I was teaching a class on Acoustic Design this morning and I asked the students how many of them were carrying iPods. 6 out of the 15 students had Apple iPods. All of the others had a portable music player of some kind. These are truly amazing inventions that allow us to carry a whole world of music or audio books around in our pocket. It is truly the stuff of science fiction and although we may not have flying cars in 2010, we have a high fidelity theatre capable of playing thousands of songs right in our own pocket.
And it is thousands of songs. Even the lowly iPod Nano which one of my students has can store 8Gb which is enough for about 3000 songs. That is twice the capacity of the original iPod which I bought when it came out first, and at about one quarter of the cost and one eight of the size. Within a few short years, technology has vastly changed the number of songs that a person can carry around and listen to.
When I started listening to music as a child, cassette tapes were the primary medium in my house. Some houses used LPs, but at one time at least, many people believed that cassette tapes were superior and that they would replace CDs. Cassettes had the advantage that you could record on them and drop them without seeing them shatter into hundreds of expensive pieces. They were also relevant immune to scratches and mishandling. In my class today, however, three of the students had never used a cassette tape at all. LPs have made a slight comeback, but most of my students had never touched a record. Technology has definitely moved on.
In the days of cassettes at my house, we had perhaps 60 or 70 cassette tapes that we could listen to. If each cassette had 10 songs on it, then we had a total of perhaps 700 songs that we could listen to. And we did listen to them – again and again and again – often until the tape was stretched and the singer began to sing in a much lower voice.
Whereas we had 700 songs to listen to, my students have 3,000 in their pockets and usually many more on their home computers. A simple calculation shows that listening to 3,000 songs could take 6 days even in continuous listening. One student admitted that there were many songs on his iPod that he had never listened to and probably more than a thousand that he had listened to only once.
It is clear that technology has given us more choices in our listening, and in NLP terms greater choice is a good thing, but the downside is that our attention is now much lessened, and NLP reminds us that where our attention goes, there energy flows. Because our attention has become much more scattered over a larger number of songs, and consequently become much less focused, the amount of listening energy that we give to each song has fallen. Along with the easy copying of music from friends or downloading ‘free’ music from the Internet, this fall in attention has led to a corresponding fall in the perceived value of music. It is simple supply and demand. When there is such an enormous supply of music, easily available on our iPods, the price (or in this case – the perceived value) falls.
And as the perceived value falls, so does our listening ability because we do not put as much effort (or energy) into listening to something when we see it as having less value. As both a musician and a teacher of acoustic design, this bothers me because it is yet another sign that the human interface with the enviroment (the ears and the psychological mechanisms of listening) are weakening, and the tolerance of the deterioration in the external sound environment as evidenced by the noise of our cities is one result.
In previous articles, I have written about simple earcleaning activities that can help to bring back some energy to listening to the environment. I provide another simple example below of an earcleaning exercise for music listening.
1. Choose a song or piece of music that you like.
2. Import the song into Audacity or another sound editor.
3. Using labels, divide the song into intro, verse, chorus, bridge etc.
4. List all of the instruments used in the order that they appear.
5. Examine the dynamic range of each instrument. Is it louder at some points in the song?
6. Determine the spatial location of each instrument. Is it on the left or right or center? Or is it moving?
7. Identify the effects used in the song, for example, reverb, delay, distortion, and so on.
Have fun listening to a song closely. As you give more attention in your listening to a single song, you might just find that your enjoyment of all songs rises.
Copyright 2010 by Brian Cullen