Wednesday, April 28, 2010

How We Listen To Music

I’ve recently had this conversation with a few good (and music loving) friends of mine, but I thought it worthy to post this to see what others think. What we (mainly me, and I was slightly ranting) were talking about was how we listen to music. When I say ‘how’ we listen to music, I mean in terms of how attentive we are when we actually listen to music, and, more specifically, how format informs our attentiveness. Formats have changed over the decades, and rather quickly so in the last thirty years. A person can have lived through the rise of the cassette, the CD, and then the mp3, and still only be in their early thirties. That’s quick succession in the grand scheme of things. But out of all this comes the question: how does format inform how well we listen to music? Does format imply something about our attentiveness to the music we are actually hearing? I think it does, and I think it’s something we take for granted. I also think that it can be a dangerous thing.

A few of my friends and I have recently bought record players, which we had never really owned in our adult lives up until now. As I started picking up vinyl, particularly 7”s, it got me on this question of how we engage music. One of my favourite bands of all time is The Smiths. For those unfamiliar with the Smiths and the Smiths/Morrissey die-hard-fan culture, vinyl is a very big deal to Smiths fans, and it always has been. So as I started buying vinyl I couldn’t help but think of collecting all those Smiths singles I love. They still have some of the best cover art ever, so not only do they sound pretty, but they look pretty too. Then I started to think about something else: what it would have been like to buy those 7”s (or 45s as they used to be called) during the time period they were actually just being released. Imagine picking up “Hand In glove” in 1983 when you’d just heard about this brand new band called The Smiths that were going to do huge things for music in the impending 80s. But, Smiths aside, I want you to picture life in 1983; this is a time when the most common way to listen to music was on vinyl. So, here’s you in 1983, you go out and buy your new 7”, you head home, and get ready to put that new single on for the first time. You put it on your record player, drop the needle, and you get three minutes of listening pleasure. That’s it. Three minutes. Now that Side A is done, it’s time to flip the record, at which point you will get as your reward… another three whole minutes of listening pleasure. Now, if you think about it, if you know the record is going to end in only three minutes, you probably won’t wander around your house doing other things; you will stay put and listen to that record because you know you only have three minutes before you have to flip the record. Almost out of necessity, you had to sit and listen to that single. The format demanded it.

Most of us don’t have record players anymore. Most of us don’t have tape players. Some of us don’t even have CD players anymore (and if you do, when was the last time you used it? And I’m not talking about in your car). But every day we wake up and go to our computers to a little thing called itunes. At the very bottom of the screen it gives you a little piece of information that reads like this: “you have 14.4 days of music”. Days. We measure our music in days now. Now cut back to 1983, you in front of your record player with that 3 minutes of music versus your 14.4 days of music now. It’s a different time, a different format, but how does it affect how we listen to music?

Last summer I was talking to my neighbour’s eighteen year old nephew about the subject of music. During the course of the conversation I asked him what bands he liked. He said Dillinger Escape Plan. I thought; cool, I like Dillinger Escape Plan. And then he continued, “I don’t know the names of the bands really, I just like songs”. At which point I politely nodded, utterly baffled by his response. If our conversation continued, I don’t recall a word of it. I thought about it after and could not wrap my head around that answer, what did he mean; “I just like songs”? And it was in response to the question; ‘what BANDS do you like?’ It seemed completely illogical as an answer. I could not get this bizarre answer out of my head for days. A few weeks later we were talking and his absurd answer was still pressing in my mind. I had to ask, so, I try the question again. Same response; “I just like songs”. This time I asked him to explain what he meant by that, he said; “well, I go on my computer, I find a song I like, and then I download it”. That’s when it got me thinking about this whole format issue in the music industry and how it has affected the way we listen to music. Downloading has become a big deal in terms of ethics and legality, but what about that fundamental question of how different formats affect the way we actually LISTEN to music? Upon reflection his answer is the most clear-headed insight into how we listen to music that I have come across in recent years. And I think his response is a genuine reflection of the way format informs our attentiveness to music. And for those who disagree, I predict that in the next ten years as things like blogs drive the (particularly independent) music industry, his point is bang on.

