Thursday, December 08, 2011

Our changing relationship with music

I am forever in awe of the ways technology has changed the way we relate to and experience music. I've already alluded to the history of music formats, at least from my perspective, but in this case I'd like to talk more about the relationship we have with our music.

The innovation of digitized music has led to the new reality that our music now truly is the soundtrack of our lives, every waking hour of the day, 7 days a week. Now our entire personal music collection is available to be brought with us everywhere we go. Stop and think about that paradigm shift for a moment. There was a time when nobody was able to listen to music at work (depending on where you work), at least not likely just your own music. Now you can listen to anything you want and best of all, nobody else has to endure your taste (or subjective lack thereof). The same is true while riding public transit. The first time people tried to bring their music with them onto the bus, it was courtesy the ghetto blaster or boom box. The idea of sharing your music so publicly and so loudly was a big turn off to certain people (especially the older generation) and let's face it, carrying a 20 pound music box around all day wasn't exactly ergonomic. Plus it went through a boat-load of batteries. On the plus side, the boom box helped to revolutionize music and urban dance in big city neighbourhoods and opened up whole new audiences to the latest groundbreaking artists. I don't think rap would have evolved the same way had it not been for the boom box. On a personal note, I used to own one of these boom boxes and did once get a ticket from a cop for 'disturbing the peace' in a public space. Yeah, it's true.

There was a time when public spaces used music broadcast over the PA system to change or manage our behaviour. Stores and malls use music to influence our mood which in turn influences our buying habits. Some malls even use music as a deterrent against loitering. The problem is that now that people can bring their own music anywhere they go and use headphones to listen privately (while blocking out the rest of the audible world), the publicly broadcasted music no longer matters. For all we know, the music we are listening to on our mp3 players while shopping may be influencing how we shop and at the moment, there's nothing the retailers can do about it. One drawback to all of this private music enjoyment is that since nobody can hear what you're listening to, there are potentially countless music lovers who may never be able to share in the artists you like.

Music has become a soundtrack never before possible while we drive. Yeah, sure, we used to have portable music formats in the past allowing us to listen in our vehicles, but never as efficiently as today. Back in the day, your tape collection could only store a few hours of music and it was always presented in a linear format, you couldn't selectively pick out songs instantly like we do with music in digital form. So what used to be your carefully selected driving music has been replaced with your entire collection. This may be having unintended effects too, such as listening not only to 'driving music', but also to music perhaps ill suited for maintaining care and attention of a vehicle and maybe even music capable of changing you from a mild-mannered driver to a road-raging lunatic.

One of the things I'm looking forward to some day is instant access to the entire catalogue of recorded music via the internet. And I'm not just talking about access to the music, but also the background information and context that goes with it. Some day, we should be able to command our net-connected music device to "play every number one single from 1981, in the order they became number one hits". I'd like to be able to ask my device to "play music to help me calm down" or "introduce me to the most critically acclaimed new artists from the past 3 months" or "play the top 10 songs currently charting in Berlin, Germany right now".

Time will tell.

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