Listening to Music in the Digital Age

I recently stumbled across a most interesting piece from a website called PopMatters that occasionally happens across my radar. The article, entitled “Mental Machine Music: The Musical Mind in the Digital Age,” is a bit long, but the questions is raises have been haunting me for some time now:

I want to discern how, precisely, the digital age is changing our “musical brains”. At the quantitative level, what factors in the digital age lead our brains toward different musical choices?  On the qualitative level, how have our listening experiences changed?  Do our brains “appreciate” music the way that they used to?  What does music “mean” to us as conscious individuals?  It seems that technology, although it has increasingly allowed us to customize our listening options, as well as develop a more comprehensive knowledge of the musical environment, has also marginalized and diluted the experience of actually listening to music itself.

When I stop to consider how drastically things have changed since my childhood when it comes to accessing my music — Naxos Music Library is on at work nearly all the time — it’s hard for me to imagine that the ways in which I listen to music have not changed, as well, though (hopefully) less drastically.

On the one hand, I love being able to listen to a large number of performers and performances. Comparing and contrasting various versions of a piece is an obsession of mine, and the “digital revolution” has certainly made that much easier. On the other hand, I have more trouble staying disciplined enough to really absorb a single recording as thoroughly as I should. (In fact, I have to make a conscious effort to dwell on a piece; the instant gratification of our culture strikes again!)

Eric Casero, the piece’s author, focuses a great deal of his time and attention on the way the Digital Age has influenced audiences’ reaction to pop music. (He believes that we are all shifting towards a “musical criticism-style” model and away from “fandom” as a result of technological advances.) But this particular thought on the portability of music seems to apply to any genre:

As music becomes more portable, we cognize it more and more as a component part of our physical environment, rather than as an experience in and of itself. If we walk down the street while listening to an iPod, we think of the music we listen to as a part of the street on which we walk. If we listen to music while working at home, we associate the music with the work we do. If we listen to music while driving, we associate it with the road on which we travel.

I’m not quite sure I see a single, coherent thesis being presented in the article, but it is filled with food for thought. Anyone else feel that their listening habits are changing (or have already been changed)? And is it for the better?

Joseph Susanka


Joseph Susanka has been doing development work for institutions of Catholic higher education since his graduation from Thomas Aquinas College in 1999. Currently residing in Lander, Wyoming -- "where Stetsons meet Birkenstocks" -- he is a columnist for Crisis Magazine and the Patheos Catholic portal.

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