Formats inform the way we listen to music in ways that we simply take for granted. That may sound obvious, but have you ever really thought about it? I remember the transition between tapes and Compact Discs clearly. It happened in my teens. I even remember how it affected me. Take an album like Failure’s excellent “Magnified”. I remember falling in love with it and talking to my friends and we would have conversations like; “I really love ‘Undone’”, “I really love ‘Small Crimes’”. But that was 1995. By 1999 the conversations went more like this; “I really love Track 2”, “I really love ‘Track 26’. As we shifted from cassette tapes to CDs we suddenly seemed to forget songs had titles, and everything seemed to become ‘track this’, ‘track that’. I clearly remember recognizing this distinction as that shift was occurring. I was one of the last holdouts when it came to cassettes: I bought the Verve’s “Urban Hymns” on cassette…. in 1998. It was located in the cassette section of the music store. Yes, by the late 90s cassettes now had their own ‘section’ of the store. When I asked for the tape the clerk told me “ We don’t really carry tapes anymore. There’s a small bin in the back corner though”. Within a year I only bought CDs. And I (as guilty as anyone else) was blissfully unaware of song titles from that day forth.

In light of this recent encounter with my neighbour’s nephew and the “ I only listen to songs” response I thought back on that transition between Cassettes and CDs. What did CDs give us that tapes didn’t? The music quality wasn’t any better really. In fact, many argue it was worse. What CDs did inarguably give us was easier usability. There was less physical interaction required with the physical item to hear a longer duration of music. More specifically: no flipping required. Each new format to take over seems to have one goal: less physical interaction with a) the object playing the music, and b) the device used to play the music. With that 7” you can only hear 10 minutes of music before having to flip the record on the record player. With a cassette tape you only have 30 minutes each side before you had to flip it over in the tape deck. Sure that’s the same as a 12”, but a cassette’s smaller and more portable. With a CD you had 72 (then 80 minutes), but best of all: hands free. And now, well we have days and days of music on our computers and you never have to flip anything. The music and the operating device have become completely merged.

But back to my original question: how does that affect the way we listen to music? My answer is that we don’t listen to music anymore. Not really. We live in the playlist era. There was a vinyl era, a cassette era, a CD era, and now we have the playlist era. Really, how many CDs or cassettes did you have that you were not even aware you owned? Now think of your itunes; scroll through, how many songs do you have on there that you totally forgot you even had? Or have never even listened to yet? The concern is; are we listening, actually listening, to music anymore? With a playlist you can hit play and hear potentially days of music, with a 7” you get maybe a good ten minutes of music before you have to flip the record. There’s no point in walking away when you know you have to flip the record in a few minutes. Chances are you would sit and listen to the song, thus your focus was on the music. A playlist is meant to play while you do other things. Do we risk music becoming an afterthought? Playlists seem almost designed to be ignored.

I realize now than when my neighbour’s nephew said he liked “songs” the reason I couldn’t wrap my head around it was because somewhere deep in the back of my mind was a voice saying, “ You don’t know the names of the bands you like?! All you have to do is check the label on the side of the cassette!” No more. So each new format has made life easier on us as consumers who have so little time, but maybe it’s also demanded less of us as listeners. Have you ever listened to ‘Hand In Glove’? The guitar is great, the vocals are great, the rhythm section is great, and it has wonderful lyrics too. It sounds great on a playlist… so long as you treat that playlist with the attention that you would a 7”.


  1. Good read! I recently started thinking about how we listen to music as well and it's a subject loaded with potential discourses. As a CD and vinyl customer, I find it shocking when people show no interest in The Album as an artistic statement (the cover-art, the sequencing, etc.). Even stranger to me is how some of these individuals are musicians making a name for themselves. How will this next generation of artists, who prefer songs to albums, tracks to song titles, format their releases?

    Huh, I was born in the 80s and I'm already archaic.

  2. I, too, am as 80's child, and I had tapes, then CD's, and now all the new digital formats. I usually put on music when I've got other things to do, like right now I'm listening to the Smiths while typing this. Or at home I'll put it on while cooking or cleaning. I really only listen to it in the car, and only then I have music on maybe half the time. I will admit to not devoting more attention to actually listening like I used to, I don't have the time, my mind is always doing 4 things at once.

  3. Your prolific posting in conjunction with your innate passion for all things music makes this blog a pleasure to read in addition to being wildly informative. Blog on!