the digitization of music taken away from our experience of it?    
Benjamin states “during long periods of history, the mode of human sense perception changes with humanity’s entire mode of existence (Benjamin 1936, 4).” The excessiveness of media in our society today is bombarding our senses, altering the way in which we experience it. There was an immense change when music became available in one’s house that he or she could listen to and enjoy privately. Before that people would own sheet music and perform their own or travel to witness someone else performing it elsewhere acoustically. Now we can experience it privately whilst being out in public. The accessible nature of mp3’s via the device may be inadvertently creating a disconnect between the music found digitally vs. where the music actually comes from. Paul Virilio speaks of “the conceptual dimensions of time and space becoming fundamentally destabilized due to modern technology’s strategic urge to produce better results and more complete knowledge at an increasingly faster pace.” Perhaps the availability of music made possible by the internet has “destabilized” it’s position in time and space, stripping music of it’s romantic qualities. Virilio also claims “speed allows the power of the real, a fixed location in time and space, to disappear.” This could be applied again suggesting that us, the consumers, are dealing with the reality of what we’re are accustomed to vanishing due to the inconceivable amount of information (music) we have access to. In other words we have too much to choose from and cannot decide what we truly like. According to Virilio this “erosion of consciousness” is “a slow cultural suicide” where “we are losing the means to distinguish between the original and the copy…” (Hanes, 2-4). My argument is that our devices are so efficient and reliable at providing us with music instantly, wherever we’d like to obtain it that it’s deterring us from really spending time experiencing the music; letting music “grow on us.” The most popular method of music discovery today is actually quite detrimental due to its presumptuous nature. The average user cannot distinguish between music they do and do not enjoy, which ultimately leads to a sever music gloss-over.     
This intensity with which we are consuming music contributes directly to the lack of emotion we experience when listening, this ultimately affects people’s ability to choose what performances they’d like to experience live – which as Gabrielsson said, is where “our ideas about music mainly derive from (Gabrielsson 1988, 27).” Another law from Laws of Media is that “every new invention retrieves something old by using it in a new way (McLuhan and McLuhan 1988, 99).” Music that becomes digitized becomes somewhat timeless in a sense; digital copies are pretty safe from incurring damage. The new music platform created new methods of remastering older music. So of course older music can be accessed again through new technology and remain unchanged from then on. Due to the new ways of listening, songs with certain sentimental value, nostalgic of a specific moment in time can become easily overplayed. The mix tape from junior high suddenly loses all sentimental value after the 5th time you’ve remixed it in iTunes. Some songs are as effective at evoking memories as certain smells are. But a memory only lasts as a memory as long as it’s kept at bay. If you try too hard to re-enact one you may risk the possibility of losing it forever.

In the digital music platform, mp3’s are probably the best example, are audio files that have been compressed down enough to a bit rate a tenth the size of what an uncompressed compact disc’s quality equates to. This is mainly due to file size/storage issues on people’s personal devices. We’ve grown accustomed to jeopardizing music quality to save space on our computers - that’s how much people value their music today. The surpassing audio quality of vinyl compared to a CD makes you wonder how mp3’s are even audibly bearable!
Jonathan Berger, a music professor at Stanford, puts his incoming students through a perception test at the start of every year. He gives them a variety of music to listen to and then asks them to rate the songs in terms of highest and lowest quality. What he's found is that the mp3-formatted songs are on a steady incline to becoming most favorable over the other songs with superior audio quality (Dougherty 2009.) Even music students cannot distinguish between good and poor audio quality. This reinforces McLuhan’s argument that we “shape our tools, and thereafter our tools shape us (McMahon, 2002).” The quality we’ve adapted our ears to listen to has become the standard our brains perceive to be true. He also states how “it’s a loop” of manufacturing, distributing, marketing, “where we start out as consumer and wind up being consumed (McMahon, 2002).” Besides the most popular digital audio file distribution methods, there is a growing number of “freemium” services that stream music at even lesser qualities for next to nothing. P2p networks are still a popular platform for music sharing as well; some argue that these files create an even greater disconnect from the artist due to lack of authenticity, album artwork, etc. I think the music should speak for itself, but obviously audio quality is a major contributor to that conversation. As long as music is freely available then why would a casual listener pay for a CD or Vinyl copy of their favorite music? They could pay a dollar for a song if they feel morally obliged but they’re not getting much better quality. Even if we were given access to a superior audio format we would all need to shell out more money for new earbuds because the ones included with our music devices today are made cheap -understandably, given that they only have to transmit a small fraction of frequencies compared to what our ears can actually pick up.

