25 January 02006

Active and passive music listening

There's a passage near the beginning of David Toop's Haunted Weather (reviewed here) where he writes, "trying to listen to everything has almost destroyed my desire to listen to anything". In a column in January's issue of Word magazine, Paul Du Noyer wrote about the ubiquity of music and entertainment being almost totalitarian, and referred his hesitation in replacing his iPod when it died, raising the possibility of evolving from an 'early adopter' to an 'early abandoner'. I experienced a similar feeling when my iPod died, and have now downgraded to the iPod Shuffle with the least storage. Finally, last November I blogged No Music Day, Bill Drummond's incitement to detox your earbuds by giving music a rest.

With that in mind, it's interesting to see the media reaction to the publication by Leicester University's Music Research Group of a study of music listening habits by 346 students, school pupils, workers and unemployed adults as they went about their everyday life. The headlines refer to download overload and listener apathy.

In this article and the BBC one, Adrian North, who heads the research team at Leicester, is quoted as saying,

The accessibility of music has meant that it is taken for granted and does not require a deep emotional commitment once associated with music appreciation… In the 19th century, music was seen as a highly valued treasure with fundamental and near-mystical powers of human communication. The pace of technological change has accelerated further over the last 20 years or so and these fundamental changes in the nature of musical experience and value have arguably become even more pronounced.

This has prompted some comments about the historical context for this research, particularly noting the jump in time-frames — from 120 years in the second sentence to 20 years in the third. In the Five Eight daily, Eamonn Forde commented that the researchers' claim of music losing its 'aura' for downloaders and being seen as a commodity dates back to Theodor Adorno [and I guess, Walter Benjamin], who hammered this point 60 years ago.

It's true that the very availability of recordings to a mass market, several generations ago, was a big step in how people experienced music. However, I think the researchers could justifiably claim that increasing volumes of music collections and music's general ubiquity have grown in the last two decades to levels that now feel qualitatively different. When Paul Du Noyer writes, "Years ago the economy of music was an equation of scarcity and intensity; now it's a world of abundance and mediocrity", it's pretty clear from the context of his article that he thinks the changes he's discussing have taken place within his lifetime (i.e. 20-30 years).

That said, there are some claims from the research that need further justification, and/or further investigation, such as the claim that "the majority of tracks on portable MP3 players are in fact gathering virtual dust as music fans ignore the bulk of their collections to listen to a handful of their favourite songs" (from the Scotsman article). Is there really anything new or surprising here? People have always had their favourite tracks of the moment, which evolve over time. If MP3 players and the current music economy give them the capability to store more tracks, then it would be natural to expect the number of tracks not in current use to increase.

The big issue for me is Adrian North's conclusion that, "the degree of accessibility and choice has arguably led to a rather passive attitude towards music heard in everyday life". If listeners are just loading their collections onto MP3 players and then playing them in shuffle mode, that might be the case. But they can't be doing that or the randomness of shuffle would mean that fewer tracks were gathering dust. Anyway, there's nothing intrinsically new about passive listening: 20-30 years ago people were using the radio just as background music.

Other researchers (admittedly those who I've dismissed in the past) interpret their results differently to the Leicester team: that the spread of MP3 players shows a demand for more control over their listening and a more personalised experience. They think that the 'passive' experience of listening to the radio will decline as a consequence. I believe that shows a misunderstanding of radio, but the important point is that making, editing and selecting playlists can be a reasonably active way of experiencing music. It's not clear that the Leicester research was sufficiently detailed in its data to recognise these kinds of activities.

Posted by David Jennings in section(s) Future of Music, Music and Multimedia on 25 January 02006 | TrackBack

i want to use it for music therapy

Posted by: ladan on 19 June 02007 at 8:27 AM

Hi David!

I love your article. I linked to it from mine. It's here if you'd like to read:



Posted by: Wilton Elder on 3 February 02012 at 2:35 AM
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