The Brainstorm long read: we've never had more music to listen to or more ways to do so, but has this changed how we use and respond to songs and sounds? 

In Edgar Wright’s film Baby Driver, the main character constructs his life around carefully selected songs and playlists. He needs the constant sound of music to drown out his tinnitus, but it quickly becomes apparent that his every task and move has to be choreographed to the right song to maximise his efficiency of effort and the emotional impact he experiences in any given context.

As this is a Hollywood movie, Baby’s tasks mostly involve driving the getaway car at breakneck speed from bank robberies. At its heart, however, this film is a celebration of music and its role in our everyday lives and to a lesser extent the increasing mobility and choice that new music technologies allow for.

In the context of Baby Driver, the new technology is the iPod. As has become apparent over the years, innovations like smartphones and streaming applications have only increased the possibilities of listening to whatever music we want whenever we want wherever we want.

The British Phonographic Industry has reported a year on year increase in the volume of music that is consumed since the introduction of music streaming services like Spotify. This allows us to soundtrack our everyday lives to a greater degree than ever before. The fact  that we are soundtracking our commute and the washing of the dishes as opposed to Hollywood car chases does not make it any less significant. On the contrary, the mundane use of music has significant social and psychological implications.

The upheaval of the recording music industry as a consequence of technological disruption has understandably attracted most of the attention. Although the recent reduction in piracy can be linked to the increasing uptake of legal music streaming services, the reality is that musicians are still criminally underpaid for their art. This is a consequence of a combination of exploitative deals with record labels and streaming platforms as well as piracy. While it is justifiable that these issues receive most of the air time, the actual experiences of using these technologies and the wider societal implications of this have perhaps been lost in the argument concerning the economic fallout.

What is music for?

Before we go any further, we should first consider the function(s) of music from a historical perspective. The obvious function that most readers would consider is the enjoyment it brings, particularly at a social level.

However, music’s position in our lives is more complex than that. Anthropologists have considered music’s use as an indicator of sexual selection and a means of maintaining the mother-child bond when physical attachment was no longer possible (think of the mother humming to a child when she places a baby in a cot).

Psychologists have considered its importance as a tool to formulate and make sense of both individual and group identities. There is also its significance for managing our sense of self during times of transition. This is why our relationship with music is often at its strongest during adolescence. Sociologists continue to write about the influence that music has in aestheticising political discourse and articulating social struggle and the protest music of the 1960s is particularly indicative of this.

Jimi Hendrix’s cover of "The Star Spangled Banner" at Woodstock at the height of the Vietnam War

Academics from a variety of perspectives have also looked at how music can be used to manipulate behaviour in working and retail contexts. For instance, various studies have explored how certain genres can increase the sales of expensive wine or improve productivity on the factory floor. Yes, academic research is partly responsible for muzak!

The idea that music has a subliminal and/or direct impact on our behaviour continues to create moral panic. Heavy metal and rap are blamed for anti-social behaviour and, in the case of heavy metal, the suicides of some of its fans. The science which has been used to support this moral panic is dubious at best. Thankfully, academics have placed greater emphasis in recent years on how music can be used in a therapeutic sense to help people with mental and physical health problems rather than stigmatising certain genres of music unnecessarily.

A feature of many people’s experience of music streaming is the sense of anxiety and frustration they feel from essentially having access to music "on tap"

The common dominator of all the functions mentioned here (and others too many to mention) is that music has the ability to move us and to transform our mood. This is obviously dependent on the individual and the context in which it is listened.

A US marine listens to music on his headphones in Afghanistan in October 2014. Photo: Wakil Kohsar AFP/Getty Images

How do streaming and digital technologies change how music impacts our everyday lives and, by extension, broader society? The simple answer is that it has the same impact in principle, but the increasing scope for hyper-consumption, a consequence of easier access and more choice, has accelerated these functions which have altered our relationship with music.

Experiencing music on tap

The most common difference cited in the research myself and colleagues have conducted on this subject is the difference in quality regarding physical and digital formats. The importance of tangibility and ownership are often used as sticks to beat digital music with. Additionally, more discernible listeners allude to the differences in audio quality. The advent of digital music has ironically refocused our relationship with the physical music product and can in part explain the decade-long revival in vinyl sales and the increasing importance of material items such as earphones and speakers.

However, the perceived quality and structure of music has changed in other more subtle ways with the digital revolution. For example, music listeners, like many consumers of television streaming, have reported the most first-world of problems, the paradox of too much choice.

The standout features of  how we listen to music now is that it is rare to listen to music as an activity in its own right

A feature of many people’s experience of music streaming is the sense of anxiety and frustration they feel from essentially having access to music "on tap". They are frustrated not just because it is difficult to find good music amongst the almost infinite supply provided by streaming applications, but the lack of patience they now experience in trying to listen to an entire album or even an entire song.

This "all killer, no filler" approach is reflected in the changing structure of pop music. For example, Ohio State University's Hubert Gauvin recently reported in the Musicae Scientiae journal that the average intro for a pop song has reduced from 20 seconds in the 1980s to an average of five seconds today. There is no time to build tension in a song anymore as the listener has already skipped the song. This sense of emotional tension is crucial to music’s impact and its role in the variety of ways already mentioned. As it becomes increasingly eroded, listeners will look for alternative ways of seeking that tension through music, whether it is through live music or transgressive listening practices, but how this will evolve exactly remains to be seen.

