Mental Machine Music

The Musical Mind in the Digital Age

by Eric Casero

12 April 2010

How has the digital age changed 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?

It would be no great claim to suggest that technological evolution is changing the ways that we listen to music. When changes in our listening experiences do occur, however, it is often so difficult to discern precisely what they are. This is largely because as media consumers, people, especially young people, adapt so quickly to alterations in the media environment that surrounds them. As technology and culture evolve hand in hand, we become so accustomed to the end results of this evolutionary process that it can become difficult to consciously recognize, on a day-to-day basis, that anything ever existed in a different form.

This process of change is a phenomenon that technology and culture share with human consciousness itself. Consciousness may change over time, but it is nearly impossible to track this change with any degree of precision, since we are always engaged in the present, with the past existing only as a sequence of personal memories or the words and images recorded by others. Every now and then, however, we may experience a moment in which a change in our own consciousness becomes something palpable, something real, immediate, and apparent. Such moments not only signal a personal evolution, but also connect us, as individuals, to the continuously swelling tide of collective human intelligence. It is one such moment that provided the inspiration for this piece.

How has the digital age changed 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?

Before I describe this moment, it will be important to establish the premise that every individual who currently lives in the mainstream of Western popular culture has grown up in a particular era of musical consumption. These “eras of consumption” determine, to some degree, how, where, and when we consume music. I spent my own formative music-listening years in the era of physical media, which includes any timeframe where music was listened to in a physical form (CD, LP, tape, etc.). The CD, of course, shared with the LP era the significant property of long-form listening, while adding a new dimension of consumer control by allowing the listener to skip songs at his or her command. This feature of control has, quite obviously, taken on a whole new importance in the digital era of musical consumption, in which a nearly limitless (compared to previous eras) number of tracks can co-exist on a single device at any given time, allowing the consumer to skip, cycle through, and rearrange these tracks to his or her liking.

This leads me to the aforementioned “moment”. At first, this moment seemed like any other, as I drove aimlessly down the familiar streets of my hometown, listening to my iPod, which, although recently acquired, had by this point become a fixture in my music-listening life. For myself, as well as for many young folks at the time, the iPod seemed to represent a series of endless new possibilities for music listening. The potential offered by the digital age for customizing the listening experience was something that had never been seen in any other era of consumption. The moment I am discussing here was not a major event, but simply a flash of realization, a sudden consciousness of the limits of this potential. I realized at this moment that in the few months that I had owned my iPod, I had, despite the device’s seemingly limitless potential, been listening to the same songs over, and over, and over again.

Of course, I had always been listening to a variety of music, different artists, different genres, etc. Since entering the digital age, however, I was showing an increasing tendency to listen to the same songs repeatedly. Even in the CD era, with its inherent limitations on listening possibilities, I had been more flexible in my habits; I would listen to entire albums rather than single songs and would tend to cycle through the multitude of different albums in my collection, rather than focusing my listening habits on a select few.

What is important to note here is that this change in listening habits was almost entirely unintentional. I had not picked up my new iPod and “decided” to change the way that I listened to music; instead, my brain had “decided” to do this for me. I had suddenly realized in this one moment that the changing technological era had literally altered the way that my brain was reacting to the music I was listening to. On the simplest level, this was a quantitative change, in that what I was listening to was different. On a more complex level, however, this was a qualitative change; something about the quality of the actual experience of listening to music had been altered in the movement between eras of consumption. Something, at a barely perceptible level, had changed about the way that my brain was engaging in the listening experience.

This change has led me to write this piece; 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.

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