The music market had to turn digital out of necessity. The unfortunate thing is the lack of digital music available at a decent quality. This market is consuming us. To share an example, people buy automobiles to be able to drive. They are extending their own legs, making themselves more portable. As automobiles become more popular the roads for which they travel on become more congested. This results in less portability due to the fact that cars are spending more time idling than actually moving. This also inadvertently contributes to the poor air quality of that urban centre (McMahon, 2002.) As digital music became more accessible, physical (compact disc, etc) music sales went down. To cope with this shift, music corporations began selling digitally. New technology emerged with this and changed the relationships we have with music, inadvertently conditioning our ears to low quality audio. This, in my opinion, could have a negative effect on people’s overall mood and listening abilities, causing more negative reactions towards the music their devices are supplying them. There are currently no studies I’m aware of linking contemporary audio quality of popular digital music files with any negative emotional effects, but there is a lot of research on noise pollution that link sound with a number of different health effects. Besides the obvious strain on our ears and hearing-related issues, there are effects that can disturb a person’s normal emotional balance. According to an article in the British Medical Bulletin, “noise can interfere in complex task performance and it modifies social behavior. There is an association with hypertension but only weak relationships have been found between noise and cardiovascular disease. Traffic noise exposure is associated with psychological symptoms but not with clinically defined psychiatric disorder. In children, chronic noise exposure impairs reading comprehension and long-term memory (Stansfeld, Stephen and Matheson 2003, 244).” Music/sound vibration therapies claim to stimulate different brainwaves through use of specific frequencies. There are disclaimers however, stating not to over-expose yourself to any frequencies. If these frequencies can be used to stimulate brainwave activity, it doesn’t seem too far-fetched to imagine that overexposure to low quality audio couldn’t might also affect us in some way. This could contribute, in turn, to people actually listening less. Listening more, in terms of exposure but due to subconscious strain, not being able to listen as inherently as our ears are built to, listening passively, (painfully even,) yet again.

In conclusion, I think that the accessibility of music via the portable music device is over-stimulating our listening capacities. The audio quality or lack thereof is clouding our intellectual processes to truly hear music for what it’s worth. The portable nature of these devices and instant access to such broad collections of music are making us more passive listeners and stripping any nostalgic connections we may have once had to specific songs or memories from live performances. I agree that music quality is subjective, this is proven through Berger’s study, but if this is the future of music I think we should be a bit more adamant about the audio quality we’re receiving. 

 Works Cited

Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in The Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Frankfurt: Zeitschrift Fur Sozialforschung, 1936. Accessed April 8, 2011

Dougherty, Dale. “The Sizzling Sound of Music.” March 1, 2009. Accessed March 25, 2011.

Mathews, Jakomi. “The Ongoing Devaluing of Music.” May 24, 2011. Acessed March 25, 2011.

Marc Hanes. “Paul Virilio and the articulation of post-reality.” Department of Philosophy, Fordham University, Bronx, NY.  Accessed March 21, 2011

McLuhan, Marshall, and Eric McLuhan. “Laws of Media” in Laws of Media: The New Science. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1988. 94 – 128.

McLuhan, Marshall. "The Medium is The Message." In Understanding media:  the extensions of man. New York: New American Library, 1966. 19 – 40.

 Mcluhan's Wake. DVD. Directed by Kevin McMahon. Los Angeles: Disinformation, 2002.


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