By comparison to the five second intros of today, The Who's "Baba O'Riley" clocks in at a hefty one minute and five seconds

Perhaps a clue to why many of the research participants feel this sense of anxiety and frustration with digital music is the increasing number of spaces and contexts in which it can be accessed. The first transistor radio was invented in 1954 and the Walkman came to mainstream markets in the 1980s so the possibility of mobile music listening has been around for quite some time. However, anyone who has ever tried to run or even walk briskly with a Walkman will tell you that contemporary music technologies represent an altogether different reality when it comes to mobility.

We now listen to a volume of music in a variety of spaces including the shower, preparing for work, commuting to the office, at our desks, on the way home, doing domestic duties, exercising, studying and obviously in social situations. 

Dancing in the silent disco. Photo: Justin Tallis AFP/Getty Images

The standout features of these listening practices are that it is rare to listen to music as an activity in its own right and that consumption in the spaces and contexts mentioned are often for very utilitarian reasons (e.g. to focus at work, for motivation whilst exercising). Hence the emotional tension of listening to music is not only lost in the amount of choice we have, but also because of the amount we listen to and the context in which we listen. In other words, the increasing control we have over the music we listen to can potentially diminish our enjoyment of it. The level in which this occurs is dependent on the individual however.

Emotional targeting

How we seek out that enjoyable tension through music as the technologies evolve is an issue of real interest because of the power that music has to influence our mood. There is an argument that our perception of control over the music we listen to is an illusion and that the excitement and opportunities that such new technologies represent can be manipulated by corporate interests. This is an age-old argument that has been historically used to critique the impact of mass media on art, from the influence that radio had on jazz to the introduction of MTV and its effect on popular music and culture. It’s an argument that perhaps unfairly frames us as submissive entities with little ability to act or think for ourselves.

Music taste has always been a telling piece of information for guiding marketers to an individual’s likely interests, values and even potential personality traits

Concerns about music streaming’s impact on the individual and wider culture are perhaps supported when we consider the role that algorithms and Artificial Intelligence, are playing in contemporary consumption. Music streaming already provides thousands of playlists for every possible mood and activity and also recommendations that can be highly influenced by commercial stakeholders.

Currently, there is much discussion in the recording industry about emerging AI innovations that can potentially "shape-change" songs to match the context in which they are consumed for the purpose of creating specific moods. This raises serious ethical questions regarding the influence of music on individuals and who fundamentally controls that influence as innovations around machine-learning evolve.

This is likely to become more and more of an issue of concern as marketers become increasingly efficient in mining the global treasure trove of data that we provide every time we make a playlist, download an album or share a song with a friend. Music taste has always been a particularly telling piece of information for guiding marketers to an individual’s likely interests, values and even potential personality traits. Think about the judgments we make of others when they share their music tastes and we can see how beneficial this information can be for targeting consumers in different ways.

Music in the future produced through artificial intelligence could be even more productive in matching music to the context and emotional needs of listeners

Advances in music technologies allow businesses to target individual consumers armed with not just information on demographics, behavioural habits, interests, potential values etc. but also key indicators of a person’s current emotional state and when and where they experience that state. There has been much discussion in the last few years about how social media targeting tools can be potentially used to target people based on their emotional state. Facebook, in particular, faced much controversy. when it emerged that it had experimented with the mood of nearly 700,000 users by adjusting their algorithms to trigger happy or sad emotions to measure the impact this had on the content they posted.

Even without complex algorithms and machine learning, we can probably make educated guesses about the current emotional state of someone who is listening to Queen’s "Don’t Stop Me Now" (actually quantified by researchers in the University of Missouri as the happiest song in the world) or Nirvana’s "Something in the Way". However, these educated guesses are now supported by increasingly descriptive data sets and the growing resources in which to capitalise on such information.

Spotify is the best known music streaming service in Ireland and is not shy about communicating the power of this data to potential brands. They transparently outline the various ways potential commercial partners can target consumers directly after they have listened to specific genres or playlists (eg "Mood Booster" or "Life Sucks"). Though at an infant stage of development, this type of emotional targeting is just one of many examples to be added to the ever-growing privacy concerns that the information age continues to raise.

In the main, the research suggests that privacy issues do not create much apprehension for people who use music streaming services. It is difficult to say whether this is through a lack of knowledge about how their data is used or just indifference. However, questions regarding the targeting of consumers who indicate evidence of emotional stress or vulnerability via their music consumption may be an issue the mass media pays more attention to in the future. For now, the public’s reaction to this, like almost all of issues of information privacy, is difficult to predict.

Music and artificial intelligence

Moving beyond concerns about privacy, the amount of information that can be collected from our music listening practices is likely to be used in the future by AI technologies to create original music. There are already a variety of new businesses that are invested in AI music.  At the moment, music which is created in this way is at more of the muzak level that can be used in production contexts, such as the background for a YouTube video but the quality and number of contexts in which it is used is improving. Sony have already released two songs (one inspired by the Beatles[gs5] ) developed by AI (with some human assistance for the lyrics) that would be impossible to identify as the work of a machine.

Coming back to the contemporary music listening themes of control, choice and mood, you can imagine music in the future produced through artificial intelligence could be even more productive in matching music to the context and emotional needs of future listeners. For example, could a song be written that could measurably help improve performance in work or exercise or help us sleep? This is a future that is not too far away and we can only speculate on the implications that further innovation in music technologies will have on our everyday lives as a result.

For now, those within the music industries are concerned with the impact such processes will have on the quality of products and services - can a machine write a better song than a human? - and consequently the future of their employment as a result. In other words, there could potentially be a whole new meaning to the term "manufactured boyband". At some stage in the future, it could be a compliment.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